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General · 5th October 2009
Ray Grigg
The blue whale is the largest living thing on the planet. At birth, it is 7 metres long, weighs 3 tonnes and gains about 4 kilograms per hour until it is weaned at about 20 tonnes – all while nursing from its mother's milk. The adults are commonly 27 metres long, weigh 110 tonnes and make the loudest sound of any known animal, a profoundly low underwater frequency that may allow it to communicate over hundreds of kilometres. It has a heart the size of a car.

This, however, is a mere sketch ‹ we know more about viruses than we do about blue whales. We don't know where they breed, where they give birth, how they make such a large noise or how long they live – because of continuing infractions of whaling regulations, not a single blue whale has likely died a natural death in the 20th and 21st centuries so their lifespan is unknown.

But we do know that the largest blue whale provided 52,000 litres of oil to whalers, that 330,000 were killed between 1900 and 1970, the equivalent of "999 out of every 1,000 Antarctic blue whales in less than 70 years," writes Dan Bortolotti in Wild Blue: A Natural History of the World's Largest Animal. And we do know that their meat was used primarily as food for cats and dogs, that the oil made a "foul-tasting margarine" and the pure glycerine found only in blues was used during World War I to make nitroglycerine in explosives ‹ we were busily killing blues to speed the killing of ourselves.

We know some other gruesome facts about blue whales. We know they take about 30 minutes to die, even with an explosive harpoon bomb in their backs – with harpoons alone, they can take 28 hours to die. We know that only about 2,000 blues remain in the world's oceans, that this number is falling as Icelandic whalers kill them illegally "by mistake" – an unlikely oversight since blues are 10 times bigger than any of the other whales hunted – and that the Japanese continue to take them for blatantly fraudulent "scientific" purposes.

Such infractions have spurred the action of Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. This eco-warrior's response to our treatment of whales and the oceans generally has turned from indignation to contempt for humanity, inspiring a response that he calls "direct action". In three decades of environmental activism, this self-defined "biocentrist" has managed an incredible list of "accomplishments" without causing a single injury to any person: the 1979 ramming of Portuguese pirate whalers; the 1980 sinking of a pirate Spanish whaler; the 1986 scuttling of two Icelandic whaling ships and the smashing of a whale meat processing plant; and the 1992 sinking of Norwegian pirate whaling ships. With 45,000 members supporting his society, Watson was able to expand his "direct action" during the 1990s, effectively closing down South Africa's whaling industry. Since 2002 he has been concentrating on Japan's whaling infractions by following, harassing and even ramming whaling ships he is able to find – recently the Japanese have been hunting in the Antarctic Ocean, an area that is designated a whale sanctuary by international agreement and a place where their "research" project has killed at least 1,000 whale species in 2007 alone (The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller).

Interestingly, Watson has rarely been charged with any offence and never been convicted, presumable because the ensuing legal proceedings would expose the bloody and illegal slaughter taking place in the world's oceans.

Another bloody slaughter that has been taking place in a tiny cove near Taiji in Japan. Every year, fishers herd a pod of migrating bottlenose dolphins into the cove, select prime animals for aquariums and the international "swim-with-the dolphins" projects, then slaughter the rest with long, sharpened spears. If not illegal, the event is so morally reprehensible that the Japanese have been trying for years to keep it a secret. The Cove is a dramatic film documentary by Louis Psihoyos about his efforts to sneak past Japanese fishers, undercover law enforcement officials, security guards and surveillance equipment to film what most people would not like to see or know.

"They kill every last one," says Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, one of the world's champion free-divers who risked her life to hide the recording sonar equipment inside the Taiji cove. "I'm not the kind of person who judges other people or other cultures. I eat meat. I understand the importance of a job and feeding your family. But there's nothing sustainable about what they're doing. They kill the mothers and babies. Entire pods are being wiped out" (The Vancouver Sun, Aug. 21/09). Katherine Monk, a reviewer of the film, writes: "Watching an animal butchered before your eyes is always tough but watching a group of laughing men with cigarettes hanging from their mouths hack away at a live bottlenose is simply repulsive and makes our species look entirely removed from reality" (Ibid.).

This condition of being "removed from reality" is the common thread that runs through the killing of whales and the slaughter of dolphins. Indeed, it runs through the litany of environmental infractions of which we are guilty, motivating Paul Watson and a growing number of others to risk their lives to combat such eco-injustice.

If we have a collective human failing, it's that too many people are too removed from both the ethical morality and the ecological consequences of their behaviour. Inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals is simply cruel and unwarranted, revealing a lack of empathy and insight that may well lead to our own undoing. And killing endangered species is simply destructive and self-defeating, a folly that will diminish ourselves and the viability of life on our planet . Behaviour that is bad enough to inspire eco-heroes should give everyone the blues.