Endangered Whales and Humans

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20120521-Jonah and the whale.jpg
Jonah is spewed forth by the Whale
The Old Testament book of Jonah is about a believer who questions his faith when it seems that God has changed his mind in a very human way. In the book Jonah is swallowed by a whale, then “vomited out” after an act of God. But the same God promised to bring destruction on the city of Nivenah because of the high number of sinner’s there but goes back on his word because Nivenah contains “more than sixscore person who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle” — or in other words innocent children and animals. God’s decision makes Jonah “angry even upon death.

There many stories about men being swallowed by whales. The biblical story of Jonah is only one. According to Islam, the whale that swallowed Jonah is one of 10 animals that will go to heaven. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle recognized that whales were not fish because they gave birth to live young and nourished them with milk.

In 1891, an English whaler was reportedly swallowed by a sperm whale. He is said to have spent 24 hours unconscious inside the whale's belly and survived, with the only long term affects being a slightly deranged personality and bleached skin. In a better documented case a sailor was swallowed by a sperm whale in 1994. This man was dead after 24 hours and was partially digested.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Whale-Like Beasts in The Bible

Hellmouth in the fresco Last Judgment, by Giacomo Rossignolo, c. 1555

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: “While it tends not to provide anatomical descriptions, the Bible has more than its fair share of sea monsters. In the book of Jonah the protagonist is famously swallowed whole by a “big fish” while trying to evade God’s prophetic call. The story sounds absurd but was mirrored by an incident last month when Cape Cod lobster diver Michael Packard was briefly swallowed by a humpback whale and lived to tell the tale. In the 19th century the story of a “modern day Jonah” went viral when a man named James Bartley was allegedly eaten by a sperm whale only to be cut out of the creature’s stomach alive 36 hours later. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, July 18, 2021]

“The most terrifying biblical sea creature, however, is Leviathan, an enormous sea monster referenced in Psalmody, by the prophets Amos and Isaiah, and in the book of Job. According to some Leviathan was a sea serpent but some Jewish traditions refer to it as a “dragon” or just a monster. A popular 19th-century theory speculated that it was a crocodile. According to the Rabbinic text Baba Bathra 75 Leviathan will be killed and eaten at the banquet that takes place at the end of time (the rest of it gets hung on the wall). Other Jewish legends about Leviathan preserved in rabbinic texts include the idea that it can make the waters of the ocean boil, smells dreadful, and is afraid of a small worm that gets in the gills of fish and kills them.

“In Christian tradition Leviathan is associated Satan and envy. His jaws are sometimes shown as the hellmouth, the gateway through which people descend into hell at the Last Judgment. Even serious theologians develop this theme: one prominent theory of salvation espoused by prominent bishop and saint Gregory of Nyssa in his Great Catechism pictures the devil as a large fish who swallows people when they die. After the crucifixion Satan mistakenly consumes Jesus on the assumption that he is just another human being. It’s a trap. Jesus becomes the fishhook by which Satan is forced to “bring up again” — i.e., vomit — all of the people he had previously swallowed. Call this the emetic theory of salvation, if you will (or its actual name the Christus Victor theory of salvation). Traces of this idea are found in Christian writers as early as the second century and show, as Kneebone argues for Oppian, the way that the sea monster is both a mythical prototype for everything bad and a plausible candidate for the terrors of the natural world.

Lobster Diver Swallowed and Spit Out By Humpback Whale

In June 2021, Lobster diver Michael Packard said he was swallowed and then spit out by a humpback whale. The Huffington Post reported: “Around 8 a.m., the 56-year-old lobster diver jumped from his boat off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts, to check one of his traps. Packard was 45 feet below the ocean’s surface when he suddenly “felt this huge bump and everything went dark,” he told Boston-based CBS affiliate WBZ. [Source: David Moye, Huffington Post, June 12, 2021]

“At first, Packard said, he feared he was the victim of a shark attack, but after noticing a lack of sharp teeth, he realized he was in the mouth of a whale that he believes was trying to swallow him. “All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,” Packard told the Cape Cod Times. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys, they’re 12 and 15 years old.” Packard, who was still breathing through his regulator, said he struggled to get free. That apparently caused the whale to shake its head. Within 30 or 40 seconds, he said, the animal surfaced and ejected Packard from its mouth.

“Packard’s shipmate, Josiah Mayo, says he saw Packard being expelled from the whale and fished him out of the water. “My first thought was I can’t believe I got out of that situation. My second thought was for how injured I was,” Packard told the Cape Cod Times. “Although Packard was taken to a local hospital, his injuries turned out to be less severe than he first thought ― just a lot of soft tissue damage.

“Marine mammal expert Peter Corkeron of the New England Aquarium told the Boston Herald that whales like the one that apparently swallowed Packard don’t actually eat people: They are “gulp feeders” that “slurp up as much as they can and then swallow it down.” Corkeron suspects the whale was just trying to get fish and had no intention of turning Packard into breakfast. He also said there’s evidence suggesting that humpbacks can be “altruistic” toward humans, which may be why the creature swam to the surface before spitting out Packard. “It’s perfectly believable that the whale was trying to help him,” Corkeron said.

Endangered Whales

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 28 cetacean species as lower risk, five as vulnerable, seven as Endangered, two as critically Endangered, and 39 as data deficient. Most cetaceans are listed in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II, which lists species not necessarily threatened with extinction now but may become so unless trade is closely controlled. Some are listed in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. /=\

Today, some 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die each year worldwide after becoming entangled in fishing gear. Large mother and their calves have been snagged in drift gill fishing nets and drowned. A fairly large number of whales are killed by collisions with ships. Data is minimal because some of the collisions aren’t felt or reported and what happens to the whale afterwards is often not known. Although whalea can seriously damage a ship and even lead to loss of human life and injuries it usually the whales that get worst of it especially when large ships are concerned.

As sea lanes have become more crowded, whale deaths caused by collisions with ships has become more common. Some ships are outfit with equipment that picks up whale songs and noises and alerts the ships that whales are in the area.

See Right Whales and Sperm Whales.

Depletion of Whales by Whaling

20120521-Whaling Helmet_with_Phoenix_and_Battle-Axe_Ornaments.jpg
samurai helmet with whale part ornaments
Commercial whaling in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries took a huge toll on many populations of baleen and toothed whales, which have low reproductive rates and cannot recover quickly from overexploitation. Since whales were given legal protections in the latter half of the 20th century and commercial whaling was banned in 1986, some populations seem to be recovering, albeit slowly.

Around 750,000 whales were killed between 1900 and the 1970s. According to records 45,673 whales were killed by whalers in 1973. In 1985 only 6,623 were killed. Humpback whales, right whales, blue whales and bowhead whales were particularly hard hit by whaling. Estimates of whale populations and harvested in the past is based on logbooks by whaling captains and other historical data.

A study by Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University and Joe Roman of Harvard University released in 2003, based on genetic techniques, determined the oceans were filled with ten times more whales than historical records indicate. According to historical records there were 20,000 humpbacks and 30,000 to 50,000 fin backs in the North Atlantic. Genetic data indicates they were more likely 240,000 humpbacks and 360,000 fin backs. The figures were based on analysis of DNA from blood samples of 882 humpbacks and finbacks and base in principals that the more genetic diversity found among modern whales the larger their populations were in the past. Critics have some problems with soundness of the theory behind the analysis and the conclusion that were reached.

Threats to Whales

Threats to whales include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, vessel-based harassment, underwater noise, and habitat impacts. [Source: NOAA]

Vessel Strikes: Inadvertent vessel strikes can injure or kill whales. Whales are vulnerable to vessel strikes throughout their range, but the risk is much higher in some coastal areas with heavy ship traffic.

Entanglement: Whales can become entangled by many different gear types including moorings, traps, pots, or gillnets. Once entangled, if they are able to move the gear, the whale may drag and swim with attached gear for long distances, ultimately resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injury, which may lead to reduced reproductive success and death. There is evidence to suggest that most whales experience entanglement over the course of their lives, but are often able to shed the gear on their own. However, the portion of whales that become entangled and do not survive is unknown.

In 2015, NOAA confirmed 48 of the 61 whale entanglements reported off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, the highest annual total since it started keeping records in 1982. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that NOAA confirmed just 30 entanglements in 2014, up from an average of eight per year the previous decade, and three per year the decade before that. According to those reports, the increase could be attributed to “changes in whale abundance and distribution, shifting patterns in fishing and other human activities, and increased public reporting.” [Source: Katie Mettler, Washington Post, June 29, 2016]

Vessel-Based Harassment: Whale watching vessels, recreational boats, and other vessels may cause stress and behavioral changes in whales. Because whales are often found close to shore and generally surface active, they tend to be popular whale watching attractions.

Pollutants that have been reported from the blubber of whales include DDT, PCBs, chlordane, and dieldrin. The levels of these toxins vary during the migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds), pattern of the whales. The levels are highest during feeding and are lowest during breeding.[Source: Mindy B. Kurlansky, Animal Diversity Web]

Plastic: Whales gulp down tons of food each day. Along with that they also ingest huge amounts of plastic or at least the ones of the U.S. West Coast do. Researchers estimated the amount of microplastics ingested by krill-favoring whales, was about 4 million microplastic pieces (up to 38 pounds of plastic) daily, while those favoring fish may take in a much smaller amount, roughly 200,000 pieces (up to a couple of pounds of plastic). Krill take in plastic and pass it up the food chain. [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters, November 2, 2022]

Efforts to Help Whales Against Vessel Strikes and Fishing Nets

Some efforts have been made to move and reduce the width of shipping lanes to reduce the chances collisions with whales.In December 2006, the London-based International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, moved a shipping lane off Massachusetts 16 kilometers northward and narrowed it by 1.6 kilometer to reduce collisions with whales The move, scientists say, will reduce strikes with right whales by 61 percent and with large baleen whales by as much as 81 percent. In 2003, shipping lanes were moved off Canada’s Bay of Fundy for the same reason. In places where shipping lanes overlap with whale migrations routes oceanic ships have been advised to reduce their sped to 10 knots.

North Atlantic right whales, fin whales and humpback migrate not far from New York City. There smart buoys located offshore in shipping lanes record whale calls and transmit the data to a bioacoustic research team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The buoys help alert ship captains to the presence of whales, decreasing the chances of ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

How do you free a 45-foot whale without injuring it (or yourself!) further? According to NOAA: First off, crew are heavily trained. It's not just anyone approaching these entangled whales; these responders have practiced and know what they're doing. They're also well-equipped: using specially designed knives on long poles, the rescue crew can cut a whale free without ever having to get in the water with it.

Cheryl Lyn Dybas wrote in Natural History magazine: A project, called WhaleWatch, is looking at how to reduce the number of whales hit bu ships and entangled in fishing gear, by identifying the areas whales are most likely to visit. Satellite tags have been attached to gray whales and to three other whale species — blue, fin, and humpback — off the U.S. West Coast. WhaleWatch scientists are using satellite data and migration models of gray whales to identify high-risk areas for the whales, and to develop conservation policies for reducing ship strikes and entanglements. [Source: Cheryl Lyn Dybas, Natural History magazine, September-October 2012]

Among whales, the gray is the West Coast species most often hit by ships and caught up in fishing gear. Gray whales are known for long migrations of more than 10,000 miles from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to breeding areas along the coast of Baja California, Mexico. WhaleWatch researchers are analyzing gray whale satellite tracks to determine where the hotspots are for these whales.

Studying Whales

Japanese scientific whaling
Much of the early data about whale migration patterns was based on the collection and organization of details on the times and places whales were killed by whaling operations. In recent times a great deal of information has been gathered from tagged whales. A coded ten-inch steel marker is fired into the whale's back and a reward is offered for return of the marker and any information on the whale.

Scientists study whales with underwater recorders called hydrophones and cameras that photograph flukes, which, like fingerprints, help identify individual whales as they dive.

Studying whales is difficult. Whales can not be tranquilized. If they are there is a danger they might drown. Researchers have difficulty even with simple things like determining the sex of whale because the whales don’t make crucial parts of their bodies visible. Attaching electronic equipment on whales is difficult and the equipment of falls off or is damaged by the sea.

Today, scientists use crossbows and rifles to fire darts that burrow about an inch into a targeted and then pop out and float. They cause little damage to whales and can be collected for DNA analysis. Scientists also listen to the sounds whales make with underwater microphones called hydrophones. By listening with hydrophones in different areas scientists can use triangulation to determine the location of a whale animal by comparing how long it takes sound to reach them.

Dead whales that have washed up on beaches are sometimes given autopsies right on the beach to glean whatever information can be gleaned from them. After basic measurement of the whale are taken the body is scanned for trauma from a ship collision. Defleshing tools (4- to 5-foot poles with triangular blades) are used to peal off the skin and a few layers of blubber to get a close look at internal organs. If death has been fairly recent the organs can be examined. After two or three days they become badly decomposed. Sometimes an eyeball is removed and carried off in a shovel and tissues are cut away from the jaw to look for evidence of a ship strike. Ssamples are taken from the stomach to determine what the whale ate.

Whales taken on whaling ships are also examined. See Scientific Whaling, Japan

See Studying Blue Whales, Right Whales, Humpback Whales

Whale Watching

Whale watching is a $1 billion business involving hundreds of businesses in 87 countries, and is getting larger all the time. About 10 million people annually go on whale-watching trips. The $1 billion figure includes money spent on lodging and restaurants in whale watching towns as well as ticket for whale watching boats.

whale watching in Japan
Whale watching from boats began in 1955 in San Diego, when about 10,000 viewers came to watch the annual migration of gray whales. It began gaining momentum with the Save the Whales movement in the mid 1970s. In the mid-1980s, whale watching was a $5 million business in 10 countries. In the mid 1990s, 5.4 million people went on whale watching trips annually, bringing in $122.4 million in direct revenues and $504.3 million in total revenues.

Some of the people involved in whale watching are former fishermen. Whales often migrate into areas that have been overfished and fishermen have been encouraged to go into the whale-watch business to give fish stocks time to rebound and provide the fisherman with income.

Environmentalists generally regard whale watching as a positive thing because it makes people more sympathetic to the whale’s problems and creates economic incentive to keep them around. Even so some believe that tourist boat harass the whales, especially when they get very close. Sometimes whales are badly injured by the propellers of boats. Some whales seem to like the attention, watching the human gawkers as much as the human watch them.

Monterey Bay, California is a popular whale watching place. In the summer as many as 100 blue whales can be seen there along with orcas, fin whales and huge herds of dolphins. Upwelling produces bumper crops of krill, the whales’ favorite food, and attracted countless other marine species. it has been described as one of the best ‘lunch stops’ in the Pacific” for migrating whales.

International Whaling Commission

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created in 1946 by 15 member nations to do something about the dwindling numbers of great whales, control production of whale oil and protect whale stocks by coordinating catches of member states. The organization initially conducted research, set kill quotas of whale species and provided a clearing house for information on whaling. Today the IWC sorts through dozens of reports on whales and attempts to evaluate the size and health of populations.

In 1966, the IWC enacted a worldwide moratorium on the hunting humpbacks, blue whales and several other whale species. The IWC declared a ten year ban on commercial whaling in the Indian Ocean in 1979. In 1982, the IWC adopted a U.N.-sponsored resolution for moratorium on all commercial whaling. It went into effect in 1986. It was initially a five-year ban but is still in effect now. The moratorium on whale hunting is regarded as one of the most successful conservation measures ever.

The IWC is essentially a diplomatic body with no enforcement power. Measures passed by the IWC need the support of 75 percent of its members to be passed. The organization’s power is limited by its limited ability to enforce its rules. In 1982, after the passage of whaling moratorium the IWC switched its orientation to whale protection and it membership increased from 13 to 25 nations. In 2008 it had 78 members, up from 70 members in 2006 and 57 members in 2004.

Japanese whaling ship

IWC meetings have been characterized as nasty affairs with fierce parliamentary fights and bitter accusations of “double standards” and “dirty tricks.” Outside the meeting halls the scene is often nastier. When the meeting was held in Australia in 2002, protestors called Japanese “murderers” and carried a Japanese flag dripping with fake blood. Britain, New Zealand and Australia are regarded as the most hardline anti-whaling members. Japan, Norway and Iceland are pro-whaling. Countries like Ireland, Brazil and the Netherlands are considered moderates while many of the small nation members are regarded as being in Japan’s pocket.

Whale Conservation and Pressure to End the Ban on Whaling

In the 1970s Greenpeace got its start filming factory-scale whaling and harassing the ships that carried it out. Save the Whales became a rallying cry of the environmental movement as a whole. “Songs of the Humpback Whale” was a major hit and whale songs were even sent into space on the Voyager space craft.

Even though international pacts ban commercial whaling, the pacts are full of loopholes. Some aboriginal people have the right to hunt whales. Japan has IWC permission to kill whales for scientific research. Iceland and Norway hunt whales, ignoring the moratorium, without suffering any penalties. In 2009, Greenland, with support from Denmark, lobbied for permission to hunt 50 humpback whales for aboriginal subsistence but many viewed the effort as a thinly disguised cover for commercial whaling.

Pressure to end the ban on whaling is growing, A single minke whale is worth $100,000 and a large humpback may fetch as much as $300,000. Many species are doing so well that there is some discussion of dropping the ban on these species, implementing quotas instead and upholding these quotas with surprise inspections and DNA testing. Critics of the proposal claim the quotas will be difficult to enforce and endangered species might be accidently killed. A proposal to end the ban was presented at the 2004 IWC meeting but was approved.

In June 2006, pro-whaling nations staked out a stronger position in the IWC and came closer to ending the whaling ban as a group of new countries — including Cambodia, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Guatemala — joined the IWC and gave their support to the pro-whaling position. Some expect the ban on commercial whaling to be overturned sometime in the not too distant future. A 75 percent majority vote is needed to overturn it.

Blue Whale population

Image Sources: 1) NOAA 2) Wikimedia Commons; 3) protest, Greepeace Japan 4) whale watching, Okinawa Tourist Bureau; 5) scientific whaling and Japanese whaling ship, Institute of Cetacean Research

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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