Whales — love ’em or eat ’em

Frederic Friedel

Some years ago I was in Tromso, Norway, inside the Arctic circle. I was helping out with a plan to get the Chess Olympiad to this island city. Mainly they wanted me to write some nice articles on the location to help them convince the World Chess Federation that this was a good place.

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The Norwegian island city of Tromso is within the Arctic Circle

The mayor of Tromso appointed a young assistant named Børge (and pronounced Bor-ye) to take me and my wife around to experience the beauty of one of the north-most points of Skandinavia. And beautiful it was, spectacularly so, making for a thoroughly enjoyable week in the arctic circle. And I dutifully wrote this article and a few more.

Call me Ishmael — that’s me embarking on a whale spotting trip in Trømso

One of the things Børge did was to take us out on a whale spotting tour. Wonderful experience. First, while the ship starts on its journey, you study the poster that shows you the hvaler you might encounter.

I have been to museums in London and elsewhere and seen how incredibly large some of the whales are, particularly the Blue Whale, the largest creature that has ever inhabited our planet. But the main impression, when the whale spotting ship has cleared the shoreline of Norway and is well out to sea, is how big the ocean is. Is there any way to to find a tiny little whale in this vast expanse?

Yes there is. The whale ships have spotters, young marine biologists mainly, who mount a turret and use their eyes — not binoculars — to look for whales. They are making use of an evolutionary defect whales have, one that almost led to their extinction when humans arrived on the scene and discovered that oil from their blubber could be used to light streets.

“Thar she blows” — the famous line from Moby Dick that you surely know

Whales, like all cetaceans (that include dolphins and porpoise) have separate orifices for eating and breathing. The latter is located at the top of their heads, and when they surface to breathe they forcefully expel air through the “blowhole”. The surrounding atmosphere is comparatively lower-pressured, so the water vapor in their breath condenses, producing a misty spray. This is visible from miles away, and that is how our spotters found the whales.

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The ship cuts its engines and approaches silently. The whale will do a few small dives and blows (sigh: “for the tourists”). This is not water, as many believe, but the condensation of humid air when it expands.
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At some stage the whale takes a lunge out of the water and dives almost vertically into the ocean.

That’s the last you see of it: the fluke or tail fin of the diving whale. The ship immediately sets course looking for other whales. “Why don’t we wait until it surfaces?” I want to know. “Because that will take twenty minutes or more, and it will be miles away,” says one of the marine biologists.

Thømso was, and to some extent still is, a whaling outpost, as the above statue in the harbour area confirms. After the whale trip the Mayor and Børge took us to a Fisk restaurant, the best in town. There they asked us whether we would like to try whale steak.

Tromsø restaurants serve whale on their menu — and yes, we tried it (tastes a bit like liver).

We are not proud of having partaken in a dish of whale meat — actually I did it mainly to find out why people in places like Japan are so eager to keep butchering these magnificent animals. It’s meat, and there is nothing special about it. When ordering I caused a minor incident by asking whether they also had rack of Norwegian (as in rack of lamb, carré d’agneau). Not funny.

Things got worse when I proposed my solution to the problem of whale hunting: “Some whales,” I explained to the Mayor and Børge, “like Minke and Pilot whales, are thriving nicely, and so we can allow a certain number — e.g. 500 per year — to be hunted and used in specialist gourmet restaurants. Similarly the population of whaling ships has reached healthy proportions, so we should let a certain number — e.g. twelve per year — to be torpedoed and sunk. The culling of whaling ships could be left to third-world countries who would get an opportunity to practice naval warfare while fulfilling an important service to nature and conservation.” Not funny!

In a moment I am going to tell you why I feel so passionately about the subject. But before we leave Trømso there is another little sea adventure I must slip in.

One evening we boarded a fishing boat, the Signe 1, which was built in the same year as the Titanic.
The boat plied the fjords around Trømso, and we were given rods and bait.
We pulled out some lovely specimens and soon had a few buckets full of fish.
During the trip a bunch of seagulls was following our boat, clearly in full knowledge what is to come.
At some stage our captain said “That’s enough” and started chopping up the fish. The gulls were welcome to feast on the heads and innards, which made the hours of flying behind the boat worthwhile for them.
While the birds were feeding on the offal, our captain was preparing the finest fish dish I have ever tasted.

What he did was cut the body of the fish into two-inch slices, draw a bucket of water from the fjord, add a little pepper and some lemon juice, bring it to a boil and throw the fish in. We were then instructed to help ourselves, but under no circumstance to stir the contents of the pot. “That will turn it into fish mush,” the captain explained. So you delicately fished out a couple of pieces and ate them with some very thin knekkebrød (Norwegian for crispbread). It was, as I said, the most delicious fish meal I have ever had.

After returning home I spent months trying to duplicate that memorable dish: I bought the finest fish, even went down to the fish market in the harbour in Hamburg to get the very freshest catch, which I cut and cooked as above — okay, I didn’t have fjord water, but I used natural unrefined sea salt. Still: it was nowhere like the meal we had tasted on the Signe. I believe the captain who told us that you had to cook the fish before rigor mortis set in. I have to find a way to test his theory.

Why whales cannot be killed

The following is a true story — as usual I have at least one eye witness to testify to it. Many years ago I spent a (very interesting) month in San Diego, researching new energy technology that was being developed there. One day my host took me to SeaWorld, and I saw this incredible, sometimes disquieting theme park for the first time.

The Orca or Killer Whale was (and still is) the main attraction in San Diego’s SeaWorld

There are many impressive and cleverly staged shows with sea mammals. For instance two visitors from the audience were called to the edge of the dolphin pool and chatted up there. At some stage they were asked to do some hula moves. The obese man gladly complied, but the young female balked at this and wanted to return to her seat. A hula dancer tried to persuade her, and suddenly hips clashed and the girl fell into the pool. The entire audience gasped. And then panicked when she failed to surface — until about thirty seconds later…

…when she suddenly emerged, riding on a dolphin. She was not a visitor but a trainer, and after the show I saw her in fresh clothes, blow-drying her hair — preparing for the next show. Very clever.

Now comes the part that changed my life and turned me into a militant whale protectionist. SeaWorld in San Diego has a “whale and dolphin petting pool”.

In this pool there are half a dozen whales swimming around in a circle, and a hundred visitors leaning over the edge, each waving a fish. At some stage a whale would swim over and take a fish, making a visitor king for the day.

I had no fish, and acting on a whim I did the following: whenever one particular beluga swam by I splashed some water at it. I did this four or five times, when suddenly this whale swam over to me and poked its head out of the water. It look me straight in the eye and said “What?” Well, not really said, but that is clearly what I read in its eyes. So I splashed some more water at its face, as a friendly gesture. Whereupon the whale sank back into the water, re-emerged and gently squirted some water from its mouth on me. Then it withdrew, with a big grin on its face — again, my interpretation, but in fact I think it was even chuckling.

The people standing next to me were stunned. They had all seen it transpire, and my host can attest to every detail of the above story. I myself realized that these are not animals which we can regard as natural sources of food or oil. They are intelligent creatures that cohabit the world together with human beings, living on the 70% of the earth’s surface which we cannot ourselves use. There is absolutely no need to kill any of them, for “scientific research” or for culinary pleasure. Imagine restaurants serving Japanese schoolboy chops. And when I chance to see reports like this one, it makes me feel depressed and miserable for a protracted period of time. A word of caution: don’t click on the previous link, it will ruin your day!

Also read: The things people will eat (1) and What space aliens look like

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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