Excerpted from Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate, by Rose George. Metropolitan Books, August 2013.
I leave a note for duty officers on the chart table of the container ship Kendal. It says, “Watch keepers, if you see whales or dolphins, please call me on 227.” For days, southward slowly through the Indian Ocean, grazing India, heading for Sri Lanka, the note reaps nothing.
But one day the crew member Marius says with careful innocence, “I saw whales the other day, and hundreds of dolphins.” I ask him what kind of whales. He says, “The blowing-spout kind.” He tells me that in the Strait of Gibraltar, ships are allowed to do only 14 knots so that they don’t run over whales. That is considered the maximum speed that allows the animals time to get out of the way. (Actually, it’s nearer 10 knots.) On one ship Marius worked on, the captain was doing 18 knots in the Strait and a cadet dared to speak up. “Captain, we are killing the whales!” There is the odd grumbling from grumpy columnists in Lloyd’s List about slowing down for little purpose, but in general, seafarers like to see sea life. It makes a change. Some ships carry whale-spotting books. But the captain on that ship was different. He said he didn’t care. His ETA was more important.
Did he kill any whales with his 18 knots? Who knows? The only evidence of ship strikes against whales is when injured animals are beached with gashes and horrible injuries, attracting huge crowds and headaches for authorities charged with disposing of the carcass. The most notorious whale disposal incident occurred in 1970, when the Oregon State Highway Division was tasked with destroying a forty-five-foot sperm whale that had arrived on the beach at Florence. Perhaps because of their experience with moving large boulders, the highway officials decided to use dynamite. A crowd gathered, the charges were blown, and then everyone ran as giant chunks of blubber rained from the sky and crushed the Oldsmobile 88 of Walter Umenhoefer, who became known as “the blubber victim” forevermore, to his annoyance. The tale of the exploding whale was singular enough to have been investigated and authenticated by the myth-puncturing website Snopes.com. It is more singular that the detonation of whales still occurs.
Off Western Australia, for example, in 2010, a whale was exploded. A courteous man named Douglas Coughran e-mailed me from the Senior Wildlife Office of the Nature Protection Branch of Western Australia to explain why. It was, he wrote, an example of the “very challenging issue of human/ whale interaction.” Whales that are beached on unpopulated shores are left to break down into the nitrogen cycle “as nature has done for millennia.” A carcass on a more public beach is a health hazard: those animals are usually removed with ingenuity and earthmoving equipment and buried elsewhere. This particular dying humpback had beached on a sandbank and could not move or be moved. It was too big to shoot, so it was dynamited while not quite dead. The Department of Environment and Conservation tried to give reassurance: sandbags would be placed around the whale’s head before it was exploded to death, and a helicopter would patrol afterward to prevent a shark feeding frenzy.
At sea, whales are bashed, battered, gashed, pinioned, and stuck. The true scale of trauma is unknown, like much else about whales. The size of big ships means they can hit giant sea animals, lost boxes, or yachts and not notice. A bump, maybe, a faint jolt among all the pitching and rolling and jolting already. Visual evidence of fatal encounters is rare enough to draw crowds. When a tanker brought a whale into Baltimore in 1940, newspapers reported that it attracted ten thousand spectators. In June 2012, Maersk Norwich arrived in Rotterdam with a whale, long dead, draped over its bow.