Factual whale tale is no blubber story, Book Review, The Australian, September, 2007

The Australian, 15 September 2007

By Andrew Darby

YES, I’ve eaten whale meat, mostly as a child in Japan, and no, I wouldn’t eat it again. If you were to ask me why, I’d have to say a change of heart, a limp sentiment perhaps given the ruthless thuggery that characterises whale politics.

But in a new historical account of this international debate, Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling, journalist Andrew Darby claims that to put a stop to whaling, all we need to achieve is a change of heart. By heart, he means our values or ethics.

This appeal to our collective humanity is what makes Harpoon so refreshing and a fine read. Devoid of the polemics and high-octane emotions that usually accompany this topic, the book is sharp, forensic journalism, charting the mostly brutal relationship between humans and whales. It is dense with quirky details from sources as diverse as whalers’ diaries and minutes of International Whaling Commission meetings, and these details add up to a searing moral indictment against all of us (Japanese as well as Australians) for our greed, arrogance, barbarism, deceit, neglect, stupidity: in short, our rampant, persistent inhumanity towards whales.

Needless to mention, Darby is avowedly against whaling, but he steers clear of the usual anti-whaling dogma. In whaling politics (as with many environmental issues), it is easy to make the mistake of putting the politics before the whale. Instead, by structuring his narrative in five parts: Right, Blue, Sperm, Minke and Humpback, his argument always comes back to the whale.

Lest we forget Australia’s brutal whaling history, the book begins in Tasmania, where whaling was integral to British settlers’ fortunes. Darby likens the hunt for whale to the rush for gold. Sustainability had not been invented in the 1800s, so right whales were hunted greedily until they disappeared from Tasmanian shores. Meanwhile, gawking at dead whales became a pastime, and as one diary entry cited by Darby suggests, perhaps even a way to show off to the ladies: ‘August 1819. At 11, Miss Charlotte Bowen, little Betsey and Mary Whitehead went in my boat to see the whales.’

This nonchalant barbarism continued well into the 20th century and it was not until the 1950s, when some whale populations were already severely threatened, that there were glimpses of a changing heart.

Jacques Cousteau’s underwater footage of humpbacks, the anthropomorphic television show Flipper, scientific claims that whales possess high intelligence and the emergence of an environmental consciousness in the 1970s were elements that contributed to shifting the norm of whaling to the ethics of anti-whaling in the West, according to Darby.

The most interesting question Harpoon addresses is: why did Japan get left behind in this consciousness shift? Much of the second half of the book deals with this enigma and is arguably the most dramatic section of the book. The stories of extortion and political brinkmanship at IWC meetings read like a thriller, but there is no gratuitous Japan bashing. Instead, I was relieved and impressed by the sensitivity and breadth of the author’s research, and was reminded of how deep-seated and complex are Japanese attitudes to whaling.

Darby’s account also brought to mind an incident in the early 1990s when, as a reporter for Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, I suggested covering one of Greenpeace Japan’s first anti-whaling campaigns in Tokyo. I was laughed at by the inhabitants of the newsroom who couldn’t understand what ‘green peas’ had to do with fishing.

The consciousness gap is still wide. Unlike in Australia, whales don’t grace Japanese shores, and while Australians watch anti-whaling activists bravely facing down Japanese whalers in Antarctic waters on TV news, in Japan people may be watching a Japanese version of Margaret Fulton preparing braised whale on some cooking show. Furthermore, the Japanese Government constantly bombards people with the message that whaling is a fisheries issue and that backing down on whaling could mean backing down on other fisheries issues, such as tuna.

While a certain amount of moral suasion and persistent diplomatic badgering may help shift Japanese attitudes to whaling, Darby prescribes some change of heart within the anti-whaling camp, too.

He charges Australia with insensitivity during negotiations with Pacific Islands nations, leading to failure in garnering their support on the anti-whaling side at IWC meetings.

Darby writes with confidence. My fear is that this book is one that preaches to the converted. I hope I am wrong.

Masako Fukui is a Japanese journalist based in Sydney.