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March 30th 2009 print

Philippa Martyr

Whale songs

Members of parliament caught attending strip-joints in foreign cities can argue that magnetic field deviations caused them confusion.

Why do whales and other marine mammals beach themselves? The various hypotheses are: they may be sick or hurt; illness or parasites may affect their sense of direction; magnetic field deviations or unusual coastline formations cause them confusion; their reference points may wrongly lead them to believe that deeper water lies in the direction of the beach; they may be caught off guard by the falling tide in shallow estuaries; they may simply be following a confused leader; or they may be swimming to the aid of an already stranded whale that is sending off a distress call. 

And, as we know from last week at Hamelin Bay, they have a way of returning to shore to beach themselves. Perhaps they were following the Pied Piper. And where’s that whale whisperer when you really need him?

In a year which has seen more rubbish talked about Darwinism than in any year previous, the ‘laws’ of survival of the fittest are not being observed in this case. What is even odder is that they are being ignored by those who shout the loudest about human interference in the natural environment.

Once upon a time – childhood flashback to the mid-1970s – there was an expression used in cases like this, namely “let nature take its course”. Savaged magpies found in the back garden were treated according to ancient Anglo-Celtic traditions: dispatched mercifully and quickly by the most senior male relative with the traditional implement (spade or axe). Given a decent burial under the rose bushes, the animal was out of its misery, the ecosystem had benefited from the blood and bone, and the senior male relative acquired a certain aura of potency mixed with sympathy. All very culture-building. 

In the UK, the Independent reported on 25 March this year that whales who beach themselves in Britain will now be put out of their misery instead of being returned to the ocean. Marine experts and animal welfare groups have chosen this as the more humane option, because research has indicated that refloated whales usually die from dehydration and kidney failure before they return to deeper waters. 

One expert said, “All the blood samples we’ve taken have shown the same picture of dehydration, kidney damage and severe muscle damage. Every stranded whale should ideally have a vet in assistance. We have a choice either to refloat them as quickly as possible or euthanize them by lethal injection, and that, usually, is the best decision.” It’s also the cheapest; the whale “rescue” at Hamelin Bay has run into the thousands of dollars already.

Elderly people can die alone and be left undiscovered for up to a year (does anyone remember Jorge Chambe-Coloma in Sydney in January 2008?), with absolutely no-one in a wetsuit rushing to their aid and tipping buckets of good health care and adequate socialisation over them. But pensioners are not photogenic; they do not frolic in the open seas and make spray with their fins. (If they do, they are very quickly told to stop being so embarrassing.) 

Why, in a country which has a widespread cultural acceptance of ‘mercy killing’ for undesirable and unwanted humans, do we insist on saving animals which are clearly very determined to kill themselves? (this one goes in the Great Unanswered Questions basket, along with why we have at the same time abandoned capital punishment.) Life is apparently now prioritised according to the gold standard of cuteness: if people get a kick out of helping you, you get helped. If not, you die alone. 

When I was in the UK I worked for a homeless drop-in centre in Oxford – a city with a suspiciously large number of homeless people, none of whom had Oxfordshire accents. While I was there, a scandal broke in which it was revealed that homeless people were being given one-way bus or train tickets by surrounding city councils, to go to Oxford and enjoy the excellent facilities provided there for the homeless. 

So perhaps refloating beached whales is a way for similarly beleaguered councils to deal with a similarly smelly problem. By all means, push them back in. If they survive, great. If not, then hopefully they’ll beach themselves further down the coast, on someone else’s jurisdiction, and cost someone else a lot of money to clean up.

I find the various reasons for whales beaching themselves absolutely fascinating as potential defences in court. “Your Honour, the defendant was under the influence of parasites which affected his sense of direction, which is why he drove his car at high speed through a red light.” Members of parliament caught attending strip-joints in foreign cities can argue that magnetic field deviations caused them confusion. We have also recently waxed sanctimonious about certain CEOs who have fled sinking industrial ships in very expensive lifeboats. It’s clear that their reference points wrongly led them to believe that greater profits lay in collapsing markets. Or were they simply following a confused leader? They were definitely caught off guard by the falling dollar. Lethal injections of cash, anyone?