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The Great Whaling Debate

first_imgA humpbacked whale frolicking in thewaters off Hermanus in the Western Cape.(Image: South African Tourism) Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu caststhe first vote in the Great Whaling Debate.(Image: Jennifer Stern) The counter registers Tutu’s vote.(Image: Jennifer Stern) Tutu admires the Sacred Ocean sculpturewhile sculptor Noel Ashton looks on.(Image: Jennifer Stern)Jennifer SternThe number of petitions that cross your inbox is an indication of how the internet has changed the way we live. We have instant access to information from around the globe and, more importantly, we can react to it by adding our names to petitions with the mere touch of a keyboard.But what does a petition really tell you? That x-thousand people took the trouble to complain about or campaign for something or other.What about the so-called “silent majority” out there? Perhaps they want to continue persecuting Baha’is in Iran, spewing carbon into the atmosphere, or manufacturing nuclear weapons.  Obviously many people do want to continue these things or they would have been stopped, surely?That’s why the Great Whaling Debate and the complementary Sacred Ocean Campaign – a partnership between Noel and Belinda Ashton, the Two Oceans Aquarium and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) – is so clever.Launched in late November, the debate was initially going to be a petition-type campaign encouraging people to add their names to a list of concerned individuals who are opposed to whaling. Same old story, though. There’s no petition for people who think whaling is a good idea, so the numbers don’t really mean much.When last did you get an email asking you to sign a petition for the International Whaling Commission to lift the moratorium on commercial whaling?But this way everyone gets a voice. The Great Whaling Debate is a campaign aimed at ending all whaling but, instead of merely adding one’s voice to the already clamorous cry to end the slaughter of whales in our oceans, the campaign offers people the opportunity to vote.If you believe whaling should continue, you can have your say and add your voice to those who head out in big ships with explosive harpoons and long flensing knives to “harvest” – or take “scientific samples” from – the world’s whale populations. You may need to learn to speak Japanese, Norwegian or Icelandic if you want to be heard, though.A long history of whalingThe hunting of whales has been a part of life for coastal communities for centuries, possibly millennia. But it would initially have been a subsistence industry with whole communities working together to kill a whale or two to see the village through the winter. With the advent of the industrial revolution, though, whaling changed in nature and in scale.From about the 17th century onwards, American, British and European whalers gradually expanded their areas of operation until, by the 19th century, whales were hunted in every corner of every ocean of the world. They were killed mostly for their oil, which was used for illumination, and later for margarine, cosmetic and other specialised industrial applications. Some whalers used the meat, and some did not – it was pretty much a cultural choice.One thing was certain, though. In the days before refrigeration, it was impossible to utilise all the meat from the slaughtered whales, so only the more valuable parts of the animals, including oil and baleen, were kept. The rest was dumped back into the ocean.Since whale oil is now no longer in demand, and plastic is the material of choice for the few people who still like to squeeze themselves into tightly laced corsets, whales are now hunted mostly for their meat.South Africa’s progressive protection legislationDespite the abundance of southern right and humpbacked whales in its waters, South Africa has some of the most progressive protective legislation for whales and other cetaceans, and stopped commercial whaling in 1975.The International Whaling Commission, which was founded by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) in 1946, voted to enforce a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.Norway lodged a formal complaint at the time, so it continues to hunt whales legally, and Japan utilises a handy loophole, killing more than a thousand whales every year for “scientific research”. As whale meat is freely available in Japanese food markets and restaurants, cynical observers may be justified in saying that the research consists mostly of finding new and better recipes for whale meat.A few coastal communities continue what they call “traditional hunting,” which is usually on a small scale. Of course, countries that are not signatories to the ICRW are not bound by the moratorium, and it’s also almost certain that a number of opportunistic whalers operate totally outside of the law.The good news and the bad news is that whale populations have increased dramatically since the inception of the moratorium. It’s good news for obvious reasons. It’s almost certain that, but for the moratorium and strong legislation like that in South African waters, many species of whale would now be extinct.But it’s also bad news for the whales, as those member nations that want to continue or resume commercial whaling cite these figures as an indication that whaling can now be sustainable.The Sacred Ocean sculptureThe Sacred Ocean Campaign was launched on 27 November 2008 at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town, along with the unveiling of a sculpture of the same name by renowned cetacean artist, Noel Ashton.Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, before unveiling the sculpture, said how shocked he was at the brutality of whaling. Describing how whales are killed over a period of a couple of hours he exclaimed, referring to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai that were dominating the news that day: “Are we surprised that we can gun down innocent people in hotels, and bomb innocent children, when we can behave so barbarically towards God’s creatures?”The sculpture, which stands 3.4m high in its entirety, is a fusion of three distinct elements.  The supporting plinth consists of small relief sculptures of the world’s major whale species, with a short description of each, while the main section consists of a small bronze humpback whale and calf floating in space, surrounded by over-arching whale ribs.Describing his intentions, sculptor Noel Ashton speaks of imagination. “Imagination,” he says, “is an important and central aspect of being human.”He explains how he intended the work to inspire those who view it. “I would hope that the symbol of the suspended mother and calf would encourage our imaginations to lead us into the water with the whales, with beams of blue light highlighting their form as they gracefully glide by in the ocean stillness – a moment of deep connection with an extraordinary mammal.”But his lyricism has a darker side. “May the arched bones point the imagination to seeing the terrible brutality of a harpoon being fired from a fast-moving whale catcher, the explosive head detonating on impact and the thrashing in the water as the whale slowly and painfully dies, the barbs ripping its flesh and the blue waters turning red.”After admiring the sculpture, Tutu cast the first vote in IFAW’s Great Whaling Debate. A permanent internet kiosk dedicated to the debate stands behind the sculpture.  Pat Garret, CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium, said he was delighted with the campaign and the internet voting station, saying that it would “give us a powerful tool to gauge public sentiment regarding whaling.”He also expressed his delight at having Ashton’s “beautiful sculpture, and James Bond [Pierce Brosnan] on screen in the foyer telling us it’s time to fight for the whales.”In a reciprocal compliment, Ashton said how thrilled he was to have his sculpture in the Two Oceans Aquarium. “I hope that, by being situated here in the foyer, the Sacred Ocean sculpture will encourage people to pause awhile, and consider that the bones represent the past and the 2.5-million whales killed in the last 70 years of commercial whaling; that the humpbacks represent the present, and the calf a hope for the future, as each new birth brings the whales back from the very edge of extinction.“I see Sacred Ocean as the symbol of unity of purpose, and with the power of many, to voice their feelings about the ongoing cruelty of whaling. We also need to realise that this crisis for whales actually reflects a profound crisis for humanity in allowing this and other atrocities to take place.”Do you have queries or comments about this article? Email Mary Alexander at [email protected] articlesBig fests for big beastsSA manta a star in AtlantaSaving the albatross, on sea and land Saving our vulnerable sharks Useful linksStop Whaling NowInternational Fund for Animal Welfare South AfricaInternational Whaling CommissionOceans of AfricaTwo Oceans AquariumSea Shepherdlast_img

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