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The Whale Wars

Read Wednesday, 1 Oct 2014

Sam Vincent takes an objective look at both sides of the whale wars – and at what humans, especially Australians, have invested in saving whales. He also traces our historical involvement with the whaling industry, which preceded ‘the sheep’s back’ as the primary driver of our postcolonial economy.

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Image: denisbin, Flickr.

My hometown, Canberra, turned 100 while I was writing my book, Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars. There was birthday cake, candles and a 34-metre-long flying whale with massive mammaries and too much lipstick. Skywhale sailed into our lives with the irrational excitement of those people who camped outside the Apple store the other night to get their iPhone 6 before everyone else. Weeks before her unveiling, rumours begun circulating on social media of test-flights over Mount Arapiles; the promotional photos showed a poker-faced she-Leviathan with five saggy teats hanging off each flank like panniers off a packhorse.

When the balloon finally flew over the city whose centenary she had been commissioned to celebrate, War of the Worlds-like hysteria prompted one bystander I know to pull his car onto the median strip and alight for a gander. I still can’t decide what she most resembles: a bunyip on heat, or Sophie Mirabella.

In explaining why she had chosen a whale to represent a city whose only beaches were created when a sheep station was flooded in 1963, sculptor Patricia Piccinini wrote:

My question is, what if evolution went a different way and instead of going back into the sea from which they came originally, they [whales] went into the air and we evolved a nature that could fly instead of swim. In fact coming from a place like Canberra where it’s a planned city that’s really tried to integrate and blend in with the natural environment, it makes a lot of sense to make this sort of huge, gigantic, but artificial and natural-looking creature.

There were knockers, sure. Self-anointed arbiters of culture railed against Skywhale’s $350,000 price tag and perceived sexualisation; a much re-Tweeted criticism was that she’s ‘terrifyingly nipply’.

But for a generation of Canberrans who yawn at the stereotype of us all being garroted by APS lanyards, Skywhale seemed to foster an unfamiliar kind of fuzziness: a warmth in the belly not common in our city; a realisation that Canberra was beginning to exist in its own right. Civic pride, I believe it’s called.

In early March this year, four days before Canberra turned 101, Skywhale gate-crashed the national hot air balloon festival and crash-landed in suburban Belconnen, making a boob of herself and spawning the immortal Canberra Times headline, ‘Crippled nipples a sag state of affairs.’

A homesick friend wrote on Facebook from the 11th arrondissement: ‘I love Paris but I do miss my Skywhale City.’

The Sea Shepherd's *Steve Irwin*, docked at Williamstown.
The Sea Shepherd’s *Steve Irwin*, docked at Williamstown.

My focus here isn’t Skywhale, but she seemed a strangely apt place to start. Because just as Skywhale came to embody Canberra’s self-confidence as it celebrated its centenary, I believe whales (sea whales that is) have assumed a totemic role in how we see ourselves as a nation.

It is true that the anti-whaling movement has broad global appeal. In the late 1970s calls for a worldwide moratorium on commercial whaling became the cause célèbre of environmentalism, rooted in a need to conserve whale stocks, but also increasingly a question of morality as more was learned about the social, behavioural and intellectual capabilities of the great whales.

The history of commercial whaling – a sad tale of overexploitation over several centuries – had become a parable for humanity’s capacity to destroy its surrounds. By the 70s, particularly for countries that no longer had a consumptive use for them, saving whales had become, in the neat words of University of Sydney political scientist Charlotte Epstein, ‘shorthand for saving the planet’. By saving whales, we were saving ourselves. Sidney Holt, one of the architects of the 1986 moratorium that is still in place today, wrote on the eve of its implementation that ‘saving whales is for millions of people the crucial test of their political ability to halt environmental destruction’.

But increasingly, Australia is at the vanguard of the struggle. In the last ten years Australia has replaced the United States as the leader of the anti-whaling bloc at the International Whaling Commission. A 2010 poll conducted by UMR Research found that 94 per cent of Australians surveyed were opposed to Southern Ocean whaling and 82 per cent thought their government was doing too little to stop it; subsequent polls have suggested a similar level of support for Sea Shepherd within the Australian community. It was our government that decided to take Japan to court over the legality of its so-called scientific whaling program in the Antarctic, JARPA II. Talking tough on whaling has become one of the few bipartisan environmental issues in Australian politics.

But why do we care so much? Why did a high-school acquaintance of mine take to the internet on 11 March 2011 to call the Japanese tsunami ‘karma for killing all those whales’? Why does the mere arrival of migrating whales in our waters warrant news coverage, and why do their occasional strandings prompt communities to drop what they’re doing and head to the beach to hold vigils and commandeer tractors from local farmers to try pushing them back out to sea?

The question wouldn’t need posing if Australia’s environmental policy was consistent, but it’s not: as of 2014 Australia ranks fifth-last on the Climate Change Performance Index, which assesses what the world’s top 58 emitters are doing to curb emissions. Australia clears more native vegetation than any nation in the developed world and digs up coal as fast as China and India can buy it. And yet, this behaviour does not preclude our whale advocacy. In Anna Krien’s account of the Tasmanian forestry wars, Into the Woods, she is repeatedly told by timber workers and industry spokesmen of their chief export market: ‘Fuck the Japs.’ ‘The Sea Shepherd are my heroes,’ one tells Krien. ‘I’m right behind those guys. But leave us alone – we’re sustainable.’

I thought I’d find the answer to my question by spending the summer before last living on the Sea Shepherd flagship, the Steve Irwin, as it engaged in its annual game of high-seas cat-and-mouse with Japan’s Antarctic whaling fleet. But Sea Shepherd, in my experience, is not representative of the Australian community. Most Australians are not, like one deckhand from Melbourne I befriended (and just about everyone else on the Steve), militant vegans who consider the killing of any animal morally indefensible; most Australians do not, like a Scouser engineer I encountered, consider whales superior to humans; and most Australians would not, like the Hungarian cook I met, think it fine to head to Yarralumla the next time Japan is commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima to accuse its ambassador of genocide (when I politely suggested she choose a different day to protest she scoffed and said ‘Why, for the whales it is their Hiroshima.’)


Most Australians are not, like the young ecologist from the Gold Coast I met, particularly interested in upholding what they believe to be international law; they are not former whale researchers like the American officer on the bridge, nor self-appointed whale bodyguards looking for a fight, like the deckhand from London I met who spent his spare time watching Vietnam War movies.

And if whaling, in the words of many of the Steve’s crew, is no longer a conservation issue but one of ‘compassion’ towards our fellow ‘sentient beings’, then our national stance is no less hypocritical. During the course of researching my book, I interviewed Malcolm Fraser, the prime minister in office when Australia’s last whaling station, the Cheynes Beach Company of Albany, Western Australia, lowered its harpoons. Fraser cited a more liberal era than today’s for the community opposition to Australian whaling that made him act. But when I asked why, if that were the case, Australia’s whale advocacy has dramatically increased in a supposedly less liberal era, he frowned and said:

‘In some ways we’ve got a strange environmental movement or a green movement in Australia. People care more about whales than they do about refugees or asylum seekers. That’s not necessarily a distinction which anyone should be proud of.’

It’s a valid point, when you think about it. Why do we welcome migrants from the Southern Ocean but detain those from the Indian Ocean? Is grey-skinned prey arriving from a hunting ground more worthy of refuge than brown-skinned dissidents fleeing a killing field? Are they acceptable because they stick to the ‘humpback highway’ rather than, to quote the Federal Member for Lindsay, Fiona Scott, clog up the M4? But then, is this issue even about whales anymore?

According to the WWF, up to 300,000 cetaceans (that’s whales, dolphins and porpoises) die annually as result of entanglement in fishing nets, but we don’t make a fuss about that. Hundreds more are thought to die from ship strikes. There are also the less tangible impacts of human development: the on-hold James Price Point LNG hub – unpopular in Broome but backed by WA premier Colin Barnett – was to be built smack-bang in the world’s biggest humpback calving ground. And whales have far more to fear from our failure to curb climate change – ocean acidification and melting ice being but two killers of krill – than from Japan’s harpoons.

The reception I received and the questions I was asked upon my return from Antarctica, just for sharing the same mess as Sea Shepherd’s leader Paul Watson, suggest that the Australian community regards Sea Shepherd with a mixture of admiration for its crewmembers’ goal and jealousy at their commitment to pursuing it. Sea Shepherd allows Australians a kind of vicarious outlawry that Hunter S. Thompson, writing about the Hells Angels in 1960s America, called ‘a fascination, however reluctant, that borders on psychic masturbation’. But Australians cared about this issue before Sea Shepherd entered the fray.

Geography, I think, plays a part. Australia’s population is concentrated on its east and southwest coasts – the same coasts that humpback and southern right whales visit on their migrations. Seeing whales, then is not a foreign experience for many Australians; indeed, it is possible, even probable, that if you live in even the most urban pockets of these coasts you’ve seen them migrating.

They are thus a part of the outdoor furniture of our bronzed Aussie self-image – and increasingly so, as humpback numbers in our waters are currently growing by around 10 per cent annually, with perhaps 20,000 migrating up the east coast during the winter of 2014 and closer to 30,000 up the west (the latter thought to be the world’s biggest population). That it is mainly humpback whales choosing to visit our coasts – a species blessed with charismatic characteristics that make anthropomorphising them easy – probably helps boost Australian views of ‘whales’ in general. I wonder how we’d view whales if it were only the less acrobatic species, like pilots or bowheads, visiting our waters?

But just as that Scouser engineer I mentioned on the Steve Irwin hadn’t seen a whale until he was saving them, Sydney author John Newton encountered his first leviathan only midway through writing A Savage History, his whale-loving chronicle of whale hunting, published last year. It was while reading Newton’s book that I found a more compelling answer to the question of why we care so much about whales. It doesn’t so much have to do with what we think of whales but what whales make us think of ourselves.

Newton writes three times in the space of one chapter that Australia was the ‘last English-speaking’ country in the world to end commercial whaling. He could’ve told us we weren’t the last country to hunt whales in the Southern Hemisphere (we pipped Peru and Chile to the post) or even in the neighbourhood (whales are still hunted off the Indonesian island of Lembata). But those lagging behind don’t seem to count, because Britain, New Zealand, the United States and Canada all beat us. Newton seems embarrassed: Australia is living up to its reputation as a colonial backwater, a culturally cringe-worthy nation of rednecks lagging behind the times. Because what is it to speak English? To take up the white man’s burden, colour the map pink and spread light where once there was darkness? It’s to be civilised. And civilised people don’t kill whales.

Much is now made of the fact that in the Western societies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, a happy transition has been made from whaling to whale watching. It’s a powerful metaphor for how we have shifted our interactions with our surroundings in general – from exploiters to adulators. Moreover, it is presented as the rational one: Paul Watson frequently points out that, given their importance to the global tourism industry, whales are now worth more money alive than dead. Indeed watching these swimming superlatives contributes $300 million to the Australian economy every year.

The evolution in the way we think about whales in this country especially presents a powerful symbol of the notion of progress. Whaling played a fundamental role in Australia’s very foundation: it wasn’t until 1833 – a full 45 years after white settlement – that wool overtook whale oil as the largest-grossing export of the Australian colonies. If my grandparents’ generation rode on the sheep’s back, then their grandparents first clung to the whale’s fluke.

Whalers, historian James Boyce tells us in his book Van Diemen’s Land, were de facto colonists, explorers, ethnographers; they operated in parts of Australia that the Union Jack was yet to reach. They are the very embodiment of the myth that Australia is a nation of pioneers. Fast-forward 200 years, and the descendants of those whalers were correctly judged by the Rudd government to care enough about whales that spending at least $20 million to pursue Japan’s Antarctic whaling program in the International Court of Justice was not just uncontroversial, but a politically popular move. I’d wager that in plenty of countries such a decision – expensive, diplomatically risky, of minor conservation importance per se – would be questioned at least; here it was met with strong public support. For the Daily Telegraph, the legal action was ‘historic’. This ‘heartening’ decision, the Age opined, ‘not merely fulfils a long-standing commitment: it proves the government is prepared to get tough with Japan’. ‘We do not believe whaling is required in the modern world,’ the then environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said in 2007, the year Rudd was elected promising to take the whalers to court.

But then, I’d seen this language before, in an email sent to the Steve Irwin’s captain Sid Chakravarty and later pinned on the vessel’s notice board:

Hi Sid and All,

Thank you for your news. It is so good knowing that you are down there in the Southern Ocean amongst the whales to protect them. You represent a change in human thinking, regard and respect for our fellow species – and so ourselves – which parallels other changes in recent centuries like the emancipation of slaves, education for all children and recognition that we are related to all other life on Earth (and were not made separately).

The great slaughter of the whales of the last three centuries is over and it is the Japanese whalers that sail against the course of human history while you go with the fair wind of empathy from all the future of human thinking. The world wants you down there and wishes you all success.

Yet you inevitably face a formidable and violent fleet of whalers intent on bloodshed and driven by both money and power. Stoking their boilers is the perverse idea, which some people never grow out of, that they are closer to supremacy over nature if they kill other creatures bigger, faster or more mysterious than themselves, no matter how unthreatening, amiable or technologically innocent these creatures may be.

I wish you great success and am proud to be working with you. On this tiny, life-filled planet none of us is very far apart. Though you are beyond our visual horizon, your presence and life-saving work in the Antarctic is inspiring countless hearts with its audacity it’s [sic] morality and it’s [sic] statement about how we may secure the safety if [sic] the whales and, by extension, the future of all life on Earth.

We await your news,

Best wishes,

Bob Brown

Note that there’s not one reference to conservation, the Southern Ocean Sanctuary or international law. For Bob Brown there is only one trajectory for humanity, and it is Sea Shepherd (and, by extension, its main supporter base: the Australian public) that holds the course. A savage history has made way for a civilised future.

To help me sort through this ‘civilised’ thread of whale protection, I emailed Tom Griffiths, director of the Centre for Environmental History at the ANU and one of this country’s foremost thinkers on how our view of the environment has changed over time.

‘I’m not sure that the first possible answer – familiarity with charismatic creatures – is persuasive,’ Griffiths replied. ‘But the second one is much more convincing to me – that whales are a potent symbol of our nation’s ecological enlightenment, transformed from first dominant economic resource to subjects of our salvation. Many of the early whaling stations are now embraced within national parks, another symbol of that same moral “progress”. There is something uncomplicatedly green and good for Australians in looking after whales.’

Social anthropologist Adrian Peace goes further, arguing that whales have become both metaphoric and metonymic of Australians’ relationship with nature at large. For Peace, what is being expressed in ‘looking after whales’ – whether it’s on the beach at 4am, on the high seas, or in court at The Hague – is the belief that (and I quote) ‘ours is a country which is “rational”, “progressive”, “informed” and “intelligent” in the way it thinks about Nature as symbolised by the whale. When that Nature comes under threat, ours is a society which is humane, responsive, and, in a word, civilised, in the way we unassumingly but with deep conviction go about our business.’

In an email to me, Peace suggested whale advocacy provides an anchor for an Australian identity cast adrift in a globalised world. ‘It no longer makes sense to talk about an Australian middle class,’ he wrote. ‘The relatively homogeneous middle class of old has become hugely differentiated, fragmented and diversified as a result of rising prosperity and full-scale commodification.

‘For this reason, old icons and symbols [he cited mateship as one] have lost their influence and appeal to these rising new classes. Their place has been taken by novel signs and symbols which are not directly tied to material conditions but are notably emotive in character, and those connected with environmental issues are most prominent of all.

‘What’s important about this ensemble of new symbols,’ Peace continued, ‘which range from recycling to whale totemism, is that they can be made much of without the middle classes having to modify their (over/ excess) consumption practices in the slightest. In fact, they can be conveniently used as a legitimation for increased consumption (more and newer household goods through to enviro-holidays, including whale watching), rather than cutting back across the board.’

To paraphrase Adrian Peace, and to conclude, whaling, once the economic backbone of this country, has become that most trite of adjectives: ‘un-Australian’.

This is the adapted text of a talk Sam Vincent gave at the Wheeler Centre in September 2014.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.