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The Sounding of the Whale, by D. Graham Burnett

A southern right whale, known in Spanish as ballena franca austral, jumps off the water in the Atlantic Sea, offshore Golfo Nuevo, near Argentina's Patagonian village of Puerto Piramides, June 17, 2011.


People who love dolphins and whales but who are not marine biologists eventually run up against this challenge: At some point, they have to decide if the cetaceans are mere animals, like us, or if they are the gentle-giant equivalents of Rousseau's noble savage; innocent beings, yes, but singular creatures fully one with nature, brimming with deep thoughts, uninterested in the trappings of a materialist world.

Future generations of humans may develop the tools to determine the truth of this vision. Today's Homo sapiens, lacking such tools, find the idea of whale-as-noble-savage seductive, in part because these days humans are much less sure of their right to be at the apex of the animal pyramid, and, in larger part, because we have done such a fantastic job of destroying the environment, of fouling our own nest, that we ache to believe there has to be a creature somewhere with a brain as big as โ€“ or bigger than โ€“ ours, who won't botch the alpha role as badly as we have.

But this reverential feeling wasn't always so. Indeed, isn't so now in Japan, Norway and Iceland, the three nations responsible for most of today's obscene haul.

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The history of our slaughter of whales is nasty, brutish and long. F. Graham Burnett has done an impressive job of documenting the history of the institutions and bureaucrats that oversaw commercial whaling over the past century and a half. That said, he also attempts, mostly successfully, to document and explain humanity's relatively recent tectonic change of attitude toward these monsters of the deep.

The Sounding of the Whale has many merits. Since Burnett is a historian of science, his main narrative follows the career of about half a dozen cetologists, showing how they began their studies almost completely ignorant of whales (indeed, a couple started as birdwatchers) because so little was known about the hard-to-study animals.

Burnett is very good on detailing how many of the early scientists, desperate for access to whale cadavers simply to ascertain the basics of the animal's inner workings, had to make deals with whaling companies and their captains to be allowed to dissect and hunt for organs before the flensers went about their repulsive work.

By being beholden to the whalers, most of the scientists responsible for estimating extant populations produced data that were suspect, even corrupted, and too often they erred on the side of irresponsible generosity in speculating how many whales could yet be killed without damaging the sustainable yield.

Heartening exceptions to this collusion were two pioneer scientists, Briton Sidney Harmer and American A.R. Kellogg. Burnett does commendable work in allowing us to see that Harmer was the first (albeit still unheralded) hero of the Save the Whales movement. For four decades, starting as early as 1913, he fought an ultimately futile battle to halt the butchery. His efforts make for heartbreaking reading.

As do the labours of Kellogg. By the end of his career in the 1960s, "the destruction of the blue whales of the Antarctic over the last 50 years had not just happened on his watch, it had happened while he watched โ€“ some 329,946 of them by his own count." That is a heart-stopping number, and, even now, we are not sure of the environmental consequences of having removed so much biomass from the oceans.

Burnett devotes two long chapters of this mammoth book to the creation of the International Whaling Commission, and only the most dedicated student of whaling history will devour every line of this tough sledding. Accounts of endless committee meetings, and extended struggles via thousands of memos to try to curtail the cupidity of the Japanese and Russians, well-documented though his accounts are, make for glazed eyes.

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Throughout his account of the IWC, greed triumphs over science, without cease, as it does to this day. This is the same organization which, with a straight face, authorizes Japan in 2012 to kill hundreds of whales, in what are supposed to be whale sanctuaries, allegedly for "scientific research." That the IWC does not ask Japan why, after having killed so many whales over dozens of years, it has yet to produce even a modicum of peer-reviewed papers, tells you all you need to know about the organization's commitment to conservation.

The penultimate chapter deals mostly with John Lilly, the brain scientist who used LSD and other unconventional means to try to communicate with dolphins. At his height, he was hugely influential, appearing on magazine covers and television shows. Today, most scientists laugh at his pretensions and his research, but Burnett makes a persuasive case that Lilly, more than any other person, made the Western world view dolphins as potentially our equals, if not our superiors, in matters of the mind. This is the fairest account of the man's strengths and weaknesses I have seen in print.

The last chapter discusses what Lilly wrought: Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and dozens of books and organizations of varying quality coming to grips with what should be mankind's benign relationship with these remarkable creatures.

For those whose engagement with cetaceans is limited to a whale-watching cruise now and then, or who watch The Day of the Dolphin in reruns, this book is probably too dense, too academic. However, for those who want a fascinating history of the people behind the science of cetology, or are serious about man's institutional relationships with prey species, not just cetaceans, this book is essential.

Greg Gatenby has published two books on whales and dolphins. He is at work on a social and cultural history of the First World War and the century leading up to it.

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