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The deep, beautiful, tragic shared history of whales and humans

Whales' natural habitats are increasingly threatened. A look at our past reveals what we're in danger of losing

Philip Hoare
May 4, 2014 5:00PM (UTC)

Excerpted from “The Sea Inside.”

Out of the silence and darkness of the night, I’m plunged into a hubbub of people and cars and cargo, all jostling to join the ferry that rises from the quayside. An hour later, and the ship is pushing out from harbour. The sun seeps back into the sky, and the ocean opens up to meet us. I settle on the top deck to drink tea, lazily raising my binoculars – only to see a huge grey shape in the mid-distance. It takes me a moment to realize that it is a whale.

A voice crackles over the Tannoy to alert the passengers to the sight. They lurch over the rail for a better look. The sperm whale’s blow fizzes in the air. It raises its head, shiny with seawater, but it doesn’t really look like a whale. The passengers soon lose interest, and drift back to their breakfasts.


I watch as the whale slips into the distance and, with a final flourish of its flukes, dives. Such a sight is rare in these waters nowadays. Yet a century ago, ships plying this route were often accompanied by another cetacean – one which acquired a near-mythical status.

From 1888 to 1912, a Risso’s dolphin appeared regularly in the Cook Strait, the turbulent channel that separates New Zealand’s two islands. Nicknamed Pelorus Jack after Pelorus Sound, it was seen by thousands of passengers, including Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. Some claimed it as a kind of guardian angel, guiding ships across the dangerous waters, but it is more likely that the animal was surfing the compression wave created by the vessels’ bows, as many dolphins do. A third theory suggested a more emotional connection: that it had lost its mother and was seeking a surrogate – an idea encouraged by accounts of unweaned cetaceans attempting to suckle at the sides of the same whaleships that had made them orphans.

Other remarkable abilities were claimed for Jack. That he could choose between two ships as to which would make a better scratching-post to rid his body of parasites, and that he preferred to follow steamers because of the sound they made. He even attracted the attention of London’s Linnean Society, whose president, Sidney Harmer, the director of the Natural History Museum noted: ‘In the light of this story, we may have to review our incredulity in regard to the classical narratives of the friendliness of dolphins towards mankind.’ But Pelorus Jack would be both endangered by and rewarded for his dalliance with humans. After a drunken passenger on the ferry SS Penguin took a pot shot at it in 1904, the dolphin became the first marine mammal to become protected by law: a hundred-pound fine awaited anyone who interfered with it. It was reported that Jack declined to escort Penguin thereafter; five years later the ship was wrecked off the South Island, with the loss of more than seventy lives.


For the native people of New Zealand, Pelorus Jack evoked an older myth, one which reflected their ancient relationship with the islands they called Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, a place shaped as much out of memory as from rock. To them, whales and dolphins were taniwha, shape-shifting spirits, and Jack was one in a long line of such animals to assist the human race. In the founding myth of their nation, a young man, Paikea, is nearly drowned by his jealous brother before the whale Tahoa appears and carries him on its back to Aotearoa. And while the West still saw cetaceans as monsters at the edge of the world, as living islands or spouting sea dragons, here at the real end of the world – according to occidental projections – their true nature was better known.

As a maritime people, the Maori were familiar with whales and birds and their movements. Attuned to the changing colour of the water and the direction of the prevailing winds, they navigated using their bodies; men even used their swinging testicles to sense the sea’s swell. The Polynesians’ first migrations followed those of cetaceans – what their Anglo‐Saxon seafaring comrades called hwaelweg, ‘the whale’s roads.’ Even their physical attributes seemed to reflect one another: the islanders’ broad, muscular bodies – so valued in the rugby players that they export – provided the power to paddle their canoes, while generous body fat sustained them, like blubber, on those long voyages.

To ally oneself to a whale is not so strange; some might say it is perfectly reasonable. Throughout history humans have celebrated their animal affiliations. Earl Siward of Northumbria, an eleventh‐century warrior who carried a raven banner and defeated Macbeth in battle, claimed descent from a polar bear; his father’s ears were said to be distinctly ursine. In my "Children’s Hereward," a book I was presented with at primary school ‘for pleasing progress,’ the flaxen-haired, handsome young Saxon hero fights a mighty white bear, ‘said to be of magic birth, and…related to the great Earl Siward himself,’ which is kept caged in a courtyard along with other wild beasts. When the bear escapes, kills a dog and threatens a terrified maiden, Hereward leaps from his horse and, to his own astonishment, slays the animal. The medieval world entertained such cross-breeds: men with stags’ heads or trees growing out of their mouths, women with fishes’ tails; chimera caught between magic and science. Even evolution, in its fluidity, appeared to allow for these hybrids: witness the thylacine, or Darwin’s speculation that the fish‐eating bears of the north-west Pacific coast might become entirely aquatic, ‘till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale,’ although he later regretted his flight of fancy.


The scientist was only, if unconsciously, reflecting the beliefs of Northwestern Indians, for whom the world was torn between terror and beauty and who lived on the edge of the sea because they found the land more fearful. Their carved wooden figures, preserved in Vancouver’s airy Museum of Anthropology – where totem poles reach up to the glass roof and threaten to burst out of it like redwood trees – might as well be anatomical displays in the Hunterian. Outsized otters and mash-ups of whales and wolves blur reality with unsettling amalgams of claws and coiled tails. In one fantastical carving, multiple dorsal fins poke out of one lupine body, as if there were six whales inside, trying to break out. Meanwhile, over them all hovers the trickster Raven, mating with an oyster and delighted to discover, nine months later, that it had spawned mewling men to be let loose on the world.

The vast Pacific, which still seems so remote to the modern-day Western world, invoked such magical animal–human affinities. Its aboriginal cultures even seemed similar, as they reached from one coast to another. On a boundless, restive sea belied by its name, anything could become anything else. As Jonathan Raban wrote in "Passage to Juneau," long before the white men arrived at the northwest Pacific shore – in journeys that connected Cook and Vancouver to the Antipodes – the native people had known what to expect from the flotsam washed up on their shores: bits of ships studded with nails that indicated an alien technology, much as if a modern beachcomber had found parts of a flying saucer.


The Maori’s arrival on Aotearoa only underlined the importance of its animals, especially whales, in a land that lacked any native mammals. Like Tasmania, these were ancient islands, with their own unique, pre‐human populations. New Zealand was formed out of the super-continent of Pangea, from which it had broken away sixty-five million years ago. Its only quadrupeds were reptiles, its largest animals, birds; and it was all the more Edenic for its dearth of fearsome predators. In such a place cetaceans were an important source of protein. (Western visitors would assume that the islands’ natives resorted to cannibalism out of that lack of flesh.) And while Europeans were still calling whales fish, the Maori had a long-established taxonomy for the species they knew intimately, that they both used and venerated. It was an alternative classification, created centuries before Carl Linnaeus had begun to itemise the world.

Tohora was the general name for whales, but also signified southern right whales. Hakura or iheihe were scamperdown or beaked whales, many species of which swam in these deep waters; paikea was the humpback, pakake the minke, upokohue the pilot, and paraoa the sperm whale. Whale tribes had honorific titles, too, somehow more evocative, in their unfamiliar consonants and vowels, of the whales’ strange beauty than the ugly names Europe had bestowed on them: Tutarakauika, te Kauika Tangaroa, Wehengakauki, Ruamano, Taniwha, Tuterakihaunoa.

For the Maori there was no demarcation between the life of the land and that of the ocean; such distinctions made no sense. Trees and whales were as one. The god Te Hapuku was ancestor of both whales and tree ferns, known as fish of the forest. As medieval bestiaries drew correspondences between animals on land and in the sea – the elephant and the whale, the wolf as a shark, the goose born of barnacles – so the Maori saw the sperm whale in the kauri tree, a podocarp that grows to a hundred feet or more and can live for thousands of years. They related that when the tohora, or whale, asked the kauri to accompany him on his return to the ocean, the tree preferred to stay on the land. Instead, they shared skins. Hence the thinness of kauri’s bark, as oily as the whale’s blubber, both wrinkled in age and majesty.


Humans too were interchangeable with whales. Te kahui paraoa meant a gathering of sperm whales, but also a group of chiefs. He paenga pakake or beached whales indicated fallen warriors on a battlefield, while men assumed the guise of whales in their warfare. The Ngati Kuri tribe created a Trojan whale from dog skins in which were hidden one hundred warriors; when their besieged enemy came out to feast on its meat, they were killed and themselves eaten. Other warriors lay on the beach in black cloaks to lure those who thought they’d found a pod of upokohue. And the greatest of all chiefs, Te Rauparaha, sustained his army with blackfish that had been driven ashore and tethered by their tails using strong flax ropes, to be killed as required, like a living larder.

Like Australian Aborigines, the Maori did not actively hunt whales, but made good use of stranded animals. Unlike Westerners, they did not render the blubber into oil and discard the rest; the entire animal was a resource which could provide for the tribe. The meat was eaten immediately or dried for later use, and they drank the milk from nursing mothers. Whale oil supplied polish and scent. Teeth and bone became adornments, the most precious being the rei puta, a whale-tooth pendant. The sperm whales’ hard, dense bones also made broad blades and clubs that bore the power of the animal that had provided them.

Hundreds if not thousands of whales still beach themselves on the shores of New Zealand every year, and are regarded as tapu, sacred signs. When a pod of pilot whales stranded on the South Island recently, a Maori elder arrived with his sleeping bag to spend the night with them in order that they should not die alone. Solemn blessings are given to dead or dying whales. In one famous incident in 1970, fifty-nine stranded sperm whales were declared to be tangata, or human, and were interred in a communal grave, five hundred feet long. Their deaths were, paradoxically, seen as a good omen for an imminent visit from the Queen (and an Antipodean reflection of the medieval right to ‘royal fish’). The same incident also inspired Witi Ihimaera’s novel "The Whale Rider" – although his book was born in New York.


In 1985 the writer was working as a diplomat in Manhattan when a humpback whale swam up the Hudson as far as 57th Street. It seemed to Ihimaera to have come up ‘that dirty big black primordial river’ to see him, as one emissary to another. ‘I have never believed that the Maori world stops when you leave the country,’ he told me, ‘nor have I ever believed that the interconnectedness – that interface as you call it – stops simply because it’s dysfunctional now on the human side. Do whales have ancient memories? Sure they do.’ The New York whale represented all the whales that had been so important to his people; it was a symbol of the ineluctable past, the present and the future.

Excerpted from “The Sea Inside” by Philip Hoare. Copyright © 2014 by Philip Hoare. Reprinted by arrangement with Melville House. All rights reserved.

Philip Hoare

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