More than 100 Atlantic Canadians turn out to help in sub-zero cold
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia––Farley Mowat, whose 1972 book A Whale for the Killing helped to transform human attitudes toward whales worldwide, would have been gratified by the scene on January 1, 2018 at Rainbow Haven Beach, just east of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
On January 1, 2018, recounted Trevor Kennedy and Colin Freeze for the Toronto Globe & Mail, “Dozens of Nova Scotians – police, firefighters, surfers, but mostly ordinary residents – spent their New Year’s Day using ‘people power’ to save a beached male pilot whale, pulling him back to sea with their hands to save him from death by exposure.”
51 years earlier
Three hundred five miles and 51 years from Rainbow Haven Beach, in Burgeo, Newfoundland, Mowat fought unsuccessfully in January 1967 to save a 70-foot pregnant sei whale from mindless mayhem after she became marooned in a lagoon.
Discovering the whale on January 20, 1967, local men expended almost all the ammunition in Burgeo by recreationally shooting at her, beginning on January 21, but most intensively after attending church services the following day.
The Burgeo men also sliced her back open by running a motorboat over her. She died five days of suffering later.
“A hopeful note for 2018”
Such was not the case at Rainbow Haven Beach.
“As pictures of the beached whale and appeals for help popped up on smartphones,” Kennedy and Freeze wrote, “more than 100 people came to the beach with shovels and blankets to do all they could, even as temperatures hovered at around minus 10 degrees Celsius and frigid tidewaters washed out of the shallow, sand-banked bay.
“Although the rescue effort centered on only one whale – and a relatively small one at that – it strikes a hopeful note for 2018,” Kennedy and Freeze assessed.
The pilot whale was near Cape Breton in mid-winter, abnormally far north for the time of year, as a possible effect of global warming. Whether the pilot whale would survive for long after being rescued was anyone’s guess, as was how he became separated from his family, since pilot whales usually travel in pods.
Who was Farley Mowat?
Whatever the cause of the pilot whale becoming stranding, however, and whatever the outcome of the impromptu rescue effort, it is likely that Mowat would have effusively celebrated the transformation of views toward whales in Atlantic Canada, and toward marine life in general, that the rescue seemed to signify.
Mowat collapsed and died, six days short of his 93rd birthday, on May 6, 2014 at his longtime home in Port Hope, Ontario.
Before the last days of January 1967, Mowat and his wife Claire had expected to spend the rest of their lives in Burgeo, where they had settled in 1962 and where Claire had family. Already the author of eight successful books, Mowat appreciated the remote location, then accessible only by a weekly steam ferry and/or a chartered seaplane.
Never Cry Wolf
There Mowat finished Never Cry Wolf (1963), his best-known and most read of more than 40 books, which have cumulatively sold more than 17 million copies.
Working from observations made as a wildlife researcher for the Canadian government in 1948-1949, Mowat contradicted the then-prevailing beliefs about wolf behavior on multiple points. He was thoroughly denounced by alleged wolf experts who had studied wolves only to find more efficacious ways to exterminate them. But Mowat lived long enough to see himself vindicated on every point by the next several generations of researchers.
“Whenever and wherever men engage in the mindless slaughter of animals (including other men), they attempt to justify their acts by attributing the most vicious or revolting qualities to those they would destroy,” Mowat wrote in Never Cry Wolf. “The less reason there is for the slaughter, the greater the campaign of vilification…We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be—the mythological epitome of a savage, ruthless killer—which is, in reality, no more than the reflected image of ourself.”
During and just after the incident that inspired A Whale for the Killing, the Mowats were ostracized and even threatened by many of their Burgeo neighbors for having exposed and denounced the torment and slow death of the whale.
The Mowats were also denounced and menaced for having allegedly not shared with some of their neighbors several hundred dollars that they were erroneously believed to have received for feeding the whale from Joey Smallwood, prime minister of Newfoundland from 1949 to 1972.
Smallwood and Mowat were in truth in opposite political camps, and apparently never on friendly terms. Mowat had already denounced Smallwood’s focal policies, and each denounced the other many times for various reasons before Smallwood died in 1991.
Biding his time, Mowat favorably portrayed the traditional ways of life of his Newfoundland neighbors in The Rock Within the Sea (1968), but became more critical in The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float (1969), concerning his efforts to restore and sail a leaky schooner.
Exposed commercial whaling
After leaving Burgeo, Mowat furiously denounced Newfoundland attitudes toward wildlife in A Whale for the Killing, made into a 1981 film starring Peter Strauss and Richard Widmark.
But A Whale for the Killing was much more than just an angry book about backward neighbors. Indeed, before even introducing the sei whale he tried to save, Mowat described how Norwegian whalers working from Atlantic Canadian ports had repeatedly hunted out the local whale population, only to return and do it again when, years later, great whales reappeared.
“The winter of 1964-1965 saw the peak and the beginning of the decline of the re-occupation of the south Newfoundland seas by the several species of rorquats [great whales],” Mowat recalled.
“Word of their return had spread all too rapidly until it came to the ears of the Norwegians, who by that time, in company with the British, Japanese, Dutch, and Russians, had swept the Antarctic waters almost clean.”
“My discovery of America”
Mowat ironically did not mention American whalers, who remained active until 1969. Accepting a 1985 invitation to speak at California State University/Chico, Mowat was denied entry into the U.S. for reasons apparently associated with his opposition to hunting.
Attributing his exclusion to the influence of the gun lobby, Mowat never again visited the U.S., detailing his reasons why in My Discovery of America, published later in 1985.
Mowat while writing A Whale for the Killing envisioned Americans as allies in stopping the depredations of the whaling fleet directed by Karl Karlsen, “a financially well-established Norwegian immigrant to Nova Scotia, [who] set up a company to exploit the herds of harp seals who drop their pups––whitecoats, they are called––each spring on the pack ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”
Saving the whales
In 1964, Mowat detailed, Karlsen “expanded the plant to handle whales,” killing at least 2,176 fin, sei, sperm, minke, and humpback whales through 1971, most of them before the winter of 1966-1967, when a mere five whales were seen in the Burgeo area.
A Whale for the Killing both begins and ends with extensive pleas on behalf of all whales. Public sympathy for whales, building into the “Save the whales!” movement, began to be rallied in 1969 by The Year of the Whale, a faintly fictionalized account of the first year in the life of a sperm whale, authored by former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Victor B. Scheffer, but A Whale for the Killing multiplied the momentum of the then young cause many times over.
A dozen years passed before Mowat returned to the themes of A Whale for the Killing in his angriest book of all, Sea of Slaughter (1984), tracing commercial and recreational marine life massacres in Atlantic Canada from the arrival of explorer John Cabot in 1497.
Saving the seals
Sea of Slaughter focused on a plea for the end of the annual Atlantic Canadian harp seal hunt, mentioned only in passing in A Whale for the Killing.
Sporadically attracting protest from animal advocates at least since 1900, the harp seal hunt had between 1972 and 1984 emerged as an international cause celebré, largely through the work of Brian Davies, who founded the International Fund for Animal Welfare as the “Save the Seals Fund” in 1969.
Increasingly involved thereafter in organized advocacy for animals and nature, Mowat for the last 25 years of his life served as international chair of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, begun by former Greenpeace anti-sealing campaign leader Paul Watson in 1977 after Greenpeace dropped opposition to sealing and the fur industry.
Sea Shepherd flagship
Watson honored Mowat in 2002 by renaming the then-Sea Shepherd flagship the Farley Mowat. Boarded and seized off the coast of Newfoundland in April 2008 by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans for allegedly approaching sealing vessels too closely, the Farley Mowat was eventually sold to pay docking fees, and was reportedly scrapped in June 2013.
Mowat himself meanwhile posted bail for captain Alex Cornelissen and first mate Peter Hammarstedt, who were jailed in Sydney, Nova Scotia, and were subsequently convicted of a variety of related offenses in absentia.
Mowat did not live to see the end of the Atlantic Canada seal hunt, but while it continues, with an annual quota set in recent years at an all-time high of 400,000, it has dwindled to a vestagal anachronism since the World Trade Organization in November 2013 upheld a 2010 European Union ban on seal pelt and product imports.
Only 4,460 commercial sealing licenses were issued in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2017. Sealing in 2016, the most recent year for which monetary figures are available, generated only $1.6 million in product and byproduct sales, with foreign sales amounting to less than $1 million.
The Canadian government meanwhile spent $2.5 million to promote and oversee the seal hunt. The hunt probably would have ended long since as economically unviable, if any of the three major Canadian political parties could be assured of winning a Parliamentary majority without winning substantial support from Newfoundland.
Despite the lack of markets for pelts, as many as 66,000 seals were killed in 2017, and though the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans does not appear to have announced the 2018 sealing quota yet, many thousands more are likely to be killed in 2018.
Mowat would remain disappointed in his former Atlantic Canadian neighbors over that.