When Whale History is Lost, So is Ours

Editor’s note: In celebration of right whale calving season on our shores, we are posting whale stories by Lauri deGaris every other Monday through the season.

By Lauri deGaris

In 1974, “Mind in the Waters” was published as a compendium of information about whales and dolphins. The book weaved together mythology as well as science to celebrate the consciousness of whales and dolphins. Poetry, natural history, photographs, art and statistics supported a call to action to save the spirit of the whales and the spirit of the planet.

Almost 50 years later, the book is just as relevant as it was when written.

Over the years, I have read and re-read passages from it often. The story about a whale who washed up on the beach, waiting to die, really caused me to ruminate. The scientist who was attending to the dying whale was asked if he was going to keep the whale company in its hour of death. The cetologist said no. He could not comprehend that there was a bond connecting us all. He could not imagine that the whale could understand compassion or the need for comfort. He walked away until the whale was dead.

Joan McIntyre, contributing author to “Mind in the Waters” writes:

“Scientists have become the instrumentalities of their own singlemindedness. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist applied for and received permits from the government to kill 316 protected California Gray Whales in order to write The Life History and Ecology of the Gray Whale. In reading the life history, there is no life, just a series of tables of weight of testes and ovaries. There is more to the mating of a whale than the weight of his gonads; there is more to birth than the weight of the fetus; there is more to the feeding of the whale than the weight of the contents of her stomach. There is more that is being left out than including our inability to consider our subjects and us as interacting parts of a whole system.”

Many cultures recognize that an animal can be many things at once. That is, they can be something to eat, something that embodies wisdom, something spiritual, they can be our friend or they can be our enemy. In our rush to advance technology and our civilization, we have forgotten we are not the only creations on earth that have a spirit, possess the ability to feel emotion and share wisdom.

Consider: Worldwide commercial whaling caused the loss of maternal DNA lineages among blue and humpback whales, according to Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute. When maternal lineage is lost, knowledge is lost as well. Evidence of this tragedy was discovered in the bones of slaughtered whales scattered along the island of South George, 800 miles southeast of the Falkland Islands.

From 1900-1960, over 2 million whales were killed throughout the Southern Hemisphere. One hundred seventy-five thousand of those whales were killed near South Georgia Island. The bones were discarded after processing the whale. Scientists identified humpback, blue, and fin whale bones, many 100 years or older.

According to Michelle Klampe of Oregon State University, the South Atlantic whale populations have begun to recover since commercial whaling ended. However, the number of whales observed around the island of South George has not. The local population may be extirpated or locally extinct. For more than 60 years, the whales have been absent, suggesting that cultural memory was lost. These findings were reported Oct. 3, 2023 in the Journal of Heredity.

What did we slay when we killed the whales in such a frenzied conflict? The blue whale is the largest whale to have existed. The sperm whale has the biggest brain on earth. The toothed and baleen whales possess brains like ours. They have well-developed spindle cells, a type of neuron linked to self-awareness, compassion, and linguistic expression.

Oriented to the earth’s magnetic fields by particles of iron oxide in their brains, whales travel vast distances to breeding grounds, they recognize their companions, and they help one another. They also invent tools, play, learn, teach, grieve, and dream.

Indigenous cultures believe that whales are swimming libraries. They have been around millions of years longer than humans. And Indigenous cultures know whales carry the history of Mother Earth in their DNA. In Dreamtime, the call of the whale is the lullaby of the tides. When we gently rock ourselves to the rhythm of the ocean and allow our mind to float into the world of the sea, the spirit of the whale appears to guide us to our soul’s destiny.

The loss of whale wisdom during commercial whaling days is eerily like the loss of wisdom that occurred along the Trail of Tears. Many of my maternal ancestors did not survive forced removal from ancestral lands to reservations in the West. Medicine carriers were elders who held great knowledge. They are the ones who remembered the sacred ways of living in connection with Mother Earth. Many elders had not completed the passing of knowledge to the next generation before vanishing along the walk West. Lots of cultural memory was lost.

For A Coming Extinction

Gray Whale

Now that we are sending you to The End

The great god

Tell him

That we who follow you invented forgiveness

And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand

And I could say it

One must always pretend something

Among the dying

When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks

Empty of you

Tell him that we were made

On another day

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo

Winding along your inner mountains

Unheard by us

And find its way out

Leaving behind it the future


And ours

When you will not see again

The whale calves trying the light

Consider what you will find in the black garden

And its court

The Sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas

The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless

And fore-ordaining as stars

Our sacrifices

Join your word to theirs

Tell him

That it is we who are important.

Merwin, “For a Coming Extinction” from The Lice. Copyright © 1967 by W. S. Merwin.

Source: The Lice (Atheneum Publishers, 1967)



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Mark Tomes
Noble Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
22 days ago

All of life is connected in our biomes and our spirits. When we lose one, we lose a piece of our greater selves. When we learn of a new ability or cognitive tool that an animal or plant has, we say it is smarter than we thought. But actually, it is only that we are closer to other lifeforms than we realized.

Richard Timm
Trusted Member
Richard Timm(@rtimm-ontheislandgmail-com)
22 days ago

Thank you Lauri. As Martin Luther King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.


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