home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

wild blue

4 august 2009

"Nothing about blue whale hunting was ever rational," says Dan Bortolotti in Wild Blue (276). In his "natural history of the world's largest animal," Bortolotti weaves together ecology, economics, the culture of science, geopolitics, and many other fields to explore the oceans of knowledge – and the shoals of krill – that surround the greatest whales.

The blue whale fishery of the early- and mid-1900s is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons. Hundreds of thousands of blue whales – a staggering trove of biomass – roamed the seas around Antarctica, feasting on an even less-imaginable biomass of krill. (Picky eaters, blue whales will only eat this one variety of seafood.) Factory ships and their pods of "catcher" boats armed with grenade-harpoon cannons killed a third of a million of those whales before the slaughter was banned by international accords in the 1960s.

Why, exactly? Some of the commercial uses of the blue whale bring to mind the twisted ironies that Herman Melville comments on in Moby-Dick when he conjures up reading about whales through a glass made of whaleskin by the light of a whale-oil lamp. Nineteenth-century baleen whaling was done mainly for the baleen itself, a proto-plastic with many commercial uses. Later, baleen had ceded to real plastic in most industries. Blue whales were killed in the 20th century in part for meat (though mostly by Asians, as whale meat is taboo in much of the West where it's legal at all). More urgently, whales were killed for oil. Much of that oil was processed into margarine. (My grandmothers' favorite cookie recipes, I shudder to think, may have been originally concocted with rich whale margarine in mind.) Other uses for oil included fine lubricants and nitroglycerin. Huge factory fleets were sent from Europe to Antarctica to bring back oil to be used in wars fought in part over imperialist access to natural resources that included whales.

Caught in this gruesome feedback loop were the largest creatures who ever lived. One would think that the fishery would have ceased when whale stocks dropped so low that the industry itself was threatened with extinction along with the whale. But here's where the tragedy of the commons rears its head. Bortolotti points out that the rational move, in terms of ROI, is not to scale back to a sustainable yield. It's to grab whatever you can while the grabbing's good, and then reinvest the profits in other concerns. Within decades, blue whale fishing had collapsed. But the cleverer companies had retooled to move into other industries. Their starting capital was the now-exhausted blue whale population of the earth, churned into Norwegian real estate or bank accounts full of good solid yen.

In fact, in the 1920s, the blue whale fishery became a frantic, drunken game of chicken. So much whale oil came onto the world market that the industry collapsed even before its natural time thanks to overproduction. Those companies that got out first enjoyed the spoils; those that remained – well, those that remained hunted whales even more desperately, until there were practically no whales to hunt.

The other great theme of Bortolotti's exceptional book is how little we know about whales. Look at a relief globe. Even the depths of the remotest oceans are typically mapped in considerable detail, with every ridge and seamount sketched in. But science knows virtually nothing about what goes on in those expanses of ocean. The popular view, certainly the one I imbibed as a kid, thinks of a sea so full of Calypsos that teams of aquanautic oceanographers are involved in vast marine traffic jams, fighting for every scrap of knowledge. The truth is that the blue whale is the largest animal that has ever inhabited this planet – and in the year 2009, nobody knows where blue whales go in the winter.

Blue whale science is still in its infancy, mostly conducted by a few lone rangers, in small inflatable boats, not far offshore. Much of this research is funded, Bortolotti notes, by rich private whale fanciers. Governments have no interest in whales. In fact, much data on whale vocalizations has been kept secret by militaries, because the data was collected in the course of listening for enemy submaries. Commercial interests haven't supported much whale research, either, at least since the 1960s: what's the point of learning more about an animal you're not allowed to hunt?

As in so many other walks of life, corporate-sponsored cetacean research has to be taken with a few hundred tons of salt. In the early 1960s, a ban on taking blue whales seemed imminent. Japanese scientist Tadayoshi Ichihara thereupon announced that a population of blues in the Indian Ocean, then being exploited by Japanese whalers, was actually not the endangered blue whale Balaenoptera musculus, but a new subspecies, Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda. At the time, the move seemed pure spin: not unlike "I shouldn't eat red meat, doc? Well, pork isn't red meat – the pork company says so!" Oddly enough, later work in whale morphology and whale DNA has consistently borne out Ichihara's findings. Musculus and musculus brevicauda may theoretically be able to interbreed, but they are of somewhat different sizes, key genetic markers are different in the two varieties, and their ranges don't overlap. Scientifically they are different animals. The nakedest self-interest is not always incompatible with accurate science.

Japanese whalers come across as clear and present villains in Bortolotti's story, however. Now that the blue whale has avoided extinction, there's great pressure, mostly from Japan, to start whaling again. Hence Bortolotti's reluctance to declare the whale unendangered. Whale populations are recovering, for sure. But in a crisp analogy, Bortolotti asks: what if you'd lost a quarter of a million dollars in the 1929 crash? Say you'd saved a few hundred and reinvested it in safe, low-growth securities: today you'd have a few thousand. Would you say you'd "recovered" your fortune? Would this be a good time to start impulse-spending your capital?

Bortolotti, in Wild Blue, does some of the things that are obligatory on journalists writing "natural histories." He gets on various boats and brings various salt-encrusted whale researchers to life in prose. But Wild Blue is no chatty, anecdote-driven book. Bortolotti has truly learned several disciplines of knowledge to put it together, from cultural history to paleontology. It's one of the best books on wildlife that I've read in years.

Bortolotti, Dan. Wild Blue: A natural history of the world's largest animal. New York: St. Martin's, 2008.