Sidney Holt: Compassion and the Need for It
15 August 2011
As promised, two excerpts from Harry Lillie’s book, “The Path through Penguin City” (Benn, London, 1955.)
ONE DEATH: HARRY LILLIE’S ACCOUNT
Southern Harvester was at Leith harbour, South Georgia. Her sister, Southern Venturer, [The two Salvesen factories – sjh] was making ready “to travel through the Straits of Magellan, to spend six weeks hunting sperm whales off Peru, in the plankton- and fish-rich Humboldt Current. It is the haunt of the small female Sperms with their young as well as the big males, and where these creatures have been seen to gather round a stricken harpooned comrade regardless of their own safety.” Jack Flynn, one of the electricians, is speaking from his armchair. “Well, Doc, there won’t be many more years of Caronda [Mount Caronda overlooks S. Georgia – sjh] or South Georgia if this whale-killing goes on the way it is. As many wasted this year as ever, left out to rot with flags stuck in them. It’s wicked, but each factory is worse than the next. Those folk that attend whaling conferences should come right down here and see for themselves, but they just take anybody’s word for what goes on. …And wait, Doc, till you see what happens to whaling now the Blues are getting more scarce. They’ll bawl to be allowed to kill humpbacks again, but kick like hell at the suggestion of your ten years of protection for the Blues. I tell you, they’re oil mad.”
It is hard and painful to compress Lillie’s blow by blow description of a hunt for fin whales, but I’ll try. They see a school of fin whales, feeding:
“While still a mile away we dropped to half-speed for engine vibration would quickly scare them. But they seemed to sense something strange and disappeared for three minutes, to come up farther to port. They were still not running away but had stopped feeding.…It is a thrilling sight to see great whales at this close range. As we closed in one whale came up fast, broke surface with the whole head and lower jaw out of the water almost in the foam of our bow wave; too close in for the gun to be trained. Our next one broke surface ahead and slightly to port at thirty yards range. The only reasonable target was the back and the side, as he arched himself and paused an instant on the dive. Again the crash of the gun, and this time with a horrible sickening slap the heavy 160-pound harpoon disappeared in the creature’s side, followed a couple of seconds later by another as the grenade head burst inside. - 'fast fish' - The great animal quivered at a stop for two or three seconds, when I thought he had been killed. But a moment later the initial shock had passed and he had started for the depths with the one-and-a-half-inch diameter foregoer rope racing out over the pulleys, followed by the two-inch diameter main whale rope.
“Three hundred fathoms before the strain slackened, and well over a quarter of a mile away a spout went up as he surfaced. Down again, and the traveling tell-tale line pulley on the foremast, connected to some tons of heavy springs built into the bottom of the catcher, was the indicator of the strain on the rope. And as it retreated up the mast again when the pull slackened, the winch in the hands of the catcher’s chief engineer started winding in.
“The whale had obviously been hit in the intestines, which invariably results in extreme agony in a mammal. We were being towed away now at about two knots, and as time went on with the whale weakening, the catcher hauled herself nearer and nearer until the gun could get to close range again loaded with a second harpoon. Down he went in his continuing efforts to break away. Up again at shorter and shorter intervals while blood ran from the wound hole. The harpoon had pulled partly out, as usually happens with the stress, but four, blunt, swivel, spreading barbs behind the head of the harpoon held below the tough outer blubber and there could be no getting rid of it.
“Forty minutes passed and the straining of the stricken whale went on, until at length, with a second explosion, another harpoon was sunk into it, nearer the head. The whale went down in another dive…The spouting now was getting much weaker and a crimson tinge of blood spread through the fine spray of the next blow. Then darker until a five-foot jet of almost pure blood rose from the widely dilated blow-hole. The next jet was only three feet, then just a sickening bubbling. The great animal turned on its side – dead. Fifty-five minutes from the first harpoon.”
For relief from this horror let me repeat Harry Lillie’s dedication, remembering that on this voyage he had seen some of the crew drowned, thrown over-board by the lurch of a fast-turning catcher:
“This book is dedicated mainly to all those creatures of the wild, the human ones too, who have worked so hard, suffered so much, and so often died, in providing the material that may perhaps inspire others to come along too in the battles ahead.”
It is, I think, worth noting that the current Icelandic hunts for fin whales differ in no important respect from those described by Harry Lillie in British Antarctic whaling.
THOUGHTS ABOUT CRUELTY AND CARELESSNESS
In 1949 Alice Morgan Wright returned home from the UN Conference that year at Lake Success, not long after Dr Harry Lillie’s first voyage on Balaena. She wrote:
“That great child, the United Nations, though growing in grace and wisdom, still takes hold of things by the wrong handle, some of the earnest but fumbling efforts being the Declaration of Human Rights; for in this we humans have asked everything we could think of for ourselves, but nothing for those undemanding comrades who share with us out habitations and our burdens throughout the world. Their rights should be declared no less urgently than our own.” And then, finally: “After listening for three weeks to those papers, and learning how ignorance and greed and waste constitute a menace greater than the atom bomb to our survival on this planet, one came away shivering and on tiptoe, treading on a crust thin as eggshell and constantly growing thinner…Nor was the protection of the animals presented at any time as an object of concern except to its intellectual or material advantage to mankind… Ask ourselves if there are not resources to be conserved which transcend the material ones; the beauty of sunlit wings against the sky, of unhurt living creatures swift glimpsed in field and forest…we may ask ourselves if these are not of greater worth than anything which may be derived for us by science from their dead or exploited bodies.
Predators par excellence, deficient in logic as in loving kindness, we have judged it good to increase the number and length of human lives until the pressure of population threatens its own extinction on the unexpanding surface of the earth. And we are doing this at the cost of countless cruelty to the other sentient races of creation”.