I recently traveled to Hawaii to lead a writer’s workshop. We went to the Big Island to see the volcanoes, then to Kaua’i for the workshop—which was wonderful—and then Honolulu for another workshop and university talk. All around the islands at that time of year (winter), humpback whales who have spent the summer feeding on herring, sandeels, and other small-size, high-volume prey along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia are very much in evidence. They come to Hawaii to breed and give birth. Males sing and display. Their song is unique in all the world. All males sing the same song. But the song changes entirely, year-to-year. Males and females mate. Females watch over their infants. It is the circle of life on a grand scale.
The circle had nearly been broken.
Whale hunting’s havoc very nearly emptied the Pacific and the world of humpback whales. Each spout, each breaching individual, each set of diving flukes, is a whale that represents survival from an industrial-scale extermination campaign as ruthless and soul-less as any other mass murder of the Twentieth Century. In some ways even more soul-less than the mass murder of humans, because the whale killers and those enabling the hunting saw nothing at all wrong with it.
It is happy that things are better now and we in the United States at least leave the whales to their peace, and they have known what to do. They do what we all do: try to live, attempt to stay alive, and try to protect our children.
The main threats to them now are far less vile, but in some ways no less thoughtless. In 2005 off San Francisco a humpback whale had gotten near-fatally tangled in crab traps weighing thousands of pounds, with miles of rope. Like many that get tangled in our fishing gear and the debris of our times, it certainly would have died. This time though, divers were called and they were able to rescue the whale. I based my children’s book, Nina Delmar and the Great Whale Rescue, on the event. Nina is a fictional girl. But what the whale did is a matter of factual record as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle.
It stayed still for over an hour while the divers worked to free it, seeming to understand that aid was being given. And then it did not swim away. It swam to each diver in turn, nuzzling each with its huge head. The divers said it fully seemed that the whale was expressing thanks. And then, finally, yes, it did swim away.
Dr. Carl Safina is the author of six highly-acclaimed books—including Song for the Blue Ocean, Voyage of the Turtle and Nina Del Mar and the Great Whale Rescue—and more than a hundred scientific and popular publications. He is the founding president of The Safina Center (formerly Blue Ocean Institute) and has been name among “100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century” by Audubon Magazine. Carl is also the creator-host of the PBS series Saving the Oceans with Carl Safina. Follow his adventures at www.carlsafina.org.