On Whales

Dear Readers, the most recent edition of Granta, probably the UK’s leading literary magazine, is featuring travel writing, and the editorial discusses why, in an age of climate change, this has become so much more complicated. The first Granta travel edition was back in 1984, and featured such luminaries as Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. There is a kind of rueful acceptance that those were more innocent, less aware days – the current editor, William Atkins, describes how

the travel writer of myth – Bowie knife in one pocket, Moleskine in another, off to Patagonia – is a stubborn ghost, and even in the 1980s, often came across as a revenant of the 1890s: alarmingly erudite, unflappable, prone to affectionate generalisations, and indistinguishable in all but style from the emissaries of colonial power that went before‘.

A little harsh, but still, there was a sense that only particular people were allowed to write about travel, or indeed about nature – Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful description of ‘the Lone Enraptured Male’ nature-writer, striding across the Scottish hillside,  has stuck for a reason. It is a pleasure to see the writing of people who haven’t very often been heard – women of colour such as Jini Reddy, young people such as Dara McAnulty – becoming popular, and bringing a whole new perspective to our experience of the world. There are so many contradictions and complications involved in writing about our experiences of other places, people and animals, and we will always leave something out. Sadly, it’s the something that we don’t notice and take into account that makes all the difference.

The first piece in Granta is by Bathsheba Demuth, and it’s called ‘On Mistaking Whales’. Demuth travels to Chukotka on the Bering Sea to look for gray whales. The Chukchi and Yupik people who live here have hunted the whales from the shore for centuries, the animal being one of the few sources of protein for those who make their homes on these hard shores. The people are still allowed to hunt 140 gray whales every year, though according to the locals there are not enough skilled hunters to take that many, although the villagers need the meat.

The whales that have made this epic journey may well have begun their lives on the other side of the planet, in the lagoons around Baja California. In 2008 I made my own journey to these shallow seas where the gray whales come to give birth. The ‘friendly whales’ are famous because the calves in particular seem to choose to interact on occasion with people , though always with their mothers watching. One calf we saw was as playful as a puppy, frolicking around the whole boat until she’d seen everyone. On other days, we wouldn’t see a single whale. They were making a decision, for reasons of their own, to interact or not interact. These were whales that were hunted almost to extinction, even in these lagoons where they came for sanctuary. They were known as ‘devil fish’ because enraged mother whales would attack the boats. Now, they come voluntarily to investigate what these strange people in their bright-orange lifejackets are doing. The few days that we spent in the lagoon showed me something that I’m pondering still – the sheer unknowability of another creature’s mind, and how every interpretation I cared to put upon what was going on could only be filtered through my own, twentieth-century, Western mind.

Demuth comes upon a gray whale that has been killed by hunters. The hunters are cutting up the meat; one speaks about how the fat is the only thing that makes his grandmother well. And they talk about ‘stink whales’. In the past decade, the hunters explain, some gray whales have developed a strange smell, like iodine. Sometimes the breath of the animals stinks of it, and the hunters avoid them – those who eat this meat develop terrible diarrhoea, and even the dogs won’t eat it. The hunters surmise that it must be something that the whales are eating, but in January 2019 there is an ‘extreme mortality event’, with 384 gray whales washing ashore from Mexico to Alaska and an estimated 7000 killed so far. Many were emaciated, their stomachs full of a ‘black dough’. The cause could be lack of food due to pollution or climate change affecting the whale’s food supply. It could be directly caused by pollutants. It is almost undoubtedly caused by humans.

Demuth gives talks in the USA to audiences about her experiences with the whales, and has taken to ‘warning people about my carnivorous content’. People are horrified at the photos of the whale killed by the Chukchi hunters, and yet feel somehow divorced from whatever is killing thousands of whales. She quotes one woman as asking ‘Wasn’t it simply too much, too  much to  bear‘?

I should have said: what we call wealthy society exists in a condition that disarticulates appetite and sustenance from their sources, from the beings who make our bones and our homes. Don’t confuse the distance civilisation keeps from death with the end of dying (my emphasis)’. The land where you live, in close focus, might present another way to arrange the fragments of the past into a story’. 

The article doesn’t end with any neat answers, and neither will I. But this was a most thought-provoking piece, and I suspect that this issue of Granta will provide lots more. The title, by the way, is ‘Should We Have Stayed At Home?’ Good question.

The link to the Granta website is here, though issue 157 isn’t up yet. See if you can persuade someone to buy you a subscription for Christmas if you love good writing.



6 thoughts on “On Whales

  1. sllgatsby

    Yes, we Westerners, who have always thought of ourselves as the pinnacle of civilization, who have colonized, criticized, robbed and anihilated those who couldn’t defend themselves; we are quick to criticize indigenous hunters who hunt to eat, while we greedily suck up an unfair share of food and other resources, and pollute freely. I can’t think of less self-aware and more self-righteous group.

    I am glad that travel writing is changing. I have avoided reading it for decades because of its traditionally obnoxious voice. Hearing marginalized voices is long overdue.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Yep, there’s so often something patronising about it, and uncomprehending of the complexity of what’s being observed. Travel doesn’t necessarily broaden the mind for sure!

  2. Andrea Stephenson

    Interesting thoughts. I would have struggled to see the whale killed, but then just last night I was thinking about an advert for a TV programme I’d read where the presenter tried dog, which led me on a whole convoluted thought about why that seems so wrong, when cows, sheep, pigs, etc. are just as engaging. I think if we travel, especially outside of the wealthy west, we’re always going to view things in a patronising way, much as we try not to. I used to enjoy travel writing, now I prefer nature writing that is closer to home, but it does sometimes seem like an elite community of people who all know one another.


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