Humans like whales, says Simon Barnes in Tortoise. “It’s about their size, their mystery, their existence in the inaccessible oceans and their closeness to ourselves; we are, of course, all mammals who breathe air and suckle our young.” And in 1982 humanity deliberately acted against its own material interest in using whale oil for everything from lamps to cosmetics when, apart from a few “refuseniks and dissenters”, the world agreed to stop whaling. Earlier, in 1965, we’d decided to stop hunting blue whales. By then that species was as good as extinct: about 350,000 had been killed in less than a century, or 99% of the global population.
The blue whale is the biggest of the great whales. Its tongue weighs as much as an elephant; its heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Females are bigger than males, and can grow to be 100ft long. Since we stopped hunting them, the population has recovered to between 5,000 and 15,000. Yet we still make their life “perilous”. Ships crossing the ocean cause fatal collisions; pollution affects their food supply; underwater sounds disrupt their communication. The blue whale’s continued existence is down to human choice, a choice “about the sort of planet we choose to live on and the kind of species we want to be”.
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