[MARINE_BIOLOGY_INTERNATIONAL] Book Review: "The Sounding of the Whale"


(New York Times)

January 6, 2012
How Scientists Came to Love the Whale
Science and Cetaceans in theTwentieth Century
By D. Graham Burnett
Illustrated. 793 pp.The University of Chicago Press. $45.
"Whale Carpaccio — 130 Kroner."

Thus read an appetizer on a menu at a restaurant in Bergen, Norway, when I dined there a few years back. I wanted to sample this odd dish. What would the experience be like? Would the meat be chewy like pork, or flaky like fish?

These were my thoughts when the waitress approached and asked (maybe a little sadistically?) if I'd like to "try the whale." But before I could signal my assent, somewhere in the back of my mind a fuzzy '70s-era television memory arose — the image of a Greenpeace Zodiac bobbing on the high seas defensively poised between a breaching whale and a Soviet harpoon cannon. "No," I said, "I'll have the mussels."

I reprise this anecdote here not to show how evolved I am, but rather to juxtapose my hazy whale-belief structure with the much more nuanced understanding of a man who has immersed himself in the subtleties, trickeries, scandals and science of cetaceans. D. Graham Burnett, the author of "The Sounding of the Whale," a sweeping, important study of cetacean science and policy, has quite literally "tried the whale" and could probably describe for you whale meat's precise consistency. But he has also been tried by the whale in the deepest sense, because he spent a decade poring over thousands upon thousands of pages scattered in far-flung archives. If the whale swallowed Jonah whole, then Burnett has made a considerable effort to get as much of the whale as possible down his voluminous intellectual gullet.

A reviewer pressed for time could, in lieu of an essay, put together a very respectable (or at least very weird) collage of all the "you're kidding me, right?" facts about whales and whaling that appear on almost every one of Burnett's information-soaked pages. That the waxy plug in a whale's ear might work as a sound lens focusing song from miles away. That the Japanese World War II pilots who spotted submarines were retrained, postwar, to find whales. That whale scientists were seriously considering using tropical atolls as corrals for whale farms. But what makes Burnett's book notable is the big-picture arc he traces, from the early "hip-booted" cetologist who earned his stripes "the old-fashioned way, by cutting his way into the innards of hundreds of whales while standing in the icy slurry of an Antarctic whaling station," right up to the scientist-turned-Age-of-Aquarius-psychedelic-guru who studied the behavior of living cetaceans, drawing such conclusions as "Whales and dolphins quite naturally go in the directions we call spiritual, in that they get into meditative states quite simply and easily." While tracking the evolution of something he probably wouldn't quite call interspecies empathy (but that I might), Burnett keeps a cool head and gives what should become the definitive account of whalekind's transformation from cipher to signifier.

This coolness is critical in no small part because it allows Burnett to use the word "holocaust" to describe the slaughter of the great Southern Ocean whales that serves as his inciting event. At the end of the 19th century, having largely done away with the smaller, oil-­producing Northern whales, humanity turned to a huge supply of Antarctic "rorquals" — blues, fins and humpbacks. These giant creatures would fuel industries far beyond the ­almost-quaint-by-comparison lamp oil trade of the Moby-Dick days: soap, fertilizer, glycerin for blowing up soldiers, margarine for spreading on toast.

It was on the subantarctic killing fields that hip-booted biologists encountered horrifying whaling stations where blubber-filleting "flensers" scaled carcasses "like mountaineers, cutting steps up the flesh as footholds for their boots." Places that reeked like a "charnel house boiling wholesale in Vaseline," whose dangers included rotting mother whales' "forcible ejection of an unborn fetus (which could be larger than an automobile)." Such scenes led the most hardened biologists to remark, "What penalty, I used to wonder, would the gods in due time inflict for such a sacrilege?"

But Burnett reminds us that this was not a time for sentimental considerations of animal suffering. Only a few decades out from Darwin, many of the scientists of the period were simply trying to get a handle on what had evolved at the bottom of the world. This point of view is embodied in the British scientist Sidney F. Harmer, the principal architect of the Discovery expeditions that would deploy many of the hip-booters into the Antarctic's frozen Hades. Harmer's self-assigned task was to figure out the migratory patterns, rates of reproduction and even the very taxonomy of the great Southern whales before whalers could wipe them off the face of the earth. But even as Harmer fought to establish these key metrics — metrics he hoped would form the basis of a future "sustainable" whaling industry — he found himself tussling with a brand of scientist that has become all too familiar: the industry booster who has grown uncomfortably close to the wrong side of an environmental catastrophe. Johan Hjort, the director of fisheries in Bergen, would for example regularly lobby for closer "collaboration" with whalers and advised that "a local decrease may occur although the whole stock may still be abundant."

From the likes of Hjort and Harmer and others, Burnett leads us to the superhumanly curious American A. Remington Kellogg, "the Prince of Whales." Kellogg is perhaps the book's most intellectually intriguing character, acting as a bridge between the gentleman scientists of the 19th century who had the luxury to leisurely catalog the world's natural abundance and the conservation-minded biologists of the 20th who could see their research subjects vanishing before their very eyes. For Kellogg, the process of awakening to cetacean exceptionality was a grisly one. He was among the first to commission "vivisections" on porpoises even though, in his own words, "a live porpoise can be handled about as readily as a satchel of dynamite." This did not deter the intrepid scientists who "fell to the unlovely task of restraining the furiously squealing animal in order first to expose the skull and then to saw into it to expose the brain." When these operations were performed, Kellogg was witness to "a strangely large brain, one with elaborate patterns of convolution such as were generally thought to be more or less unique to human beings."

Kellogg's cruel-sounding investigations into cetacean morphology were paired with truly kind and selfless lobbying on whales' behalf. In tracking Kellogg's journey from naturalist to activist, Burnett makes good on his promise to show that "a history of whale science can shed considerable light on the changing understanding of nature in the 20th century." Not only did Kellogg operate in a policy sphere, lobbying to create the Council for the Conservation of Whales, he also assiduously wooed the popular zeitgeist, most notably by working to produce the National Geographic article that would start to shift the general public's perceptions of what had been largely maligned creatures. For any writer who has ever dealt with that hallowed magazine's combination of nitpicking and bluster, the record of Kellogg's editorial squabbles with National Geographic is worth the price of admission. "Left and right, he fought off editors' desires to sensationalize cetacean `monstrosity,' " and at one point wrote to a colleague, " `The publisher has the idea that all the pictures should be exciting, such as a whale running its head though a steamer and then winking its eye at the astonished crew.' " When the editors wanted to call the piece "Whales: Lions of the Sea," Kellogg responded: " `Whales are very distantly, if at all, related to the cat tribe. . . . Except when mortally wounded,' they `are inoffensive and noted for their timidity.' "

Perhaps the greatest challenge to Burnett's narrative is the difficulty of drawing a comprehensible and (is this asking too much?) pleasurable reading line through the tricky ins and outs of whale policy that form the sizable midsection of "The Sounding of the Whale." Those of us who have delved into fisheries management will recognize a familiar pattern — the industry emphasizes the unknown in a data set, even produces favorable prognostications from said set, only to incite scientists' astonished retorts. Burnett deftly shows how the International Whaling Commission's creation of isolated scientific subcommittees "succeeded in keeping the I.W.C. out of the hands of the scientists in its early years" just as fisheries biologists are today often isolated from real deciding power in important (and some would say dysfunctional) regulatory bodies like the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas. But during a lengthy discussion of the elusive quest for rational whaling quotas, Remington Kellogg's eventual alienation from the whaling commission and the activation of the global commercial whaling moratorium in 1985, Burnett's account loses some momentum.

Fortunately, we soon meet the "Pied Piper of whale-huggers worldwide," the man probably most responsible for planting the "mindbomb" of whale-dolphin intelligence. John C. Lilly, the prototype for the lead character in the 1980 film "Altered States," got into all kinds of stuff — isolation tanks, dating fashion models, LSD, but only after he got into the brains of monkeys and dolphins. Lilly had more than a passing relationship with American intelligence agencies (Burnett turned up a folder labeled "Indoctrination, Forced" in the Lilly archive and through a Freedom of Information query found that J. Edgar Hoover personally attended to Lilly's F.B.I. file). So there is a kind of "Mad Men"-esque cusp-of-liberation feel to the late 1950s world that Burnett paints. For the more Lilly opened up the brain cases of dolphins in the service of cold-war-era science, the more he slid over into the idea of opening the mind to other possibilities. The landmark event occurred during a research session when he was "much struck by the sense that an injured experimental subject, when returned to the tank with other dolphins, `called' to them and received their ministrations," and Lilly became convinced, eerily, that the dolphins he was torturing were imitating his speech. "After hammering his way into hundreds of mammalian brains," Burnett writes, "Lilly suddenly heard a voice" "Communication Between Man and Dolphin," the resulting popular write-up of Lilly's research, would go on to alter the states of many human minds with or without the addition of supplemental chemicals. It became the mindbomb that directly and indirectly launched a hundred Greenpeace Zodiacs.

As for "The Sounding of the Whale," will it be a mindbomb itself? In all fairness, that is not its intent. A gifted and often very funny writer, Burnett bristles at the restrictions of academic rigor but does not abandon them. His careful research and evenhandedness free the book of the "whale hugger" baggage that makes so many contemporary cetacean investigations saccharinely trite or sanctimonious — the kind of sanctimony Burnett reminds us triggered the noxious '90s punk rock lyric "Nuke the Whales" and other bad cultural beats. Burnett's greatest service is to tell a story that helps us understand the present-day political obstacles to addressing key environmental questions.

As I read on to the book's largely satisfying conclusion, I couldn't get out of my mind one of its many weird bits of whale science — during the 1950s military researchers became interested in whales because of their ability to filter important communication signals from the overwhelming background chatter of marine shrimp. For somewhere in the midst of all the academic fastidiousness the reader can lose Burnett's important signal. The author crosses every "t" and dots every "i" and if he hasn't, he's careful to provide a footnote explaining why the particular "i" in question lacks a dot. Yet even these footnotes are not quite enough, Burnett laments. "Each of the footnotes — and there are more than a few, and they try to be exhaustive — calls out . . . for footnotes of its own." It's not a surprise that toward the end of the book, Burnett invokes the convolutions of Borges. To some degree you see within these struggles to grasp something so big, horrifying and hard to know a kind of madness, or at least skepticism. Indeed, Burnett suggests that our long tradition of "whale ignorance" helps us understand that "it is very hard to say anything that is actually right about anything at all."

But from deeply investigated madness much wisdom is drawn. People who have the time and energy to spend on this big book will benefit greatly from it. For those who don't, I might suggest Burnett produce a version flensed of academic blubber down to a couple-hundred-page Modern Library-style monograph. But then again Burnett has already given his heart and soul to the troubling story of whalekind's worst century. I don't want to be ­sadistic.

Paul Greenberg is the author of "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food."

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