A WEEK ago, not far from Anstruther, where fearsome harpoons deck the walls of the Scottish Fisheries Museum, a group of pilot whales stranded themselves on a stony beach.
As the whole country knows by now, what unfolded was a terrible yet inspiring drama, in which ordinary folk gathered, for reasons perhaps too deep-rooted to explain, to keep watch, perhaps to pray, and to work long hours in the cold and wet, just doing whatever they could to help – an effort that suddenly reminded us all of a creaturely fellow-feeling that all too often goes unremarked, or is even denied.
People from up and down the coast flocked to the scene, along with the nation's press, as coastguard and lifeboat personnel, council workers, police officers and volunteers from the British Divers Marine Life Rescue charity attempted to return the animals to the water.
As a local resident, I would have been there too, had I not been high in the Swiss Alps, just about as far from the sea as possible. Still, even though I was not physically present, I feel as if I know the entire story because my eldest son related it to me on my return, a day later, solemnly recounting every detail of the rescue effort with an odd tenderness both for the animals that died and for those which, having been manhandled back into the firth, continued to swim too close to shore for comfort.
He had watched the drama unfold on television, and he had pulled out all the books about marine life that he could find around the house to explain that it is the toothed whales – sperm, pilot, killer and beaked – which most often fall victim to mass strandings, partly because they travel in tight family groups and partly because they normally swim in deeper waters, so that when they stray from their usual habitat, things can go terribly wrong. In some ways, he was showing the usual curiosity – and the natural autodidactic tendencies – of a 12-year-old, but what struck me, both in his account and in the solemn (and, to my mind, uncharacteristically communal) efforts of the rescue teams, was that unabashed and, to some extent, unexpected tenderness.
Later that day, when I walked down along the coastal path, past tatters of police tape and stray lengths of hosepipe, trodden into the mud where heavy machines had winched the dead whales up the side of a low cliff, I found a few stragglers on the coastal path, intent on keeping watch for any further strandings. Some of them were still clearly moved by what they had witnessed, but also lit up, for the moment, by a sense of having been part of something both tragic and wondrous.
It should come as no surprise that so many gave up so much of their time to save at least a portion of the stranded whale pod, for these animals arouse strong affinities, in spite of being so remote from us in their everyday lives. But why is it that they provoke such sympathy, even admiration? Is it because they live in cold, dark places, singing to one another across hundreds, even thousands of miles
and moving together over vast distances, according to some inward map that we cannot begin to comprehend? Perhaps we are inspired to a new sense of the planet we occupy, when we realise that, as Cornell University's bioacoustics research programme director, Christopher Clark, says: "There is a time delay in the water, and the response times for their communications are not the same as ours. Suddenly you realise that their behaviour is defined not by my scale, or any other whale researcher's scale, but by a whale's sense of scale – ocean-basin sized."
On the other hand, it may be that our fondness for these particular animals – so huge, and yet so strangely vulnerable – is simply the lingering after-effect of the now historic Save The Whales campaign of the mid-1970s when, with the total number of blue whales at a record low of around 6000 worldwide, Greenpeace began confronting well-equipped whaling vessels on the high seas in flimsy rubber boats, while bringing images of mass slaughter into our living rooms for the first time, paving the way for an international moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.
No doubt all of these factors play a part in our affection for cetaceans, but we should remember that this creaturely regard is quite a recent phenomenon. Historically, whales were "monsters of the sea", whose vast bodies could "trouble the ocean till it boil"; at their worst, they were a danger to shipping ("what thing soever besides cometh within the chaos of this monster's mouth, be it beast, boat, or stone, down it goes all incontinently that foul great swallow of his, and perisheth in the bottomless gulf of his paunch" is how Holland's Plutarch's Morals of 1603 puts it).
At their best, they were a vitally important source of massive quantities of oil, baleen and meat, dangerous but rich quarry for whalers. In north Norway, the damage done by massive factory ships and whale-processing operations occasionally provoked local fishermen to riot. Whaling was also a lucrative industry in New England, from where Ishmael, Herman Melville's famous protagonist, sets out at the opening of Moby-Dick, "to sail about a little and see the watery part of the world".
Meanwhile, entire villages would occasionally wake to the kind of sight the people of Anstruther and Pittenweem witnessed last Sunday – only their first impulse was not to rescue, but to harvest.
In Sibbald's Fife And Kinross, for example, an account is given of several whales that "have come in upon this coast (Fife). Anno 1652, one 80-foot in length of the whale-bone kind came in, which - beside a vast quantity of oil, did afford five hundred weight of baleen. The jaws of it stand for a gate in the garden of Pitfirren". In short, stranded whales, like shipwrecks, offered rich pickings and were often more of a boon to the local economy than a cause for concern.
Anyone stumbling upon a beached whale these days is more likely to call the coastguard than go in search of a boning knife or a chainsaw. Which is just as well, for along with our fascination with (and more recently, compassion for) these hapless victims of whim or tide, there is also a real worry about disposing of their carcasses. In his biography of Albrecht Dürer, T Sturge Moore informs us the artist's "curiosity to see a live whale nearly resulted in his own shipwreck, and indirectly produced the malady which finally killed him". When Dürer did eventually encounter an actual whale in the flesh (on a beach in Zeeland) he was obliged to record in his diary the worry caused there by "the great stink, for it is so large that they say it could not be cut into pieces and the blubber boiled down in half a year".
Often enough, curiosity and worry go hand-in-hand, just as wonder is accompanied, more usually than we admit, by awe, in its old-time, Biblical sense – and the whale is the Biblical creature par excellence, the Leviathan in whose belly Jonah was confined for three days and one of only two animals specifically mentioned in the creation story: "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:21).
From the beginning of time, it seems, whales have aroused in us terror, awe, enmity, greed and a strange longing for the watery deeps and distances they travel. Yet for centuries, humans made little effort to learn more about these fellow mammals. In the preamble to Moby-Dick, Melville quotes Thomas Beale's 1839 book, History Of The Sperm Whale: "It is a matter of great astonishment," writes Beale, "that the consideration of the habits of so interesting an animal should have been so entirely neglected, or should have excited so little curiosity among the numerous, and many of them competent observers, that of late years must have possessed the most abundant and the most convenient opportunities of witnessing their habitudes."
It seems that, until very recently, Dürer's curiosity about the whale was not that common; in keeping with a mentality that values "natural resources" over natural history, most humans have been more interested in turning whales into petticoat hoops and lamp-oil than in understanding them.
The persistence of that resource-based attitude explains why there is so much that we still don't know about whales – but it also has much to do with the fact that, with each new discovery, researchers are becoming more and more alarmed about the future of marine mammals. For as Clark and his colleagues have gained a greater understanding about the way whales communicate, it has also become clear that the oceans are getting very much noisier. And the source of that noise – a hubbub that doubles in intensity every decade – is us. Among other things, we are the cause of what whale scientists refer to as "ocean smog" – and it is an apt term, because the great whales do get lost and die in that miasma of noise, just as thousands of Londoners did in the Great Smog of 1952.
Cetacean investigators point out that whales don't just use song during migrations; they constantly communicate with each other over thousands of miles of ocean. "Singing is part of their social system and community," says Clark. Yet all the time, as the musician-naturalist Bernie Krause has noted: "The fragile weave of natural sound is being torn apart by our seemingly boundless need to conquer the environment rather than to find a way to abide in consonance with it."
It is a beautiful term: consonance. In a healthy world, we would chime in with the other creatures, as part of a harmonious musical fabric; instead, we are purveyors of discord and dissonance and this constant clatter is destroying the sonic fibre of both land and ocean. Like the 2000 or so others which beach themselves each year, those whales which swam up the Forth and died on our shores last week may have been lost, or ill, and they were probably so many in number because pilot whales are highly loyal to their familial groups, so that a whole pod will follow one sick or confused fellow into danger.
Until the results of the current study come in, however, we can only guess at what happened – and experience tells us that we may never, in fact, learn why they died. But one thing is sure: whales die all the time because of the smog of noise we create in their oceans – and they are not alone. Every living thing, from the humble city sparrow drowned out by traffic noise to the zebra finch whose love life disintegrates when the level of background racket is high – every creature that moves, including humans, lives within a sound culture whose fabric is both subtle and vitally important. Which means that, if our wish to "save the whales", or ourselves, is genuine, then we have to do much more than blockading the whale ships and putting their harpoons into museums.
"A great silence is spreading over the natural world, even as the sound of man is becoming deafening," says Krause. It's about time we learned to haud oor wheesht.
John Burnside is an author and poet. His TS Eliot Prize-winning collection, Black Cat Bone, is published by Jonathan Cape, £10
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