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A story about whales and humans

As well as working for WDC, I write books for young people. Stories; about the sea, about whales, about conservation. I’ve seen how fiction and non-fiction can inspire and move and I’ve come to believe that these forms are not so different, that when it comes to the next chapter of whale conservation, it is not really facts, but stories, that are vital.

Let me show you, through three short tales.

Once upon a time, only a couple of centuries ago, the ocean teemed with whales. But humans developed an appetite for them, that quickly became insatiable.  Whales didn’t just provide meat, but oil to grease the workings of clocks and machines, fuel to light the streets, blubber for soap. There were endless numbers of whales; endless ways to exploit their flesh and ever-newer ways to kill and process them.

Sperm whale group with baby Christopher Swann (Large)

But then, in the 1960s researchers discovered their songs; intricate symphonies, travelling across the ocean.  They discovered too not only the complexity of whale brains, but of their minds. And, that their number was not endless after all.  Perhaps, some people wondered, what we did to the whales was wrong. But what point in wondering?  The monstrous machine driving the whales’ destruction was simply too big, too well-oiled and above all, too hungry. There was too much money to be made, for the world to think of stopping.

But …

In the 1970s some long-haired eco-activists took to the water in a creaky old ship. In spite of the facts, in spite of the hopelessness.  They headed to where the whalers went about their grisly business and in tiny boats, on freezing, heaving seas, put themselves between the harpoon and the whale and said, simply: ‘Stop.’

A decade later, the moratorium on commercial whaling came into being (though as we shall see, that is not the end of the story).

Let me tell you another story, or rather narrative …

Let’s say I am Norwegian. My ancestors were whalers.  And to whaling communities, whales provide not only food, but employment, culture, purpose and identity.

Norway fisher - redcharlie

Yes, there are species that need protection, but the minke whales we hunt are numerous and we do so sustainably.  Each one we hunt has a better life than any factory-farmed pig.  Yet there are those who hold a banner in one hand and a bacon sandwich in the other. It is we who connect with nature, we who understand it, in our bones.  And we will not be told by affluent liberals how to live our lives.

The ‘facts’ upon which these stories are based are the same. Which is more compelling?  Which is ‘true’?

It depends on who you are.  I believe the first story, but I understand the second, no matter how misguided and full of holes it is.

What I’m trying to illustrate here is that facts, whilst important are not what make people believe what they believe or act as they do, and facts are not what will inspire people to create the change whales need now, more than ever.

So, let me finish with another story.

The whale is not saved.  In spite of the ‘ban,’ in spite of the recovery of some species, storm clouds gather. Vast, ‘lost’ ghost nets, float across the seas.  Trawlers dredge life from the ocean floor. Plastic chokes the currents. Ships cut across the ancient whale pathways, their engines drown out whale songs.

Which is bad for whales and bad for us. Because without whales, phytoplankton will not be fertilised and the great carbon soaking cycle that churns and swarms like a breathing, organic, life-making machine, may grind to a halt.

Yet there are those (dare I say, like WDC … like you) who refuse to accept that ending, just as those long-haired eco-pirates did, back in 1975.

You see, the nets and the plastic and the boats, really are just the facts. Not the story.

I wonder what will happen next?

Last Whale_shareable


Chris Vick is WDC’s director of strategic development and a Carnegie shortlisted author of several books for young people. The Guardian called his most recent, The Last Whale, ‘a hard-hitting, beautifully written conservationist call to arms.’

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