There is a myth that is told by the Lummi, a First Nation people of the eastern Atlantic seaboard in North America. They say that in the beginning, whale people walked the earth. When they heard that a more fragile being was coming they decided that to take care of this new being and not hurt them, they would go into the water. So the whale people sacrificed their place on the land to as not to hurt the new human people. When the human people heard of this they gave thanks to the whale people and promised to remember them. From another ancient culture, a Mesopotamian myth speaks of whales walking the earth before the land sank into the oceans. The whales took with them their stories and their wisdom and these story-keepers became symbols of deep knowledge and guardians of communication. For thousands of years, the whale was perceived in some cultures as having once walked the land and, in 1981, in the Sulaiman Mountains of Pakistan, a 50-million-year-old fossil was discovered that gave credence to these ancient myths. It was a creature, now named Pakicetus, that had lived, part on land and part at sea – the first of a number of fossils discovered that showed the return of early cetaceans to the ocean. The myth of the whale has come full-circle and the wisdom of the ancients seems to be vindicated.
By the 1960s whales had been hunted to the brink of extinction of some species. When finally humans heard the song of the Humpback Whale, and realised the sophistication of these great animals, the tide started to turn. Their ancient, ever-changing song was heard and we listened, and acted. Maybe other stories are dismissed and other songs are going unheard that we are not yet sophisticated enough to hear.
More than 40 years after the first moratorium, the whaling look-outs of the Azores remain manned and boats still leave Scandinavian shores in search of these magnificent animals. But instead of harpoons, the boats now carry tourists. Iceland recently reported that in 2014 the whale-watching industry surpassed that of the fishing industry, attracting some 100,000 tourists each year. Preserving thousands of years of tradition, the IWC have also recognised Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, which has restricted whaling to indigenous peoples for ‘the cultural and subsistence needs of their people’. The populations of large whales are on the increase and the oceans are once again filling with the songs and acoustics of an animal with so much in common and so little like us.