Aug 3, 2015

A Whale for the Killing

by Farley Mowat

In the late sixties, very little was known about whales and their demise from the whaling industry and overfishing seemed imminent. So when a fin whale (second-largest next to the blue whale) became trapped by the tide in a small cove on the coast of Newfoundland, Mowat saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the whale at close quarters. He was shocked and angered to find locals using the whale for sport, shooting at it and chasing it with their speedboats. He appealed to local authorities for help and getting little response, went to the media and Canadian government. The small community he lived in split sides as some saw his work advocating for the whale as meddlesome, objected to being denied water passage through areas they'd always used, and resented criticism from the outside world. Others welcomed the attention the whale brought their small village, hoping it would bring them tourists and that improvements like better roads would follow. Efforts to free the whale had to wait for the next highest tide (which would need to coincide with a storm to raise the water enough for the whale to escape via a narrow passage) - it would have been a month at best, but the story of the whale covers only ten days. Mowat struggled to find means to feed the whale, and protect it from people (whether they were just curious, bored or outright cruel mattered little in the end- they did the whale no good).

It gets set up slowly, introducing the reader to the history of whaling in Newfoundland (and around the world) as well as the location. Mowat had only been in this remote fishing community for five years, seeking a quiet place to live far from "modern society" (he rants a lot against industrialization and modern technology, seems to hate the telephone in particular). Unfortunately his actions in favor of the whale brought all kinds of conflict and ill-feeling, I guess he did not continue living there for long after the incident. In parts the book is almost more a study of human nature (how people responded to the whale's presence and each other's involvement in its plight) than it is about the whale itself. There are some detailed descriptions of its sheer size, calm movements, eerie sounds. Also details on its natural feeding methods (which could hardly be met) and how another fin whale (probably its mate) stayed just outside the inlet to the cove constantly until the whale died. It's a frustrating story to read, because so little could be done, and by the time scientists became interested in the whale it was too late for them to arrive and learn anything. But the book did have an impact on early whale conservation efforts.

Rating: 3/5      239 pages, 1972

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