3rd World Congress of Environmental History

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Cetacean Families and the Single White Male: Soviet Whalers Encounter the Antarctic's Social World

Tue, July 23, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Centro de Filosofia e Ciencias Humanas (CFH), Auditorio do Bloco E


In some ways, modern industrial whaling separated hunters from their prey in unprecedented ways. Shooting grenade-tipped harpoons from the high bow of diesel catcher-boats, the whaler experienced little uncertainty of success and even less fear from the gigantic creatures that paid their salaries. However, having pursued thousands of whales and accompanied by scientists studying cetacean behavior, industrial whalers actually learned quite a good deal about their quarry’s culture.
This paper examines Soviet whalers’ experiences with whalers in the Antarctic, the 20th-century’s most important hunting ground. From 1946 to 1986, thousands of mostly male Soviets left Russia to spend 9 months in the part of earth most distant from their homes and families. There they slaughtered whales which they quickly came to know in detail they hadn’t suspected. First, they began to understand that different species of whales – blue whales, fin whales, sperm whales, and humpbacks – possessed very different behavioral traits. Furthermore, those traits changed over the years as their populations dwindled under sustained attack. Second, whalers began to understand that they were killing not just individual whales, but – poignantly – whale families. Most whale species in the Antarctic traveled in matriarchal family groups, and when one member was attacked, others often came to its defense. Many whalers could not avoid the realization that they left behind their own families to destroy the families of another species. While these feelings rarely led Soviet men to give up their profession, it did color the otherwise celebrated industry with more than a tinge of ambivalence. Such experiences also reveal the fact that the details of historical whale behavior can be recovered from the voluminous materials left behind by the industrial whaling industry.