Young Newfoundlanders rescue seven stranded pilot whales near scene of “A Whale For The Killing”
EMBREE, Newfoundland––The best news in 2021 both for harp seals and gray seals in Atlantic Canada and for pilot whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins in the Faroe Islands, 2,000 miles east across the North Atlantic, might in the long run be the fate of eight pilot whales who in the wee hours of September 22, 2021 became stranded at low tide near Embree, Newfoundland.
Thin ice all but ends Atlantic Canada seal hunt
The news otherwise for seals in Atlantic Canada has been distinctly mixed.
On the one hand, clubbing and shooting baby seals on the ice floes near the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off Newfoundland, and along the Labrador front has all but ended. Despite a quota set at 400,000 by the Canadian government, Newfoundland sealers landed the remains of only 440 seals in 2020 and reportedly far fewer in 2021.
On the other hand, ice floes were scarce both springs.
Before 2010, ice sheets failed to form in the Gulf of St. Lawrence only once on record, in 1958. Then it happened two years in a row, in 2010 and 2011; happened again in 2016 and 2017; and has now happened two years in a row for the third time in only eleven years, a clear indication of global warming.
Seals need ice
Headlined CBC reporter Meg Roberts on May 12, 2021, “Hunters worry about fate of seal pups as ice thins beneath them.”
If seals lack access to solid ice, where they can birth and nurse their pups, there may soon be no pups for sealers to club.
Cautiously exulted the International Fund for Animal Welfare, built around opposition to the Atlantic Canada seal hunt, beginning in 1968, “While in the early 2000s, sealers regularly killed around a third of a million seals a year, the number of seals hunted has been in steep decline over the past 15 years.”
What no one really knows for sure is whether seal hunting might make a comeback if ice and market conditions ever again permit it.
The news from the Faroe Islands for pilot whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins, meanwhile, was recently worse than ever before.
Faroe Islanders are known to have frequently driven pilot whales and dolphins into shallow waters for slaughter at least since 1584.
Local tradition holds that the practice began soon after Vikings settled the Faroe Islands circa 800-900 CE.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society observers reported that 1,306 pilot whales and dolphins were killed within 63 days during the summer of 2013.
Worst year yet
That appeared to be the bloodiest year on recent record until Faroe Islanders on September 19, 2021 killed 1,428 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, up from just 35 in 2020.
Olavur Sjurdarberg, chairman of the Faroese Pilot Whale Hunt Association, told media that he feared bad publicity about the dolphin massacre would increase global opposition to the annual massacre of about 1,000 pilot whales.
The Faroe Islands are a self-governing territory of Denmark. Mainland Denmark, the southernmost part of Scandinavia, was the world’s leading producer of mink pelts, until COVID-19 all but wiped out the industry.
Where is Embree, Newfoundland?
Three days after the Faroe Islands slaughter of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, an Embree town worker reported having seen eight stranded pilot whales to Ryan Collier, a resource enforcement officer with the Newfoundland & Labrador Fisheries, Forestry & Agriculture Department.
Embree, population 701, is so small, isolated, and obscure even in Newfoundland that CBC Radio usually identifies it as “north of Lewisporte,” a town of barely 3,400.
The one Embree visitor attraction is a wharf leading out to the hulk of the British sailing corvette Calypso, in service from 1902 to 1916, abandoned and burned in 1968 after 30 years of use as a storage vessel for coal and salt and then sixteen years as an idle hulk.
Time was, not so very long ago, when the eight stranded pilot whales would have been seen by most Newfoundlanders as free meat, bait, or just an opportunity for brutal sport.
But six to eight hours’ driving time and 54 years of cultural progress separate Embree in 2021, along the rugged north coast of Newfoundland, just south of the Labrador Front, from Burgeo on the south coast as it was from 1962 to 1967, when author Farley Mowat (1921-2014) and his wife Claire lived there.
While in Burgeo, Mowat wrote his most influential book, Never Cry Wolf (1963), collected the background for The Rock Within the Sea (1968) and The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float (1969), and fought unsuccessfully in January 1967 to save a 70-foot pregnant sei whale from mindless mayhem after she became marooned in a lagoon.
A Whale For The Killing
Discovering the whale on January 20, 1967, local men expended almost all the ammunition in Burgeo by recreationally shooting at her, most intensively after attending church services on January 22, 1967.
The Burgeo men also sliced her back open by running a motorboat over her. She died five days of suffering later.
Shocked and furious, the Mowats sold their home and moved to Port Hope, Ontario.
There, Mowat wrote A Whale for the Killing, made into a 1981 film starring Peter Strauss and Richard Widmark, and Sea of Slaughter (1984).
Sea of Slaughter
Sea of Slaughter traced commercial and recreational marine life massacres in Atlantic Canada from the arrival of explorer John Cabot in 1497 to the ten-year moratorium on the Atlantic Canada seal hunt imposed in 1984 by then-Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney to prevent harp seals and gray seals from being hunted to the brink of extinction.
After Mulroney left office, successors re-opened the seal hunt, but between dwindling global demand for seal pelts and dwindling numbers of accessible seal pups to club, the hunt had already become a heavily government subsidized make-work program for Newfoundlanders even before the World Trade Organization in November 2013 upheld a 2010 European Union ban on seal pelt and product imports.
By then the effects of thin ice, and no ice, had already helped to reduce the killing.
Ryan Collier, reported CBC News on September 29, 2021, “took swift action in Embree,” not to kill the eight beached long-finned pilot whales, also known as pothead whales, but to rescue them.
“One, a young calf, was dead when Collier arrived,” CBC News said.
Described Collier, “You could tell they were stressed out and everything else, and I couldn’t just sit there and wait, so I just started out in the water and started pushing, pulling and rolling them over just to see what I could do.”
“I couldn’t give up”
The whales, ranging from six or seven feet in length to fourteen feet, were too heavy for Collier to move unassisted, but “I couldn’t give up,” he said.
“The tide was already beginning to rise, slowly but surely, when Collier arrived to the scene,” CBC News recounted. “He said he tried to wiggle each whale as much as he could along the slippery sea kelp, a millimeter at a time.
Continued Collier, “I’m just an animal lover, and I just had to do what I could do. I can’t remember how long I was there working on a few of them, but I’ll never forget when I let the first one go and give it a push out into deep water. I just stood up and watched this guy swim off in deep water and I was like, ‘That’s fantastic. That’s one, let’s see if I can do another.'”
Collier was exhausted & so were the whales
Two and a half hours later, Collier had freed six whales. He was exhausted, and so were the whales, laboring to breathe while beached, suffocating under their own weight and simultaneously at risk of drowning in the tide.
Collier managed to free a seventh whale before colleagues Mitchell Gillingham and Ryan Knott arrived to help him with the last and biggest whale.
By that time Collier was on the verge of hypothermia. He drove home, ten minutes away, “dried off, switched into dry fishing waders, and went back to finish the job,” CBC News ended.
What the Embree pilot whale rescue seems to signify is that even cultures built on marine life exploitation, especially marine mammal exploitation, can change markedly for the better over time.