Biologist Roger Payne heard about the stranded porpoise one night in 1964, while listening to a local radio station as he worked in a lab at Tufts University. Wanting to see for himself, he drove to nearby Revere Beach, north of Boston, and found the animal’s body. The porpoise had been mutilated: flukes hacked off, flank marred by two sets of initials cut deep into the flesh, a cigar left in the blow hole.

Payne removed the cigar and stood there, as his flashlight went out, a resolution forming in his mind. At that moment, for him, the porpoise stood for all cetaceans—the whole family of intelligent, imperiled marine mammals. “I decided at the first possible opportunity to learn enough about whales so I might have some effect on their fate,” he later wrote, in the liner notes of a 1970 album that would help launch a movement.

After his encounter at Revere, Payne ended up going to Bermuda, where a Navy technician named Frank Watlington had captured haunting sounds at an underwater listening station. Watlington suspected they came from humpback whales. Payne collected more recordings, trailing hydrophones behind a sailboat to locate the origins of the sounds. Then in 1967, he and researcher Scott McVay, who had just published a Scientific American article titled “The Last of the Great Whales,” announced a discovery: The mournful rumblings, moans and clicks had repeated patterns and rhythm. They were six-octave songs produced by male humpbacks.

In 1970, Capitol Records released the sounds as an album called “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” It would go platinum.

At the time, whales were being killed on an industrial scale, their bodies loaded onto factory ships so the meat could be sold for pet food and the oil for lipstick and margarine. A whaling station and cannery still operated in San Francisco Bay. The largest, most valuable and easiest to hunt species, including blue, right, sperm and humpback, were already on the brink of extinction. Whalers had begun to target fin, sei and especially small minke whales.

But Payne and McVay’s discoveries and the two years Payne spent sharing the songs with people who could influence popular culture—singers and composers, politicians and members of the clergy—transformed the image of whales, from big commodities to sublime creatures worthy of awe. “Save the whales” became a rallying cry. The conversation changed from how to hunt whales sustainably to whether they should be hunted at all.

Infographic about annual whale killings
Kate Westaway
Getty Images

In 1972, with the support of The HSUS, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was signed into law, ending whaling in U.S. waters. A year later, advocate Patricia Forkan, who would join The HSUS in 1976, attended her first meeting of the International Whaling Commission, created after World War II by countries that hunted whales. She, McVay, Payne and others formed a tight-knit family who spoke up for conservation and animal welfare year after year at the meetings.

In 1978, activists in inflatable rafts began putting themselves in front of harpooners in dramatic confrontations that focused attention on the plight of whales. Meanwhile, recordings of humpback songs were played for audiences at the IWC, sent into space aboard NASA’s Voyager and blasted from the deck of activists’ boats. In 1982, after years of pressure from The HSUS and allied groups, came a watershed victory: The IWC approved a moratorium on commercial whaling.

Today, the number of whales killed each year by commercial hunters hovers around 2,000, down from around 53,000 in the early 1970s. The number of nations engaged in commercial whaling has shrunk from 21 to just three—Japan, Norway and Iceland. Some whale populations are recovering: Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration removed nine of 14 populations of humpback whales from the endangered species list. But the work of saving the whales is every bit as urgent.

HSI and other groups continue to push for an end to commercial whale hunting. And scientists such as HSI’s Mark Simmonds and Sharon Young of The HSUS are grappling with threats that are only now becoming fully understood.

Entanglements in fishing gear, ship strikes, noise and chemical pollution, and climate change can be as devastating as whalers’ harpoons. Along the East Coast, The HSUS is pressing for new regulations to protect one of the Earth’s most endangered whale populations, the North Atlantic right whale.

“Yes, humpbacks have made tremendous strides—we have to celebrate,” says Young, who in the mid-80s worked on a whale watch boat that carried tourists to see the species off Plymouth, Massachusetts. “But the battle isn’t over.”

In 1973, when humpbacks were still scarce off New England’s coast, Forkan gave each of the 18 country delegates at her first IWC meeting a Save the Whales pamphlet and called for a total moratorium. She urged a boycott of Japanese and Russian goods as long as those two nations continued the hunt, then watched as representatives of IWC member nations narrowly failed to approve a 10-year moratorium.

During the press conference that followed, she slipped notes on how countries had voted to reporters who had been barred from the room. Year after year, Forkan, Payne and other advocates attended the annual meetings, traveling to different cities but encountering some of the same characters. There were Russian men in black leather coats and a Japanese commissioner who blew smoke rings and always spoke as though he were extremely angry, though when translated into English his remarks were diplomatic.

Roger Payne takes Patricia Forkan to see right whales off Patagonia after a whaling commission meeting in 1984, after the ban.

There were challenges to their credentials—Forkan watched once as Japanese officials surrounded Payne and asked that he be escorted out—and endless multimedia presentations by Japan that showed fish spilling out of whales’ bellies, propaganda designed to show that greedy whales were consuming all of the oceans’ fish. There were unidentified hors d’oeuvres served at receptions that turned out to be whale meat, and dubious reports of the number of whales killed.

Meanwhile, The HSUS organized boycotts to pressure Japan, which was killing the most whales, and helped to secure passage of the 1979 Packwood- Magnuson Amendment, barring whaling nations from fishing within 200 miles of the U.S. coast. When the required three quarters of IWC members finally approved a moratorium in 1982, 25-7 (it would take effect four years later), anti-whaling delegates convened to the hotel bar and drank champagne from the bottle.

Infographic about right whale polulations
Brian J. Skerry
National Geographic Creative

But the moratorium did not end whale hunting. Member nations were allowed to make objections and avoid the ban. Norway still holds such an objection. Iceland, once bound by the moratorium, quit the IWC and then was allowed to rejoin with an objection. The IWC also allows countries to conduct lethal scientific research. Japan immediately announced that its hunts were being done for this purpose, justifying them by producing occasional research papers with data from examinations of dead whales. Pirate whalers, not officially tied to any country, continued to hunt as well.

From 1982 on, there were constant attempts, including late night votes and walkouts, to lift the moratorium. Whaling nations tried to stack votes in their favor by inviting non-whaling countries to join the IWC and support their position. Japan recruited poorer countries without whaling fleets, rewarding their votes with foreign aid. Despite this, the moratorium has held; the number of whales killed remains at less than 5 percent of its peak.

Allan Thornton quote

To shrink the remaining hunt, HSI and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) have campaigned to reduce the main markets for whale meat, all of them in Japan. A joint investigation found high levels of toxins such as mercury in whale meat. With demand dropping, HSI and the EIA identified Japanese companies that bought and sold whale meat and also owned American companies, including the Talbots clothing store and Gorton’s of Gloucester. Using the leverage of American public opinion, HSI Vice President Kitty Block and EIA President Allan Thornton (who had once confronted whaling ships from a rubber dinghy) persuaded a series of Japanese firms to sever their ties to the whale meat industry.

Today, few grocery stores in Japan carry it. More recently, HSI and the EIA have gotten online sites such as Amazon to stop selling whale meat. Only the Japanese government keeps the trade alive.

“There’s no reason to commercially hunt whales anymore,” says Thornton. “There’s no economic viability in the industry.”

As the Japanese whaling fleet continued to operate off Antarctica, killing an estimated 15,000 whales post moratorium, a case brought by HSI’s Australia office led a federal court to order the hunt stopped in Australia’s territorial waters. With the support of HSI, Australia took the matter to the International Court of Justice. In 2014, judges in The Hague ruled Japan’s whaling did not qualify as scientific research. However, in 2015 Japan’s whaling fleet resumed operations in the Southern Ocean with a self-imposed annual quota of 333 minkes, killing exactly that number this season and last.

In April, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) introduced a House resolution calling on Japan to stop. Block, Simmonds and others now represent HSI and The HSUS at whaling commission meetings, following Forkan’s retirement in 2010.

Despite resistance to attempts to declare the South Atlantic a sanctuary, Simmonds sees progress. More and more, the IWC focuses on conserving whales. Last year, it recognized that whales help support healthy ecosystems by transferring nutrients from the dark ocean depths, where many of them feed, to the sunlit surface, where plankton grows. And the international body resolved to reduce the number of “bycatch” deaths from whales being accidentally caught in fishing nets, lines and gear. Scientists now recognize this as the most serious problem in whale conservation—it kills an estimated 380,000 cetaceans each year.

Whale caught in a net
Tony Wu

Research by Michael Moore of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts helped bring entanglement to the IWC’s attention. Moore is regularly called on to autopsy whales and has catalogued the damage to their bodies from fishing gear—lines that cut through blubber and into bones, even amputating flippers and fins.

Smaller whales, such as the minke, cannot break free to get a breath at the surface and are asphyxiated over a period of an hour or more. Larger whales drag away gear and may endure lingering deaths of six months or more, as wounds become infected and the struggle to swim wears them down and keeps them from food. Often they starve to death.

Anyone who eats seafood caught with lines and gear that can entangle whales shares the blame, says Moore, who’s written an article titled “How we all kill whales.” “My own belief, as a veterinarian, is that we are responsible for the well-being of those animals,” he says. “We are causing obvious pain.”

The IWC has created a global network of responders who rescue entangled whales in the open ocean, and is developing a worldwide network of people who rush to save stranded whales. Changing the conditions that lead to entanglements, strandings and other accidental deaths is more complicated.

More than 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales show injuries from fishing gear and lines. Necropsies also reveal blunt force trauma from ship strikes. For decades, Young of The HSUS has been advocating for federal protection for this population of right whales, who breed, migrate and calve in the busy fishing grounds and shipping lanes of the U.S. eastern seaboard. They are covered by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, but struggle to survive.

There are only around 500 of these right whales (scientists count each individually using a technique Payne developed of examining the markings on their heads). Just four new calves were seen this spring. Prompted by lawsuits filed by The HSUS and other groups, the federal government has expanded the size of protected right whale habitat tenfold and ordered ships to slow down near the busiest ports and fishermen and lobstermen to adopt new gear and practices.

The National Marine Fisheries Service now requires lines used at the bottom of fishing nets and lobster traps to be weighted so they stay on the ocean floor and lower the risk of entanglement, and it reduced the number of vertical lines permitted to run from the water’s surface to traps on the bottom.

In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a rule that nations exporting seafood to the United States must show they have minimized entanglements and accidental catches of marine mammals.

During the last three decades, however, human activities that undermine whale recoveries have increased. The amount of fishing gear in the oceans has multiplied and commercial lines have become stronger: While earlier rope lines disintegrated over time, newer synthetic lines don’t break down. Noise from ship propellers and sonar drowns out whale sounds over long distances so that animals cannot communicate, mate, find their prey or navigate.

Climate change is causing waters to warm and the small animals that whales feed on, such as zooplankton and fish, to shift their ranges. And pollution has contaminated the oceans' food chain, with toxins concentrating in animals at the top.

There is increasing evidence that all of these threats are impacting populations: For example, during the past year, a larger than usual number of humpbacks died off the East Coast of the United States, many whose bodies showed impacts from ships.

Fifty years after Payne visited Revere Beach, the whale is an icon. Whale watching is more lucrative than whaling. Thanks to The HSUS, HSI and other groups, protections have been enacted. Species have been preserved from annihilation. Hundreds of thousands of whales have been saved. And the animal welfare movement is stronger, more mature, more confident, says Block.

“It was really the first time that citizens and animal protection organizations were able to impact their governments and effect change globally,” she says. “We learned how.”

Yet the future of whales remains uncertain.

Forkan, who went to IWC meetings for 37 often frustrating years, says the work will never end. “You can’t give up.”

For Payne, it all depends on humans recognizing their fate is bound together with that of every one of the planet’s creatures, whales included. “We’re at that moment in history when we have to change."

Image from The Cove documentary
Oceanic Preservation Society

The world is watching, but fishermen in Taiji still slaughter dolphins

Eight years after Louie Psihoyos’ documentary showed the world the bloody waters of The Cove, the annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan goes on beneath tarps that fishermen carefully spread over dolphins driven into the shallows. Hidden from public view, fishermen kill each dolphin by driving a metal rod into the back of the head to sever the spinal cord. Then they insert a wooden plug into the wound to reduce the telltale flow of blood that used to turn the killing bay red.

The hunt continues not because of money made from mercury-contaminated dolphin meat, much of which is sold for pet food, but primarily because of profits from several hundred captured dolphins sold to aquariums. The (U.S.) Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (including the Japan Association of Zoos and Aquariums) have ordered their members not to purchase dolphins from Taiji, but non-member aquariums in Russia, Asia and the Middle East still buy them, as do several Japanese aquariums that quit the JAZA.

“I’d like to think that I could make a film and overnight things would change,” Psihoyos says. “In the real world, it does take time.”

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