Jeff parkes
























by Jeff Parkes © 2005

She was slowly travelling north, drawn by an age old mysterious instinct, a tradition which stretched back millions of years. Every year throughout her life she had followed the retreating ice up the Davis Strait and along the east side of Baffin Bay. She kept going until further progress was made impossible by the solid ice field and there she would stay until the onset of winter drove both her and the ice southwards; but on the return journey she used an ancient route down the west side of the Bay.

It was a habit she was unable to break, known to man for hundreds of years. On three previous occasions, whilst in the southern waters, she had mated and given birth, but this last time she stayed alone, resisting the plaintive cries of bull whales seeking a female. Perhaps old age was creeping up on her, but she had no desire to be saddled with another cub; she had done her share of maintaining the species and now she wanted time for herself.

Feeling the pangs of hunger she opened her great mouth as she slowly swam along; cold sea water, hundreds of gallons, poured in and swirled around, bringing with it a multitude of krill, small, shrimp-like creatures about an inch and a half long. The krill became entangled with hairs hanging like a fringe from the baleen, a horny substance growing from the roof of the mouth; it was this that gave her the name of Balaena.

She closed her mouth and pressed her huge, flabby tongue upwards, thus trapping the krill. Water poured out between the baleen and back into the sea; once her mouth was empty she flicked her tongue backwards and swallowed the krill. Balaena repeated this action for the next twenty minutes then, her hunger placated and feeling the need to expel stale air from her lungs, she rose up and breached. Blowing through two nostrils on top of her great head, a huge plume reached high into the sky as the expended air, full of warmth and moisture, condensed in the frozen atmosphere of the Arctic. There was a loud noise as valves, usually closed to prevent water entering her lungs, opened for the exhalation. She wallowed on the surface for a minute or two before once more sinking down into the depths. Remaining below for only a few moments, Balaena breeched for a second time, then twice more in quick succession.
With her lungs fully cleared, she dived deep and swam slowly along, happy and content in her solitude. In the distance she heard another whale calling, but took no notice, altering course to keep clear. She wanted no company.

There was another sound, much closer, but she was unable to place it. Some creature was disturbing the water above and around her. She had a strong desire to go deeper, stay submerged and swim away fast; a desire, but not the capability.

She changed direction once more and increased speed, but was still only making about six knots. The noise above her was growing louder; fear began to contract her stomach; fear of the unknown. Balaena's heart began to beat faster, the blood pounding in her head. It was time to take in air for her lungs were bursting.

Against her better judgement she pushed up to the surface.

She barely had enough time to release the foul air which had built up since she last breeched, before there was a violent blow on her side, followed by an agonising pain that sent shock waves through her entire body from head to tail. She reared up, almost clearing the water, then plunged down, down, down. The pain was still there, but growing dull and concentrating on one spot at her side.

It was the necessity to breathe once more than sent her up again. She had kept swimming as fast as she could, but a heavy weight seemed to hold her back, making her expend more energy than usual to go only a short distance. As soon as she gained the open air there was an even greater pain than before and she could feel blood running along her back and draining into the sea. Her mouth opened and closed in agony.

She sank down, the cold water closing over her. This time there was a heavier drag than before, making it seem as if any progress at all was physically impossible. She twisted and turned in a frantic flurry, trying to rid herself of the weight that was holding her. Nothing happened except more pain such as she had never felt before nor had any wish to feel again.

Her mind was becoming muddled. For some reason she began to think of her last cub, a fine, sturdy male. He was old enough now to have sired his own cubs; where was he now, she wondered. Perhaps he was close at hand; maybe it was him she had heard calling not long before the pain struck her.

The pain.

She closed her eyes as if that might diminish her torment.

The pain.

A searing, intense, unwavering agony.

Suddenly madness overcame Balaena. With a swiftness that even took her by surprise, she shot to the surface, leapt into the air, her tail wildly beating, then plummeted down sending a great wall of water rushing towards the nearby ice.

The pain.

Dull and throbbing; almost fading away to nothing.

All movement stopped.

The flurry was over.

She slowly drifted upwards and as soon as her back was clear of the water there was more pain, but she could hardly feel it. She opened her mouth to cry, but there was no sound, only blood pouring out. The sea around her reddened as she lay still, barely breathing. Eyes that could no longer see flickered momentarily, then closed.

Fin out.

Right Whale
From William Scoresby's "History of the Arctic Regions" Vol. 2 (1820)

Scoresby was the first man to scientifically study the Greenland Right Whale - whilst killing it. The species is now almost extinct. The Greenland Right Whale is about 60 feet (18m) long with a circumference of 30 to 40 feet (9-12m). Total weight is about 70 tons. Hull, on Britain's east coast, was the main whaling port during the first half of the 19th century. A return in 1821 shows a total of 61 vessels sailing, 31 to Greenland and 21 to Davis Strait. 498 whales were caught, producing 322 tons of whalebone and more than 5,188 tons of oil.

However, the whalers did not have it all their own way. A quick calculation shows that the figures are adrift. That year nine ships were lost. The port second in importance, Peterhead in Scotland, had a total of 16 vessels with 155 kills.

British whaling decreased dramatically during the second half of the 19th century. The last vessel to sail from Hull, the Diana, was wrecked off the Lincolnshire coast on her way home in 1868. The last Scottish whaling vessels were requisitioned at the start of the First World War and the old style fishery was over. High powered steam catcher boats and explosive harpoons meant that species of whale inaccessible to open-boat whalers with hand thrown harpoons had become the new target. Restrictions have been put in place, but many people think to little effect.

The IWC allows Greenland's Inuit population to hunt whales for subsistence needs. Over the last 14 years reports have indicated that whale products are highly commercialised. The Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society believes that Greenland can no longer justify the number of whales killed in the name of subsistence.


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