Amnesty Between Whale and Man

There are few stories of whale attacks in early maritime lore. After the rise of commercial whaling in the 17th century, reports of whale pods antagonizing shipping lanes in the North Atlantic became common. It was normal for whales to attack harpoon boats out of self-defense. The fight of the whale was a custom of the trade. But, as if out of spite and a desire for retribution, certain whale species would sometimes strike peaceful merchant vessels which were not in any way involved in the whaling. For much of modern history, it was considered unsafe to swim in waters where whales were present. Often, if they found a diver, they would try to bite him in two or shatter his bones with a tail swipe. This seems, however, no longer to be the case. Whale attacks are a thing of the past. We now hear stories of how whales have saved people in the open ocean. They do not attach boats anymore, but can be seen following in their wake and breaking the surface of the water without fear.

Whaling remained a regular practice when finally, in 1986, responding to dwindling stocks and near eradication of some species, the International Whaling Commission instituted a ban on commercial whaling in order to allow the population to recover. Every coastal nation agreed to enforce the ban, with Norway and Japan being the ignoble exceptions. In the years since the ban went into effect, the big whale species have become recognizably more docile when encountered by human beings. One must wonder: perhaps whales have something like a shared cultural memory. Perhaps they warn each other about human beings above the water and describe us as enemies. Maybe they pass this information on to future generations. And maybe, when given peace and freedom from threat, they are able to reciprocate.

Most marine biologists are hesitant to identify in whales that level of sentience. It is known that many whale species possess incredible cognitive capacity and exhibit more brain activity than human beings. We know that they communicate and that individuals seem to have unique behaviors and expressions. We’ve witnessed them engaging in what appears to be play with other species. One could conjecture that they might form opinions and knowledge about the world that is learned and subject to alteration.

Humpback whale lifting dolphin out of the water… just for fun:

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