Your Help is Needed to Help Save the Whales

Japan announced on July 28, 2000 that it was immediately commencing large-scale, commercial whaling of minke, sperm and Bryde's whales, in spite of a worldwide moratorium on all whaling, and also ignoring the fact that both sperm and Bryde's whales are protected under US. law. In the face of massive international protest and personal appeals by numerous heads of state, the whaling fleet departed from Japan on July 29. Those who have followed these recent developments have been greatly alarmed for the future of these highly-endangered species, and disappointed that very little mention of this ominous event has appeared in local US. newspapers (it received front-page headlines in England).

Most people believe that the whales have been saved, but that is far from accurate. When the International Whaling Commission (IWC) declared an international moratorium on all whaling in 1986, Norway simply issued an "objection" and continued whaling, and Japan found a loophole in the IWC regulations that permitted whaling for "scientific research." Japan has continued under this guise to slaughter whales by the thousands; the whalemeat is either canned like tuna or sold as a delicacy in Japan's sushi bars. Random DNA testing of Japanese whalemeat has revealed that, in addition to minke, many protected species (like the blue and beluga whales) end up in sushi bars.

During the past 15 years, Japan has incessantly and vigorously lobbied numerous small, economically-stressed countries, including the small island countries of the Caribbean and the South Pacific, to vote against the ban on whaling, by promising millions in economic aid. In addition to lobbying members on the IWC for a return to whaling, Japan has also heavily lobbied numerous countries that belong to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to have elephant ivory and whales removed from the endangered status. This would allow other countries, most notably Norway, to trade their stockpiled whalemeat to Japan.

During the April 2000 meeting of CITES, Japan lost a vote that would have allowed trade to resume in ivory and whalemeat. In spite of this defeat, Japan announced in May that it planned to expand its whale-killing operations to include minke, sperm and Bryde's whales. In alarmed response, Australia and New Zealand, with the signatures of all Pacific Island countries, sent a proposal to the IWC declaring the establishment of a sanctuary in the South Pacific Ocean. Since whales migrate from the frigid Antarctic to the warmer waters of this ocean to breed and raise their calves, it was imperative that this area be protected from Japan's harpoons. This proposal was voted on by IWC members on July 6 and was defeated, primarily due to Japan's successful lobbying of the Caribbean island countries, six of whom voted against the sanctuary.

Japan's relentless and recent sabotage of both CITES and the IWC, through "vote buying" of member countries, and it's blatant disregard for international efforts to protect endangered species, is a cause for genuine alarm by the rest of the world. Standing by and watching to see how the international community reacts to Japan's unbridled contempt for both CITES and the IWC are Norway, Russia, China, Korea, and numerous other island countries that would welcome the opportunity to share in the short-term profits that could be gained before whale populations crashed for good. Japanese whaling fleets killing whales on the high seas is one thing, numerous countries all in competition for the remaining whales would be a travesty beyond measure. The ensuing slaughter would absolutely guarantee the decimation of whales in just a few years; and seriously reduced whale populations, like the blue (whose numbers have gone from 250,000 to under 5,000), would be virtually wiped out.

In order to halt Japan's relentless destruction of this endangered species, appeals are being sent through various media, including "grassroots" articles such as this, and by making full use of the world's new "Global Brain" -- the Internet or World Wide Web. Right now, YOU are the only thing between Japan's harpoons and the whales. In the days following Japan's announcement that its whaling fleet (including a 7,500-ton steel vessel) would depart July 29, both President Clinton and England's Prime Minister Tony Blair made urgent personal appeals to Japan's Prime Minister Mori. These appeals went unheeded and the whaling fleet departed on schedule. This was a disgraceful slap in the face to both President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair, and an outrageous and disrespectful affront to every single American citizen and British subject whose goodwill supports the Japanese economy.

Please help stop all commercial whaling and have the world's oceans declared a permanent sanctuary for whales, dolphins and porpoises. It is time to call for economic sanctions against Japan. Please join this crucial effort to protect these magnificent creatures before it is too late. Numerous organizations have issued alert notices to their members calling for action. Among these are Greenpeace International -- to send an electronic protest letter to Prime Minister Mori; the International Fund for Animal Welfare - to sign the petition; and Sea Shepherd International -- for additional information. Please note that it is the Secretary of Commerce who recommends imposing Trade Sanctions against Japanese whaling to President Clinton. A letter can be sent to Honorable Norman Mineta, Department of Commerce, 1400 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20230. Fax: 202-482-2741), Direct: (202 482-2112); and Email: White House spokesman, P.J. Crowley, has confirmed that sanctions are a possibility so you can also call the White House hotline (202) 456-1111 [select zero] and declare your opposition to whaling and your support for strong sanctions against Japan. President Clinton can also be reached by email at If you would like to personally contact someone for information on how you can get more involved in this important protest, send a personal email to Elizabeth at

For a more comprehensive look at whales, whaling and whale watching, keep reading.


There is something very humbling about encountering a whale in the wild. This sentiment was exquisitely expressed by naturalist and writer, Diane Ackerman:

"Human beings possess such immense powers that few animals cause us to feel truly humble -- a whale does, swimming beside you, as big as a reclining building, its eye carefully observing you. It could easily devastate you with a twitch, yet it doesn't."

When humans experience these enormous and powerful creatures exhibiting such a gentle behavior, they are changed somehow; moved beyond the mundane and into the mysterious realms of heart and spirit. To put it another way, "You will never forget your first whale!"

Whales have as their home 70 percent of the earth's surface that comprises our oceans and seas and today they face a myriad of threats to their survival. These magnificent behemoths have been evolving for eons of time and contain in their DNA the history of life on this planet. After years of exploitation, mankind is finally realizing just how important these co-habitants of the earth are and how vital they may be for our own survival. The uncanny ability of these mysterious marine mammals to overcome toxic pollution and other environmental hazards, not to mention the relentless pursuit by illegal whaling fleets, is inexplicably linked with mankind's future on this planet.

Evolution of Whales and Dolphins

Whales are believed to have been descended from land mammals, and 60 million years ago returned to the sea. About 35 million years ago, the species diverged into the baleen (surface filter-feeders) and the early toothed whales and both branches gradually adapted to aquatic life. Nostrils became blowholes; bodies more and more streamlined; and limbs eventually developing into fins and flukes. The first modern species of the sperm and perhaps beaked whales appeared about 23 million years ago and dolphins and porpoises followed 10 million years later. The last major wave of modern cetaceans appeared about four million years ago around the time man's ancestors began walking upright. There are over 80 different species, found all over the world, from the oceans, coastal waters and open seas, to major rivers. And for all we have learned about them, they remain enigmatic and clouded in mystery to this day.

All cetaceans breed with ecological consideration in precise relation to the amount of food in the sea. Whales are warm-blooded mammals and give birth to live young. In addition, among most species, a calving female is aided by several other "midwives," who help the newborn to the surface to take its first breath. They reproduce slowly and lavish much care on their offspring (a dead calf is abandoned with extreme reluctance). The females suckle their young for up to three years and the calves remain close by the mother for many years after reaching maturity. During the long migrations, the calf swims right next to the mother's skin in order not to get lost in the dark and murky oceans. The synchronized breaching of a humpback mother and her calf characterize this incredibly close bond. The protective behavior that females exhibit toward their calves was ruthlessly exploited by whalers.

Whales comes in an astonishing array of sizes and shapes, from the slow- moving, bulky great whales, to the sleek, speedy (up to 35 mph), and more acrobatic dolphins. They are also as varied in color, ranging from a glistening shiny black to gray, white, beige, spotted, and two-toned. Their heads, dorsal fins, flippers and tails carry the marks of a lifetime in the increasingly dangerous oceans they inhabit. All cetaceans breathe air, coming to the surface and "spouting" with a blast of sound and a cloud of water vapor before disappearing once more beneath the waves. Actually, they are "conscious breathers" and every breath a whale or dolphin takes is a deliberate act. Even while sleeping, part of a whale's brain remains awake so that breathing never stops. Even during the most violent of ocean storms, whales must surface regularly for air.

Whales have the longest migrations of any creature (10,000 miles for the gray whale and 12,000 for humpbacks), from their Arctic feeding grounds to the warmer oceans where they mate. While traveling vast distances, whales rely on echolocation (a form of sonar) and presumably follow the magnetic lines of the earth.

Like humans, whales are highly social, communicating with other family members and living in very close-knit communities (called pods). They cooperatively rear their young, hunt, and engaging in courtship behavior. They show a loyalty to each other that is remarkable, exhibiting extreme distress when a family member is endangered. The smaller species, like the dolphin, possess an irresistible curiosity and sense of fun. What sets cetaceans apart from other mammals is their altruistic behavior, such as an individual putting himself in grave danger in order to warn others predators, or swimming between a whaling vessel and a harpooned companion.

Similar supportive behavior is also given to sick and injured adults. It is this behavior that accounts for the plethora of stories of dolphins coming to the aid of shipwrecked and drowning humans. The most recent event of this kind concerned the Cuban boy, Elian. According to the earliest news accounts, when Elian was rescued he was surrounded by dolphins in shark-infested waters. He was initially referred to as "the dolphin boy."

Intelligence and Communication

Whales are the largest creatures ever to have lived on Earth and have large, complex, and highly-evolved brains. Anyone who has had a close relationship with dolphins or whales, whether in captivity or the wild, will attest to their intelligence. Researchers who have studied them claim their intelligence rivals, or is even superior to, that of humans; some believe cetaceans communicate holographically, in a manner so complex that mankind is unable to comprehend their language.

Although they lack vocal chords, whales produce quite a repertoire of sounds, from the deep mellow groans of the blues and humpbacks, to clicks, chirps, whistles and schnuffles of the rare white beluga (called the "canary of the sea"). Individual whales produce distinctive, melodically complex songs that change from year to year and some species possess unique "dialects." The humpbacks produce the longest sustained sounds in the animal kingdom and the mating "songs" of these 40-ton whales are legendary -- they can last over 30 minutes. The huge 100-foot-long blue whale's moan lasts just 10 seconds, but it reaches 188 decibels (at take-off, jets generate 110 decibels). When you swim close to a whale while he's singing, your entire body vibrates and you feel as if someone were pressing you against a wall and shaking you so hard your teeth rattled. The sound can be heard above the surface of the water because it resonates right through the boat.

Other Unusual Features

Whales can dive to great depths and remain underwater for a breathtaking 120 minutes. The deepest divers are the beaked and sperm whales that feed on squid, the sperm being the champion diver at typically 1,500 feet, and as deep as an astonishing 9,840 feet. Whales have developed the ability to store oxygen in their bodies and their blood is rich in hemoglobin. Even for their great size, they possess a disproportionate amount of blood. These adaptations regarding oxygen are further enhanced by their ability to slow their heartbeats to well below half the normal rate, and to deprive some parts of their body of oxygen while diving. They are better able than almost any other terrestrial mammal to metabolize anaerobically -- they can produce energy without oxygen.

The Terrible Slaughter

Few creatures on the face of the earth have felt the cruel hand of man quite like whales. Having few predators for their first 50 million years, they've faced extinction numerous times over the last century. By 1860, most of the easily-hunted great whales (sperm and right) were gone. In the late 1930s, in the Southern Ocean alone, 55,000 whales were killed. The toll on the largest blue whales reached a peak in the 1930-31 season, when over 30,000 were caught, followed by an immediate population crash. The Soviets regarded any attempts to protect dwindling whale stocks as "bourgeois," and its illicit catch from 1949-1980 amounted to over 90,000, including the protected blues and humpbacks. Among the worst pirate whalers during the 1950s was Aristotle Onassis, who used helicopters to locate them and blacklisted Norwegian Nazi collaborators to harpoon them.

In 1900 there were 250,000 blue whales in the Southern Ocean; by 1989 they numbered 500. Fin whales totaled 750,000 in 1900 and counted just 20,000 by 1989. Right here along our East Coast, the northern right whale, whose numbers were once in the thousands, are now counted at under 300 and it appears they are not reproducing. The humpbacks also have never recovered. Given the most favorable of conditions, whale populations might recover in 60 to 100 years (excepting the very slow-breeding blues) and escape extinction.

The "Save the Whale" Campaign

By the 1970s, the future of all the large species of whales was looking grim and marine conservationists began to involve the public in order to increase awareness of their plight. "Save the Whale" became a rallying call for compassion toward all nature. Despite the fact that, at that time, few people had ever seen a whale, these creatures symbolized a new protective attitude towards all wildlife with which we share this planet. If we could wipe out these ocean giants so carelessly, what future would there be for any of the world's other endangered species? It became evident to everyone at the time that despite hunting them to the brink of extinction, we actually knew very little about them. And with every bit of knowledge gained since then, has been an insatiable desire to learn more. The very mystery that surrounded them galvanized a concerned public and interest in whales has never abated. Although "Save the Whales" was probably the loosest slogan ever devised (of the 80 different species, one was never singled out), it managed to turn the tide of sentiment in favor of the whales.

Other Invisible Threats

Over the summer of 1987, one year following the world moratorium on whaling, several hundred bottlenose dolphins washed up dead along the mid-Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Florida. Every day, there were new reports until a year later the count totaled over 750. Their skin was peeling off and their bodies were covered with sores and lesions. As one scientist put it, they appeared to have been "dipped in acid." The scale of this disaster was unprecedented in American history. A series of similar events occurred around the world: striped dolphins in the Mediterranean between 1990 and 1992; bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico in 1990, 1992 and 1994; and various dolphins and whales in the Gulf of California in 1997. The causes are complex and varied but there is no doubt that these mammals are being critically stressed by human activities.

Approximately 70,000 commercial chemicals are already being dumped into our oceans and 1,000 new chemicals are produced each year. The total toxic effect of all this poison being dumped into our oceans is as yet unknown. What is known, however, is that these chemicals are severely impacting marine life. Because many of these chemical compounds build up through the food chain, they reach their highest concentrations in marine mammals. Striped dolphins in the western North Pacific, for example, have levels of PCBs and DDT 10 million times higher than the water in which they swim. There are documented effects on marine mammals which include cancer, increased mortality, lowered reproduction rates and very depressed immune systems. With the ever-increasing pollution of the world's oceans, toothed whales, in particular, are particularly vulnerable because tiny amounts of poison pass through the food chain relatively harmlessly, but it accumulates in top predators (like toothed whales, dolphins and sharks) with deadly effects.

The "Walls of Death"

The deliberate havoc wrought upon many species of great whale by the whaling industry is a cause for great remorse, but the accidental killing of thousands of dolphins by the fishing industry is clearly even more tragic. The worst, by far, is drift netting because of the huge scale of the operation. Often referred to as "walls of death," these nets hang vertically in the water and extend over 25 miles, indiscriminately catching any living creature that blunders into them. In addition they have heavy devices that drag along the bottom, essentially destroying the ocean floor's delicate eco-system where many fish lay their eggs.

During its peak use, millions of dolphins and other marine wildlife became tangled and died in drift nets. In 1989 alone, the North Pacific squid drift-net fishery caught an estimated 19,000 northern right whale dolphins, along with almost 2.5 million blue sharks and a wide variety of other marine wildlife. The 1992 United Nations ban on drift-net fishing has drastically reduced the problem, but so-called "pirate fishing" still persists on a large-scale (these are Flag of Convenience ships or FOGs) .

The Damage from Purse-Seine and Abandoned Nets

Of particular threat to dolphins are the purse-seine nets of the tuna fishing industry. During the 1960s and 1970s hundreds of thousands -- perhaps even millions -- of dolphins perished. For reasons that are unclear, schools of yellowfin tuna often swim beneath herds of dolphins. Since the 1950s, fisherman have taken advantage of this by using nylon purse-seine nets more than 3,000 feet long that surround both dolphins and tuna, then trapping them inside by drawing the net shut at the bottom and hauling in the catch. More than six million dolphins have died since 1959, and the toll on certain dolphin populations has been so drastic that the stock of spinner dolphins is believed to have crashed by at least 80 percent.

There was fierce opposition by conservationists and another outcry by the public on behalf of dolphins (remember Flipper?), and attempts were made to reduce the shocking mortality. Environmentalists and the public joined together to outlaw these purse nets and we now have the "dolphin safe" tuna label. The dolphin-safe nets have a "Medina panel" of denser mesh on that part of the net farthest from the boat. This makes the net more visible to the dolphins, enabling them to escape as the net is drawn in -- often with the assistance of divers. A further hazard lies with nets and lines constructed of synthetic materials. Incredibly strong and very durable, they pose a threat to cetaceans long after they have been abandoned by fisherman. Every year during migrations up the East Coast, the northern right whales become entangled in fishing nets and the heroics involved in attempts to free them make front-page headlines.

Threat of Over fishing

Another human exploitation threatening whales is the efficiency with which the oceans are being harvested. Many kinds of fish are being mercilessly hauled out of the sea and cetaceans and other marine mammals that rely on these fish for food are starving. Humpback whales were adversely affected by the over fishing of capelin, and the relatively recent exploitation of Antarctic krill by humans could have a devastating effect on many species of baleen whales that are ill-adapted to any other food source. And as if starving whales to death were not bad enough, some fishermen, eager to preserve their fast-dwindling fish stocks, kill any perceived rival they encounter.

Threat of Commercial Whaling

The most outright and immediate threat today is the decade-long and incessant efforts by Japan to undermine both the IWC and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In spite of massive and intense opposition from all over the world, Japan has arrogantly proceeded with its whaling plans and the fleet is now on its way. Japan's 7,500-ton Nisshin Maru is a steel factory whaling vessel, black and imposing. Blood spills through the scuppers as, up on deck, the crew dismembers and packages whales just brought aboard by the catcher vessels -- sleek, gray battleship-like ships. (These ships are vestiges of the huge whaling fleets that once swarmed across the worlds oceans.)

On the positive side, there is a serious movement among Japanese youth and others to reverse this trend. During the recent events, there was a great outcry from Japan's emerging environmental protection movement and many individuals and groups signed strongly-worded petitions to the government protesting whaling and the continued sale of whalemeat. In addition, the younger generation have no taste for whale meat. The industry has been forced to advertise in an effort to market its ill-gotten "delicacy." Also, due to the increasing pollution of the world's oceans with DDT and PCP's, whale meat has proven highly toxic. The whale meat market in Japan was rocked by scandal in October 1999, when 61 samples of whale meat were analyzed for toxicity. Over 25 percent of the samples exceeded regulatory limits. The report found the maximum levels recorded for PCBs was 20.8 ppm, with an average of 3.8. The highest level allowed for total PCBs in marine products marketed in Japan is 0.5 ppm. That the Japanese government knowingly allows the sale of highly contaminated whale meat to its citizenry is beyond belief!

The Present State of Cetaceans

Serious damage has already been done to whaling populations. The right whales disappeared from the Bay of Biscay during the 16th Century, the Atlantic gray whale was exterminated by the end of the 17th Century, and today other whale populations struggle for survival. The North Atlantic right whale numbers less than 300. And a generous estimate puts the Western Pacific gray whale population at 200. The Earth's largest creature, the blue whale, has been reduced to less than 5,000. And the very highly endangered dugongs number less than 200. The beautiful white belugas that most closely resemble dolphins are also among those species seriously threatened with extinction.

Dolphins are not faring any better. Considered by the Japanese to be competitors for "their" tuna, Japanese fishermen ruthlessly slaughter them. Sixteen of the 21 species of "small Cetacea" known to occur in Japanese waters are ruthlessly hunted. In Peru, 10,000 dolphins are killed annually, and just one catch of Dall's porpoises can total as many as 17,000. The attitude of fisherman that "dolphins are eating our fish" reached a tragic nadir in Japan between 1976 and 1982 when fisherman on Iki Island killed over 6,000 in order to protect "their" local yellowtail tuna. Millions of other dolphins and whales die annually as "incidental takes" in fisheries around the world.

Despite the current moratorium on commercial whaling, many species face a very uncertain future. Twenty years ago, the threats seemed obvious and the solutions simple: Stop whaling, save the whales. But today, the threats to marine life are far more complex and the future of cetaceans -- like our own -- less certain than ever. On the positive side, the continued and increasing interest in whales and dolphins has been maintained for over 20 years. With greater knowledge and understanding comes a greater ability to protect these mysterious creatures who share our blue world -- the cradle of all life on Earth. As we enter this 21st Century, the future of all cetaceans remains precarious. But just as they have come perilously close to extinction in the past, it is not too late to save them. They've been miraculously saved many times before -- the gold rush sent whalers westward by the hundreds in answer to the call "Go West," and whaling fleets were left with no manpower. During the Civil War, southern rebels sank many a Yankee whaling vessel, and a fire devastated Nantucket (the biggest center of whaling on the East Coast). Then, with perfect timing, came the discovery of oil. During both World Wars whaling came to a halt (all Japan's whaling vessels were torpedoed and sunk in WWII). Most recently, in the 1970s, it was mankind itself that answered the call "Save the Whales." All these events came at a precipitous time and rescued whales from certain annihilation.

The Exploding Whale Watching Industry

A whale can only be eaten once, but it can be watched by thousands over many years. There is no doubt that people all over the world have become smitten with Cetaceans. In 1995 (the most recent year for which figures could be located), 5.4 million people in 65 countries took to the seas and rivers to experience the thrill of watching whales and dolphins in the wild, and the number of these "whale watchers" is exploding off the charts. The annual estimated revenue in 1995 from this industry was US$504 million -- up from $50 million in 1988. That is a 10-fold increase in seven years. Even in Japan over 55,000 Japanese participated in formal whale watching activities in 1994, and they have at least eight whale watching locations in the country. This growing industry has proven of inestimable value to those depressed coastal areas that once depended exclusively on commercial fishing for a livelihood. Even more important, whale watching does not endanger whales and is an economic boon for all local communities.

The Future Is Now

Today it will be mankind again to the rescue; this time sending a clear message to Japan, "Bring an immediate halt to all whaling or the US. will bring trade sanctions and millions of individuals will personally boycott Japanese products and services." Please join in this urgent and very important protest to save these wondrous beings. And if they are still there by the time you get around to it ... remember ... You will never, ever forget your first whale!

* * *
Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, J.R. McNeill (W.W. Norton & Co., NY, 2000);
Whales and Dolphins, John Birdsall (Parragon, 1997);
Whale Watching, N. Leach & J. Gattuso, eds. (Discovery Communications, Inc., 1999);
and various Internet web sites too numerous to list.

The Land of the Rising Toxins

Japan is known among environments as "The Land of the Rising Toxins," as this country has lagged behind all other nations in commitment to the environment. Every country has its strengths and weaknesses. Japan is efficient and innovative and they are ingenious in making effective use of limited resources. They lead the world in advanced technology regarding all matters concerning global warming and climate change. Japan's greatest weakness is its almost total absence of appreciation and effort to preserve ecosystems, habitat, and endangered species. This attitude is reflected in its commercial exploitation -- from the illegal decimation of ancient forests in Russia (this made headlines at the recent G-8 meeting) to wiping out of rhinoceros, tortoise, black bears, elephants, tigers and other large cats, and the great apes. To further their illegal trade, Japanese poachers seeking short-term profits have gone right into animal sanctuaries that were established at great cost and effort by the international community. Japan remains about dead-last in matters of wildlife conservation. The Japanese Mammalogical Society announced last year that 50 percent of the 174 mammal species in and around Japan are in danger of extinction and the ruling party members are revising existing legislation so that it is easier to kill wild animals and birds, in the interest of controlling this "wildlife nuisance." Species like the crescent-moon bear and the Japanese macaque are routinely killed as "pests," in spite of the fact that they are a very endangered species. There may be some interest in preserving wildlife in Japan, but it's for sure the system's not working at this time.

For decades, Japan has made a mockery of every effort on behalf of the international community to protect whales; and has proven itself totally out of step with the rest of mankind regarding the protection of numerous endangered species on this planet. Only economic sanctions against Japan will prove effective in dragging this country into the enlightened 21st Century.

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