Friday 26 September 2014

The Song of the Whale and my Visit to Biarritz by Carol Drinkwater

Many years ago, in a period of my life that is almost history now, while I was filming the TV series All Creatures Great and Small, I was invited to take part in a Save the Whale rally which was to be held in Trafalgar Square. It was a Sunday. A high stage had been erected in the centre of the square and each of us was to present our reading or give our speech to a bank of microphones that relayed the message to thousands and thousands of people who had gathered to support the event. I read an extract from Moby Dick. The conservationist and television presenter, Sir Peter Scott, was the main focus of the occasion. He was the chairman and founder of the World Wildlife Fund International, an organisation that I had aligned myself with back then. I was particularly interested in its conservation of threatened marine life and habitats as I had recently become a qualified scuba diver.

Sir Peter Scott 1909 - 1989
I have tried to date the year this rally took place, but I have failed. The end of the seventies or early eighties, no later. Aside from the fact that it was the first and only time I have ever appeared on the BBC evening News at Ten, what I most remember about this event was Sir Peter’s introduction and a recording he had made of the song of humpbacked whales. Try to picture it: a fine clear starlit evening, possibly a dozen of us high on a stage surrounded by banks of microphones and floodlights, the sky clear, and what seemed like half of London standing at our feet. Sir Peter steps forward, introduces his work with WWF and then switches on his recording of the whales singing. Recalling it today still sends shivers up my spine. Because we were in an open space, the recorded songs rose into the evening. The audience were utterly silent, as were we. These great mammals were communicating with one another and on this special occasion with us. Today, we can Google and find recordings on the internet but back then, not. Sir Peter told me later a most extraordinary fact that has stayed with me all my life. When conservationists began to study whales in earnest they found that each whale travels oceans throughout any given year and then makes its way to its mating waters. No matter which route it has taken, no matter how separated it might have been from others of its own species, when they come together again, each whale has a new verse/stanza/addition to its song and that added unit is the same for all whales. Somehow or other, across oceans it would appear that the whales have stayed in touch, in communication with one another, have extended their song, created their narrative together.
I am still awed by this information.

In our twenty-first century world of Facebook, emails, blogs etc, such a far-reaching ability to communicate might not seem so remarkable, but it is. I was already respectful of the majesty of these cetaceans, still, Sir Peter, on that exceptional evening, blew my perception of nature wide open. He transmitted to me his respect for the natural world and I have been grateful to him for that gift ever since.

I have just returned from a work trip to Biarritz. For those who don’t know it, it sits at the south-western edge of France, bordering Spain and overlooking the wild Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the great surfing spots of the world. It is Basque country first, French second. The locals are fiercely proud of their Basque language and heritage and I determined that during this visit I would try to find out a little more about the location and its people. The town itself has a fascinating history and was made popular as a holiday resort by Napoléon III when he built his beloved Empress Eugénie a summer villa overlooking the rocks and surf in 1855. Even after the fall of Napoleon’s dynasty in 1870, Biarritz remained a fashionable summer spot. The French state, once again republican, took possession of the Empress’s possessions, a bank took the villa and turned it into a casino before it became, in 1893, a prestigious hotel visited by royalty, including Queen Victoria.

I paid a visit to the town’s Musée de la Mer where, extraordinarily, they had a small exhibition on about the history of whaling. Aside from sitting for half an hour with the seals, this was where I spent most of my afternoon. 

Aside from Japan which has a millennia-long whaling history, the origins of organized whale hunting begun here along this Basque coast, some one thousand years ago. The first mention of Basque whaling is recorded as 1059. At its peak, there were forty-nine ports with whaling establishments along the Basque coast. It was a dangerous occupation with the fishermen, whale-hunters, setting out to sea in small boats with harpoons. Their principle target was the North Atlantic right whale, caught during its migrating period between November and March. During this season, men were positioned in on-shore watchtowers (vigias) near the coast or in the lower Pyrénées. When a whale’s blow or spout was spotted, the watchmen lit fires to alert the sailors in the hunting boats to set off to sea.

This lighthouse in Biarritz stands on the spot of what was once a vigias, a stone watchtower.

Up to the seventeenth century, the Basque hunters had the territory to themselves and hunted off their own shores but fewer whales began to pass by – they had been overhunted and, rather shockingly, the hunters had been targeting calf whales because they were easier to catch. Possibly, also, the mammals were smart enough to eschew this route. Once the right whales were gone, the whalers were obliged to travel greater distances to catch their prey and they made for Greenland and Norway where vast schools of whales were to be found. Sometimes, the whalers were away for months on end. Around the year 1600, a Dutch explorer, William Barents, discovered the island of Spitzbergen off the coast of Norway. This was rich whaling territory and before long both the Dutch and British were sending fleets to these icy waters to harpoon the great beasts. Originally, they looked to the Basque fishermen to teach them the technique. In 1612, the Basque towns of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Saint-Sebastian sent twelve whaling boats, but they were soon seen off by both the British and the Dutch who wanted all for themselves.

The technique used by both the British and the Dutch was to send small boats with roped harpoons to the whale, which once killed was dragged back to the mother ship where its skin and blubber was stripped off and boiled down to make the whale oil. Whale oil was a very valuable commodity. It was originally used for lighting (long after olive oil had lit the streets of such great cities as Rome and Alexandria, I must add). Later, the oil went into cosmetics, soap, margarine etc.
So competitive did the industry become that Britain and Holland almost went to war over who had the territorial rights to these waters. And then the Americans got involved. Their boats set sail from ports such as Nantucket, sailed huge distances and were often at sea for up to four years. (When I read this, my thoughts were with the wives and children of those men, what an existence.)

The Basque whalers were being left out. By the nineteenth century, the commercial trade that they had excelled at and lived off had become moribund along this Atlantic coast of France and Spain and the right whale was gone. Only five or six sightings were noted throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, factory ships were being sent to sea, by the Norwegians, Americans, Japanese. They were hunting all whales indiscriminately and would kill the beasts and produce the oil on board. The numbers of whales hunted was alarming. Thirty-three thousand blue whales were recorded as destroyed in the nineteenth century, for example.

Coincidentally, as I write this on 15th September 2014, the 65th meeting of the IWC is opening in Slovenia. What is the IWC? Founded in 1986, the IWC is a global intergovernmental body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. Japan and Iceland continue to hunt and slaughter whales and are regularly flouting the internationally agreed bans. As well as keeping whale catch limits under review, the Commission is working to promote the recovery of depleted whale populations. They are creating sanctuaries where commercial whaling is prohibited. Their work is essential if whale populations are to be maintained and certain species not become extinct.

As I took in all this information and so much more at the fine sea museum in Biarritz, I realised that the International Whaling Commission was founded several years after our rally in Trafalgar Square. Sir Peter Scott and the WWF were instrumental in creating awareness, in changing the course of marine history. That evening was a moment in that history whose impact I could not have appreciated at the time as I listened to that haunting, never-to-be-forgotten song.


Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you for a wonderful post. I have tears in my eyes. One of my life's ambitions is to see go whale-watching.

I also have a great affection for the Basque people - the journey of their movements in pre-history as well as their language has been imposable to trace. Their history in general has been marginalised. But I'll never forget a Basque festival I witnessed. It lasted all night. The music and the costume, not to mention their energy were amazing.

Sue Purkiss said...

Wonderful! Off to YouTube in a minute to find some whale songs. I had no idea whaling started with the Basques - I'd imagined it started in the North.

A couple of years ago, we went to an aquarium in La Rochelle, and I was amazed by the brilliantly coloured variety of marine life. (Never having been much of a swimmer, much less a diver!) A whole other world, which we are too careless of. Thanks for this, Carol.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this -

Kate Lord Brown said...

Fascinating post, Carol - how extraordinary that they all learn a new verse. Am I right in thinking that Japan has gone back on their suspension of whaling? Perhaps you have seen the film 'The Cove'? Heartbreaking slaughter of dolphins, but had some interesting evidence about whaling practices.

Tuscan Tony said...

Wonderful stuff Carol, the new verse every year thing is extraordinary. Thank you.

Clare Mulley said...

Lovely post Carol, thank you. I think I remember being awestruck as a child to hear that whales have identification calls - names - and these include shared family names. I am not sure if this is true, so must now look it up, along with whale song.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Thank you for the comments. Clare, I didn't know that about shared family names. That is marvellous. I must try and find out more about it. What a pity Sir Peter is not alive to share his knowledge. Kate, no, I missed 'The Cove' although it remains on my list "To See". Sue, one of the real mind blasts, and that is what it really is, is being underwater in an area rich with coral and fish because the colours are brilliant and there is a quietude and a completely different rhythm. I was so taken in by the sheer vitality of everything beneath the sea that I nearly went way out of my diving depth, just following one beautiful creature after another. David Bellamy used to say that for him, lone of life's greatest joys was swimming with whales. I have never done that. I have swum amongst sharks, porpoises, dolphins but not whales, alas. Whale watching, Sally, is well worth making time for.

Ruan Peat said...

once while sailing round cape wrath the sailing boat I was on was suddenly surrounded by whales! a large family pod, popping up and swimming round us. The largest was longer then the Ketch! over 44' while the smallest was just a small youngster. the two things that struck me was the grace and smoothness combined with the rank smell of the blow hole air. Most amazingly it is still in my memory nearly 20 years on. We had their attention for maybe twenty minutes to half an hour but the time was too short and the memory still clear!
beautiful creatures. Thank you for reminding me how amazing they are.

Karen Maitland said...

Wonderful post. I can just imagine the effect of listening to that their song that night in London. I've seen whales only once from a tiny ex-fishing boat off Greenland. It was awe-inspiring to see that huge body arch out of the water as it slid alongside the boat. The men who first hunted them from such small craft with handheld weapons must have had immense courage, but equally it is heartbreaking to think of the pain, fear and grief of those gentle giant animals.

Karen Maitland said...
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Mary Hoffman said...

I have watched whales and porpoises, from a big boat off the Massachusetts coast and been in a tiny rubber dinghy up close to dolphins in Panama but not had experiences like yours, Carol. Lovely post.

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

Ah, Carol. That's my Uncle Peter. Thank you for a lovely memory to weave in. He only ever really wanted to talk if it was about animals.

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...
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Becca McCallum said...

I didn't know about the Basque connection with whaling. Thanks for such a detailed and interesting post. When you said that you thought of the wives and children of the whalers, I thought of something I had seen on pinterest - link below- it's the story of a a young girl who was on a whaling ship with her father and mother. I don't know if you've heard of it, but it's fascinating to read her journal (and see how her handwriting develops!)

Unknown said...

Such a lovely post Carol, thank you! I have always been one to support any type of "no-whaling" rallies or events. I've watched all creatures great and small since I was a little girl and from that, adopted a great love for animals! I grew up watching you on my television, thus I wanted to say thank you for being a big inspiration and role model in my life thus far.