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The Economist Reviews Harpoon by Andrew Darby: Blood and guts

May 10, 2008

Blood and guts

May 8th 2008
Reprinted From The Economist print edition

THE hunting, in turn, of the right whale, the blue, the sperm, the minke and the humpback form the backbone of this entertaining and interesting book by Andrew Darby, an environmental reporter on the Sydney Morning Herald. With each species he builds up the reader's fascination further, before delivering a (mostly unhappy) account of its fate.

Mr Darby produces some horrifying facts, beginning with Soviet whalers. While most other nations were winding down their harpooning operations because too few whales remained for any profit to be made, between 1959 and 1963 the Soviet Union built a new factory fleet every year. "A barren desert must remain where the Slava has operated," one fleet's captain-director ordered his crew. "Catch all whales you meet-small size, sucklings and lactating females all alike."

The crushing momentum of the Soviet command economy is well portrayed, as is the detailed account of Japan's stance on whaling. The confluence of beliefs and personalities behind the deep cultural divide is lit by the author's own experiences in Japan. Here, as throughout the book, Mr Darby sketches the extraordinary characters he encounters with humour as dry as his native outback.

The story of Norway's hard-nosed position is intercut with the saga of Keiko, the killer whale that was made famous by the "Free Willy" films and later returned to the open sea off Iceland. And wild tales from the last English-speaking whaling station in Albany, Western Australia, are a reminder that whaling fever can strike anywhere. The wranglings of the International Whaling Commission rapidly become as riveting as a courtroom thriller.

The birth of the anti-whaling movement from the depths of the 1970s American counterculture is traced to a boatload of anti-nuclear protesters listening to whale-song recordings while on LSD. Early Greenpeace voyages to save the whales were guided by I Ching, a Chinese system of divination, and "interspecies communicators" who followed moonbeams. But the movement grew up fast and in 1982 it won a global moratorium on whaling.

Enter Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd conservation group. Considered by Greenpeace contemporaries to be "too much warrior, not enough rainbow", Mr Watson's confrontations with the Japanese in the Southern Ocean are by turns terrifying and hilarious.

Mr Darby takes the reader deep into the whaling issue. To the environmentally-minded West, whales are a conservation cause. Nevertheless, Norway and Iceland, together with Japan, have killed 30,000 whales since the moratorium came into effect in 1986. Now the growing appreciation of whale intelligence and sentience has added an ethical dimension to the issue. To the Japanese, whaling symbolises a tradition of seafood that is central to their culture, and they are campaigning hard for the moratorium to be lifted, citing evidence that stocks are starting to recover. Ethics has no part to play, they argue, for if concern for animal rights can stop the harvesting of whales, when will compassion prevent the netting of fish?

Book details:

Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling
By Andrew Darby

Da Capo Press; 300 pages; $25. To be published in Britain by Orion in October


 

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