Whaling's fatal blow

cartoon whaling ship


How graphic images turned world opinion, writes Charlotte Epstein


Rare, remote, and sometimes immense, the whale has featured in a long line of cultural productions as a mythical creature attributed with all manner of awe-inspiring qualities, not least the Bible's figure of Jonah. In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the literary masterpiece of the whaling order, this mystery evoked, with the highly ambiguous figure of the white whale, the malicious, indomitable forces of nature, struggling against which modern man (not woman) made himself.

In the anti-whaling storyline, these very same qualities are mustered to completely opposite effect. In the confrontation between the whalers and the whale, the whalers no longer stand in lieu of humanity at large but rather, they are the deceitful, ruthless, indeed evil agents harbouring no respect for the beauty and harmony of nature. Whales, on the other hand, are magnificent, mysterious creatures which, with few predators in their natural habitat, peacefully wallow in blissful ignorance of the voraciousness that preys upon them. They are the perfect icon of innocence or of the state of nature before it was torn apart by the irruption of evil or corrupt civilisation.

Indeed, whales are just like us, or rather how we would like to be. The anti-whaling storyline emphasises the mammalian characteristics of the whale, as well as other human-like characteristics such as its intelligence or sociability, to draw out our “natural” proximity with the animal and mark the rift with the whalers.

Whaling, on the other hand, represents all the excesses of a dysfunctional, modern society–a society that, in its obsession with growth, knows only to plunder and destroy nature and, eventually, itself.

Crafted against a backdrop of growing social unrest and political radicalism on either side of the Atlantic that fomented a second wave of environmentalism, the anti-whaling storyline cast whaling as the issue that encapsulated the fundamental choice facing us as modern political subjects: to continue along the path of fraying democratic controls and waning political transparency, or to reclaim citizen power and face the need for fundamental social change so as to evolve towards a more sustainable, harmonious relationship with our environment.

Melville’s whale and the anti-whaling storyline draw out two completely opposite ways of representing the same animal. They are useful for separating out the real animal from its representation, which becomes re-articulated into a completely different storyline in the shift from the whaling to the anti-whaling order. This has nothing to do with real whales, which remain far out in the ocean, quite unaffected by this discursive operation. And yet it has very real, practical implications as to whether whales remain untouched or not.

The use of images was key to pinning these new meanings onto the whales. One of the Greenpeace group’s first “image-events”, to borrow a term from the media analyst Kevin DeLuca, marked the founding moment in the emergence of the new storyline.

In the summer of 1974, Greenpeace activists had tracked down a Russian factory ship in the North Pacific. Paul Watson positioned his Zodiac between the harpoon and the whale, while a photographer shot the scene from another Zodiac. Meanwhile, another camera was filming from the deck of their boat, the Phyllis Cormack.

The harpooner fired five feet away from their heads. In the foam a sperm whale lay afloat, and fellow activist Robert Hunter jumped into the water and climbed atop the dead animal to prevent the Russians from claiming it. This, too, was caught on film.

Reflecting on the effects the images would have, Hunter wrote: “As a media campaign, the voyage was already a success. No network would be able to resist such footage, just as no wire service would be able to ignore the story. As a newsman, I knew we had achieved our immediate goal. Soon, images would be going out into hundreds of millions of minds around the world, a completely new set of basic images about whaling.

"Instead of small boats and giant whales, giant boats and small whales; instead of courage killing whales, courage saving whales; David had become Goliath, Goliath was now David; if the mythology of Moby Dick and Captain Ahab had dominated human consciousness about Leviathan for over a century, a whole new age was in the making. Nothing less than a historic turning point seemed to have occurred.”

These images put the viewer into the position of witness to the plight of the whale, a strategy that explicitly drew upon the Quaker religious tradition of bearing witness. The viewer - witness was presented with two options, incarnated in the harpooner and the activist: to shoot or to save.

The images struck beyond any expectation. They were seized upon by the American media, and relayed on television in Canada, Europe, and even Japan. They were said to have moved even the future hunter-president Jimmy Carter, who, in the wake of Richard Nixon, entrenched a long, uninterrupted bipartisan line of American presidents who put their names to the cause.

What activists offered the media, the public, and these presidents was not merely a powerful headline but indeed an entirely new storyline on the relationship between men and whales, and beyond; on the causes of environmental degradation. This storyline soon became engraved as the way of understanding the issue, not least thanks to sheer power of the images that Greenpeace and other environmental groups have to this day continued to feed to the media in an uninterrupted stream.


Charlotte Epstein is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney. This is an edited extract from her book, The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse, MIP Press 2008.