It’s no secret that humanity has had a complex, closely interwoven relationship with the ocean over the course of our existence on the planet. Coastal indigenous communities found great cultural significance in their relationship with the sea, in addition to deriving much of their sustenance from its waters. Large marine mammals like whales were the center of folklore and spiritual beliefs. The Iñupiat people of the Arctic even believed they could communicate with whales, and that their relationship went far beyond that of just predator and prey. It was one of mutual respect, reciprocity, recognition of like intelligence. For these people, humans and whales were a part of the same web of life.
And we see parallels in other parts of the world. Further south in the Pacific Northwest, indigenous communities such as the Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth held months of complex rituals meant to convey respect in the mysterious language of whales. While these communities did hunt and kill whales, their relationship with them was one of gratitude. Whaling was viewed as a match between equals; they were not considered “other” or “less than.”
Things, as they do, changed. And I wonder if in the name of advancement, we actually went backwards – far, far backwards. As European settlers began to make their way across the Americas and encountered this spirituality among the Indigenous peoples, they saw what looked like a “whale cult.” To them, anything that even hinted at anthropomorphism was useless, wrong, punishable.
Across the Atlantic, whaling began to grow in popularity throughout Northern Europe. Whereas indigenous communities often made use of all parts of the whale, Europeans were mainly after blubber (and the oil derived from it to light their lamps) and baleen (for various uses in tools and fashion). This style of whaling for commercial benefit eventually made its way to North America, and soon enough, whales were scarce in the Atlantic. Fleets expanded, technology developed, and by the mid-1800s, whaling became a multi-million dollar industry.
As populations continued to collapse, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created to attempt better regulation. Finally, in 1982, the IWC called for a moratorium on commercial whaling, although not all countries were in agreement. To this day, Japan and Norway both have commercial whaling operations. Because humans valued growth, expansion, and wealth over the inherent worth of another living being, millions of whale lives were lost.
Fortunately, I think many of us are beginning to feel an itch; the necessary but uncomfortable reality that we need to dramatically alter our relationship with nature. Indigenous cultures have long understood that animals aren’t here for our entertainment or economic gain; they are sentient beings with their own set of needs. And we’re realizing that if we want to see improvements in planetary health and biodiversity conservation, we must adopt the same viewpoint, and re-examine and invest in our relationship with the animal world.
Sometime in the ‘70s, someone recorded a humpback whale song and played it over the radio to hundreds of thousands of people. Public understanding of whales started to shift. They weren’t just something to hunt. They were animals that people could relate to, with culture, language, and social groups. Whale song was a language that could cross borders. And it led to quite a success story for ending the era of whaling.
Where are we now? Whale watching, instead of whale killing, has taken over. It is a multi-billion dollar industry with operations all over the world. Seeing whales in their natural habitat is an especially exciting experience; it feels like you’re being let in on a secret when they come up to surface and release a massive exhalation before disappearing from view once more. There’s something about those massive, inquisitive eyes, their soulful sounds, and the graceful way they move their bodies through the water — like the world’s largest ballerinas.
But even when we view whales from a boat, I worry that we still externalize the experience. It is something we’ve left our comfort zones to see, and then when we step back onto land, we return to our lives as they were before. It would be wonderful if people took away a message of conservation and activism home with them from their whale watching experience. But many people are simply looking to tick an item off of a long bucket list. Many want the whale selfie, or to rub the nose of a mother gray whale who sidles up alongside your boat on the Baja peninsula so they can send a video home. Are we still exploiting these animals – just in a new way?
As a marine advocate and PhD student in whale ecology, I truly believe that anyone and everyone should have the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature. Interactions with wildlife can remind us that we are a part of a cohesive whole, an ecosystem that has been perfected over millennia. We’ve evolved as a part of this community, and yet somewhere along the way we’ve become divided. Us, and it. This distinction hasn’t served us well; we can see it in the way our planet is calling out for our help. Earth remembers its place within the web of reciprocity, and it is on us to remember that we can answer this call with connection.
I think perhaps the whales know this. Yes, we are humans living the human experience. And I suppose whales are whales, living the whale experience. But these two experiences are not that different. We are filling our niches, navigating our own challenges, creating connections and using our senses to perceive and process all that is around us. With this in mind, when we do decide to interact with other creatures, we can alter our perspective and choose to see another divine being embodying a different experience, but of the same essence.
We can be the authors of our own extinction, if that is what we want. But I know that at our core, we realize this was never the way it was meant to be. We have an existential meaning, and when we engage with our surroundings and ourselves with a belief of wholeness, we can see this more clearly.
So is it possible for us to reframe our relationship with whales? As we grow in our spirituality and our faith, these viewpoints become more accessible. Sit with your stillness and see the web of mutuality spread before you. The big blue heartbeat of the ocean? That’s your own heartbeat.