Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Breath of a Whale

The town of Albany has more than the average quota of people who know how to kill whales. It may have been thirty years since the last land-based whaling station in the southern hemisphere operated here, but those guys are still around.

For four days now, a young humpback whale has been dying on a sand bank in the harbour. The Department of Environment and Conservation have decided that the whale will die naturally. At twenty five feet and seventeen tonnes, it is too big to shoot. It is said to be 'winding down'. How long this takes is anyone's guess. "I don't feel right about this either," Mark from Fisheries told me. "But Peter from DEC reckons his hands are tied."

It seems that the young whale has been separated from its mother and, lost, hungry and pining, ended up on a sand bar in Princess Royal Harbour. 'Winding down' may sound like an innocuous term for dying slowly in the sun but it actually holds some truth. Apparently when young whales strand, their internal clocks turn backward, to inevitable death.

DEC's instructions to the public are: stay away - "closer than 100 metres to a whale and you will be prosecuted. The whale will die 'naturally'". This means no wet blankets to soothe its blistering skin, no company, nothing.

I saw the whale this morning and it hadn't 'wound down' much from when I visited twelve hours before. The whale was still breathing regularly and moving, trying the get off the sand bar.The Department of Planning and Infrastructure motored out to the whale in the Fisheries boat. They met the Port Authority tender out there - both just checking they didn't need to tow away a dead whale. When they ascertained that the whale was still alive, they left.

If it was dying on the town beach, instead of out in the middle of the harbour, would DEC investigate ways of euthanizing the whale?And now that we all know that a whale is dying slowly in front of us - is letting it die 'naturally' the right thing to do? Surely once we are aware of suffering, then ignoring it is cruel, not 'natural'.

I look out the window and see the yellow markers, the curious boaties and the persistent spray, a little cloud above the choppy water, misting to the east ... the breath of a whale.


  1. I saw the baby whale swimming about at dusk and thought of you.

    I found the Tassie Whale Stranding Handbook:

    I haven't read it yet...Greens function awaits ...but I will...thought you may be interested.

    Whales are so special. Glad you're on their side.

  2. What a difficult and distressing situation, Amy. I used to kill animals that were injured and taking a long time to die, but these days I am not so sure, so I leave them alone.

    I worked out that by 'putting them out of their misery', I was - in truth - putting myself out of my misery, as I couldn't stand the 'idea' of their suffering, because I empathised too much. The trouble is, I am not so sure that humans have the monopoly on empathy - it must just be that whales empathise too, and may be the only other creatures to do so. Who knows?

    The worst thing about this is the exclusion zone around the baby whale, and that you are not allowed to comfort it in it's last hours. Then again, by physically soothing it, maybe you are just prolonging the inevitable death. Who knows again? Either way, you are involved in this drama, wether it is from a distance, or close up, and there is nothing you can do, except ignore the exclusion zone.

  3. ST this is so sad. I am at a loss to offer any suggestions. I am confused about the whole experience of suffering. I have thought about it a LOT, because of my own physical and emotional suffering. Wondering what the purpose of it is......I still don't know if it can be a positive thing.

    And I know less about how that works for animals because as humans all we can do is evaluate the whole thing through our eyes. Comforting a wild creature may not actually be a comforting experience for the whale. As one who always wants to save things from suffering and pick things up to do so, I have had to accept that I may very well not be a comfort at all. I agree with Tom, that much of what we do is to relieve ourselves of suffering.....I still don't know.

  4. It's quite surreal that this whale is dying in the middle of town, stranded on a sandbar near a working international harbour. Surely they can swing some of their machines into action to help?
    By the way Tom, who is Amy?

  5. Oops - I meant Sarah. Don't know why I said Amy. Sorry.

  6. I can be Amy if you ask me real nice Tom.
    Anyhooo ... the whale is still alive and there is no Prime Minister in sight. What a weekend. Cricked me neck too.

    I agree with you Tom and Michelle. I think I gave myself away when I mentioned that a whale dying at Middleton Beach may have been put down.
    I threw some water over the whale and thought it was grateful but in the end, putting it out of its misery is more about my own feelings than the whale's. I can see the whale from my kitchen so I've been plodding over this territory for days, with no conclusion at all.

  7. I sympathise Sarah. For all of my great theories the reality of watching some poor creature suffer like that is really painful.

    This might sound a bit whacky, but re-reading the 'Tibetan Book of Living and Dying' again, I comfort myself with the idea that thinking good thoughts and directing good energy at the whale will help. The Tibetans are quite clear about this and I reckon they know more about this than anyone.

    I use this strategy for estranged close relatives who I know are suffering but who I can't get to see or help in any tangible way. Maybe it just makes ME feel better....but anyway, it can't hurt. You could sing it a 'whale song' or something (to yourself quietly if you want)

  8. This may be enough. Talking about it here, I mean. There's a kind of godliness in sharing experiences such as these. The whale isn't alone.

  9. Thanks Michelle and Ciaran. It's not whacky at all Michelle and I've been doing that, sort of singing and heathen praying.
    It's still alive.