Japanese Whales

19/02/2016 17:41 | Updated 21 February 2016


My greatest ever wildlife experience was with a whale. She was a female sperm whale off the Caribbean island of Dominica, who was clearly as intrigued with me as I was with her. She stayed with my cameraman and me all day long, nuzzling her young calf towards us, introducing it to its first ever humans underwater. Then the experience got even more intense, as she started doing repeated swim pasts, rolling slightly onto her side so she could make eye contact. There was something deeply sentient in her eyes, and I could tell she was as interested in me as I was in her.

Not surprising really for the animal with the largest brain on earth. What happened next was truly moving; she started copying me! Every time I dived below the surface, she would dive too. As I started to spin and pirouette, she would do the exact same movements. As I did a summersault, she would do exactly the same thing. I was engaged in an intimate pas de deux synchronized swim with a ten tonne whale! All the time, her constant coda vocalisations reverberated through my body, her ultrasonic pulses building up a picture of me inside and out. It was the most emotional and powerful experience I've had in a lifetime working with animals.

Due to this, and a thousand other such experiences with her marine mammal cousins, my position on whaling in the modern era is perhaps inevitable. But an argument based on ethics and morality - on the right to life of certain species - is deeply subjective and hence has no power amongst those who don't feel the same way. The Japanese whaling Association state; 'Attitudes toward animals are a part of national cultures. No nations should try to impose their attitudes on others.' In other words, the second we bleat; 'save the whales', we are irrational bunny huggers, who don't respect Japanese culture and thus can be discredited and ignored. So for the purpose of this article let's stick to objective fact.

Japan has once again sent whaling vessels into the Antarctic refuge, harvesting whales for 'scientific research', which they claim is allowable through a loophole in international law. In 2014, the UN's International Court of Justice ordered Japan to stop whaling in Antarctica as its so-called 'scientific whaling' is not compatible with the ICRW, the rulings of the IWC, or international law.

It has been 30 years since Japan began claiming their whaling was for science. They assert that they have registered over 666 research papers in this time, though they don't appear in the peer-reviewed literature, and the international courts ratify only two of them. Japan's first study ran for 18 years, killed 6,700 whales and had the aim of assessing something as simple as the numbers of whales in Antarctic waters. The results and methods were heavily disputed by scientists. Other studies have addressed subjects such as whether certain whales eat fish, how big certain whales get, and how stocks of whales can be managed... in protected waters where they are not supposed to be being managed at all. Critics argue that all the information that can be garnered from killing whales was recorded through the over 100 years of large-scale industrial whaling. All the major whaling nations kept detailed reports of their catches and their biology, and that data is easily accessible.

That Japan has discovered so little of consequence in thirty years through lethal means needs to be placed in the context of what is being done elsewhere in cetacean research. The study of marine mammals is probably the most exciting area of whole-organism biology, with quantum leaps in methods and technology unveiling unimagined wonders. Researchers are flying 'snot-bots' over spouting whales (drones that collect the goo in their blowhole spray) and use DNA and hormone analysis of the snot to tell us huge amounts about individual whales. Similar work can be done on their faeces, sperm and shed skin. You no longer need to kill a whale to find out if she's pregnant, or what it's eating. Acoustic work is revealing untold wonders about whale communication splitting groups of whales up, based on their dialects, into different tribes and even potentially species, that may be completely genetically distinct.

Acoustic, radio and satellite tags, combined with robotically operated vehicles and 'critter cams', are offering an intimate look into the lives of real, living, swimming, breathing whales. All this work is done from just weeks or months in the field (rather than decades) and is generating phenomenally important data that completely changes our perception of these animals. Over longer periods of time, photographic data from the unique patterns on tail flukes and fins is allowing both the professionals and citizen( lay???) scientists to track whales around the globe, generating extraordinary amounts of data about their migration routes and habits... and all without a single whale being killed.

By every measure of science, Japan's research in the Southern Ocean has been a catastrophic failure, and has consummately failed to move with the times - that is, if science is the real purpose for their missions down south. There is no doubt that the whales killed are then sold for consumption in Japanese markets, an industry worth millions. Australia has repeatedly taken Japan to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, to try and prove that their practices are by definition actually commercial whaling.

The Japanese Whaling Association's own website ( has been set up to explain and justify Japan's whaling programme. They state that whales are not especially intelligent, are more common than people think, and that over-exploitation would be impossible in the modern era. They assert that limited aboriginal whaling is allowed, and say; 'no whale species has been hunted to extinction or is ever likely to be'. (Hmmm... North Atlantic right whales are listed as 'nearly extinct,' as is the vaquita. The Chinese river dolphin disappeared by 2006, and many populations of whales have been hunted to extinction.) Western scientists targeted DNA analysis that was done on whale meat in Japanese markets, which proved some of it comes from endangered species. The JWA claim these samples were analysed by foreign scientists and thus are not reliable. And that the endangered whale meat could be from samples killed before the moratorium on whaling... in 1982?! The website is full of outraged retorts such as; 'Asking Japan to abandon this part of its culture would compare to Australians being asked to stop eating meat pies, Americans being asked to stop eating hamburgers and the English being asked to go without fish and chips'.

The other half of the JWA website is dedicated to explaining why what Japan is doing is not actually whaling at all but scientific research, and therefore allowed under IWC guidelines. Sooooo... then why are they putting so much energy into convincing the world that whaling is fine?

The argument that whaling is a sacred part of Japanese culture is a fallacy. Admittedly they do have a very small-scale history of whaling in a few villages that can be traced back centuries, but it was never an industry of national importance, (such as it was here in the UK) until after the Second World War when animal protein was in short supply. Then in 1946 General MacArthur encouraged the development of a small factory ship fleet, blasting whales with explosives and targeting them with modern sonar so they could provide cheap meat. Hardly a romantic 'Moby Dick' style tradition, and a far cry from the 'aboriginal subsistence whaling' or somewhere like Lamalera in Indonesia, where one or two whales are hunted a year using wooden lances!

The last and perhaps most important part of this scenario is the battlefield itself. Japan is targeting the protected Southern Ocean whale sanctuary and treating the Antarctic Treaty (of which Japan is an original signatory) with utter contempt. I'd encourage everyone to read the treaty, it's one of the few things that makes me feel genuinely proud to be human. It opens:

'There are few places on Earth where there has never been war, where the environment is fully protected, and where scientific research has priority. The whole of the Antarctic continent is like this. A land which the Antarctic Treaty parties call a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.' The treaty further; 'Requires the conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora.'

Antarctica is our last and most treasured frontier, the only place we humans are yet to sully and have all vowed together to protect. There are growing calls to limit the already small amount of tourists that head to our planet's last true wilderness, as they may damage the fragile ecosystems. And yet we are standing by as Japan flouts every agreement, risks international condemnation and diplomatic iciness, and openly lies to the world. It doesn't matter how we feel about the sanctity of whales. This is a question of law and due process. To just stand by and not express utter condemnation, is to set a dangerous precedent.