There Were Whales

D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century is a whale of a book. He traces the… evolution (?) of whale science from the cutting room floor of factory ships by scientists who were more or less creatures of the industry, flensing their way through interesting collections of oils (which lubricated ICBMs, among other things) and data, ever so much more data, as species were hunted to the brink, to a rather sudden transformation, a re-mystification in many senses, of whales in the late 1960s.

By the 1970s, Greenpeace and other factors had made saving the whales a rallying cry, the focus of environmentalism. Weirdo-weird guy John C. Lilly, he of the dolphin “mind” and, uh, other parts, best (?) represents the transition: from Defense Department funded explorer of brain-washing and sensory-deprivation to Navy-funded (briefly) dolphin evangelist to LSD-dropping freak babbling about alien consciousness. (The Navy still exploits dolphins for war.) Lilly gave LSD to dolphins, too, by the way, but, as Burnett points out, researchers were doing to that to a lot of animals, including the two-legged kind.

The wretched International Whaling Commission, an entity of whale industry states designed to perpetuate the industry, was finally beaten to submission to a whaling moratorium (with too many exceptions) in 1982.

I started this book some time ago. Here’s what I wrote about it then. It’s a deep dive. I got out of the water for a while and only just recently returned. I’m glad I did. The last chapter is fascinating. You could do worse than just reading the conclusion, which breachs one of the great questions of history writing.

1 Response to “There Were Whales”


  1. 1 alaspooryorick September 2, 2018 at 10:40 am

    Recently the New Museum had an exhibition of films by the British artist John Akomfrah (closes today). One of the films included archival footage of whale hunting and (more recently) by harpoon cannon. Another clip showed (apparently native) hunting of polar bears on ice, and later footage of shooting bears from a ship. One particularly sadistic incident was of a female shot while in open water (she appeared to sink). Her 2 cubs were later pursued by boat while they desperately tried to swim away.


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