Can the whales really survive? If someone reading "The Last Whales" were somehow ignorant of the myriad dangers that whales and dolphins now face in their battle for survival, he might think that Canadian poet Lloyd Abbey had conjured up a Stephen King-style account to scare whales out of their blubber. While Abbey's work is fictional, the novel's background is grounded in grisly truth and more or less plausible projections.
In his story, whales were ancient tribes of ocean dwellers that once boasted hundreds of thousands of members. As man came along and developed a craving for whale products, the hunters set up whaling stations and eventually sent out fleets of factory ships to intercept whales passing along their age-old migratory paths. While some alert whales were able to detect the distinctive engine sounds of catcher boats at a distance, most of the giants lost in the reverie of gorging on krill after a long winter's fast eventually fell prey to a harpooner's ambush.
Abbey's principal characters are a few whales who have thus far survived this holocaust by consciously breaking the whale cultural norms. They have abandoned the "macabre roulette of summer feeding among whale boats" to seek asylum at the ecological margins of their realms.
Forfeiting all sociality with one's kind is severe, but the reality is that "only by avoiding life--the Antarctic meetings, the ecstasies--could whales hope to endure." Thus a pair of blue whales who are refugees from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, respectively, home in on each other's deep calls resonating across the Atlantic Equator.
Although the old blue whale bull has been "lost in his private hell" from painful parasites and is still grieving for his lost mate and calf, the young blue whale cow tempts him to forget his suffering for a time. "She rolled on her back and felt the electrifying touch of his flukes and pectorals against her." After consummation, the female determines to return to Antarctica to make up for lost feeding time. The bull wishes to follow his new mate, but the "Southern Hemisphere's foreign stars" and an "ancient fear deeper than reason" initially block his pursuit.
A veteran Southern Hemisphere fin whale adopts the role of matchmaker to help the aging bull overcome his resistance to passing beyond the equatorial precipice; she also tries to guide the female blue away from the danger zone to the south. Dolphin comrades released from human captivity complete the mixed band of transient cetaceans.
Sharks and orcas (killer whales) are potent but usually rare natural enemies that whales have to contend with, but the gauntlet that man throws down for whales to survive is even more formidable. In addition to the plague of harpoon boats, they are shot at and driven into coves to be butchered alive with long knives.
Incessant ship noise obscures long-distance communication. Heavy metals, pesticides and radiation slowly poison them. Gill and purse-seine nets snare dolphins and condemn them to horrible drowning deaths. Whales venturing too far south go blind if they catch a direct glimpse of the sun unshielded by a diminished layer of ozone. Even after man has done himself in, the lingering impact of the greenhouse effect and nuclear winter leave the marine ecosystem devastated, and a legacy of mutations threatens to render recovery of future generations impossible.
Abbey has clearly done meticulous research on many facets of whale biology and the marine environment in preparing this book. While some of this natural history is interesting, an overload of it creates a serious drag on the flow of the poignant and important story he has crafted. Interjection of technical information during some passages describing sensitive whale communications is more distracting than informative.
While "The Last Whales" is not convincing through its aura of scientific credibility, I greatly appreciated some of Abbey's highly subjective descriptions of how a few particular whales enjoyed their lives and reacted to the social disintegration of their race. The musings of the old fin whale, for example, eerily capsulize the dark days of whaling: "As if they were shell-shocked, the whales had fed silently, bereft of relish or ceremony, as if the joy of life and the sense of living itself had been shot to pieces by the guns. . . . Barely acknowledging each other, they fed at a distance, never touching, never calling, insensible of play or celebration, as if the men, even while absent, had entered and eviscerated them until only the fear remained." The fin whale had found a way to survive, but her mind had "closed over like a scab, shut tight like an eye that has seen too much killing."
Scientists have demonstrated the tremendous complexity of whale vocalizations, but we do not know yet how or what whales actually think, feel, or communicate with each other. Whether or not whales really feel the way Abbey speculates, however, is not important. His main characters inspire empathy by making whatever sacrifices are required to keep the race going for one more generation.
Abbey apparently believes (as do I) that we need to rekindle as much human empathy as possible, for without it, we will surely drift into a terminal mode of selfish survival.
As it stands now, Abbey's hypothesis--that whales may survive only if the evolutionary meteor of the human species burns out sooner rather than later--may be not be so farfetched.