As a National Geographic author who has studied whales for decades, I must tell the story of the interspecies trust we will lose if the Obama administration continues to support a repeal of the 1986 ban on commercial whale hunting. Right now, President Obama is agreeing to a deal to be proposed at the June 21-25th meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). It will allow the resumption of some commercial whaling, even of endangered species.
For many years, I've witnessed an interspecies kinship between gray whales seeking human interaction in Baja birthing lagoons -- what scientists call "The Friendly Whale Syndrome." Why do gray whales in lagoons of this Mexican Biosphere, seek to be touched by the same species that has twice brought them near extinction? A species that now wants to sanction a return to commercial whale hunting?
In the nineteenth century, in these very lagoons, Yankee whaling ships slaughtered the North Pacific Gray Whales, just a few thousand short of extinction. (The North Atlantic Gray Whale population was hunted to extinction in the 1800s.) Since the whaling moratorium, the gray whales have rebounded, becoming one of the 20th century's most vital conservation successes.
Now, in these protected lagoons the cry again goes out -- "Thar she bloooooows!" But we are not here to harpoon. We are here to reach out with our hopeful hands in friendship.
"Coming up!" shouts our expedition leader, Doug Thompson, author of Whales: Touching the Mystery. He has been studying gray whales in these lagoons since the 1970s.
The newborn rises up first, her baleen gleaming, her silver snout speckled with baby whiskers, her brown eye wide. We may be the very first humans this baby has ever seen. She lets out a whoosh of air and the blast from her double blowholes sends a geyser of salt and mist over us like a baptism. We reach way out and touch the calf's snout; it feels like smooth rubber.
"They trust us," explains Lupita Murillo, a naturalist and resident of San Ignacio lagoon.
Then the mother whale submerges slightly, and with a deep inhalation, she turns over underwater and the calf rolls atop her belly. Stretching a pectoral fin out like a wide wing, the mother lifts her newborn way up to us, at eye-level, in the boat. This belly-up cradling of her calf is usually only done when the mother is trying to save her calf from predators like orcas. With her last breath, the mother will lift her calf up and away from all harm.
"Trina is giving her baby to us," Lupita says. She recognizes this whale because of three, distinct white markings on the whale's right side. "Maybe Trina knows we are the only ones who can keep her baby safe."
We are all stunned by the offering, the gift.
"Las ballenas . . . the whales," Lupita says softly, "I think maybe God put them here to teach us humans to forgive -- to open our eyes and see."
Before the 1986 moratorium, tens-of-thousands of whales were killed each year. Since the moratorium, the rogue whaling nations of Japan, Iceland, and Norway have continued to slaughter about 1,900 whales annually, in contempt of international law. Why would the U.S. agree to allow these hunts by sanctioning commercial whaling? Why, when whale watching brings in billions of dollars annually to coastal economies around the world -- far more income than whale hunting -- would the U.S. support a return to whaling?
"It does not make good "eco-nomic" sense, says Doug. "Bottom-line, whales are worth more alive than dead. The economic advantages weigh firmly on the side of whale watching, not whale hunting."
Why betray two decades of interspecies good will, as well as the trust of U.S. citizens who voted for candidate Obama and his promise to protect the whales during his campaign?
Please, President Obama, think of the future. You lifted the moratorium on offshore drilling and now we're suffering the worst environmental tragedy in U.S. history. You haven't stopped the oil from spilling in the Gulf; but you can uphold the moratorium against whale hunting.
In his first press conference on the catastrophic Gulf oil spill, Obama concluded, "I grew up in Hawaii, where the ocean is sacred." When our oceans are sacred, why bloody them with whale hunts?
The U.S. still has time to decide to uphold the moratorium on whale hunting, along with the European Union and other nations. Are we willing to stand up for a future ocean that is bountiful and healthy for future generations of humans and whales? Could we, like that mother whale, keep lifting up our children to gaze eye-to-eye in interspecies trust?
Brenda Peterson is the author of Sightings: The Gray Whale's Mysterious Journey (National Geographic Books) and the recent memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. For more, visit www.IWantToBeLeftBehind.com
Watch wonderful video of human-whale encounters in Baja and check out this YouTube link.
For further reading:
National Geographic Books: Sightings: The Gray Whale's Mysterious Journey.
Whales: Touching the Mystery (NewSage Press)
New York Times Magazine "Whales Watching Us," Charles Siebert, cover story.
New York Times: Is Whaling a Dying Industry?