“Killed by a Whale” by Roger Payne

Disentangling a right whale (Photo by NOAA Fisheries)

On July 10th, Joe Howlett, 59, father of two and a lobster fisherman from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada was killed by a northern right whale he had just helped to untangle from a snarl of fishing gear. Mackie Green, Howlett’s partner in rescuing whales and a co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said that Howlett had previously participated in some two dozen disentanglements and was both highly experienced and skilled in doing it. He said the details of the situation are being investigated but all that is known so far is that just after the last line entangling the whale had been cut: “Some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip,”

I have discussed this tragedy with several who have claimed that disentangling a whale is “Asking for trouble,” “Nuts,” and “Insane.” “You gotta be crazy to do such a dangerous thing” is a typical remark. And although that sounds reasonable enough, it turns out that these opinions are based on fear and inexperience. After all, you are in a small boat, a zodiac, trying to free an animal that’s bigger than most private yachts and has been under life-threatening stress for hours, days, weeks, or months; and you pull up near it while the propeller on your boat is making a loud, screaming noise. It would not be unreasonable for the whale to conclude that you have come to attack. It only adds fuel to that assumption when you begin tugging on the ropes entangling the whale, because often, some of them pass through open wounds on its body—something that is surely hellishly painful to the whale.

As if further proof were needed about the gravity of the danger you face, the whale is in its element—seawater—in which it is an agile, fully skilled challenger, whereas, you in your zodiac are little more than a helpless, onlooker—having turned off your motor when you arrived to avoid frightening the whale any worse than you already have.

That is the kind of story that fear paints. However, experience tells a very different story. The fact is that despite the clearly scary circumstances in which one finds oneself when disentangling a whale, the evidence of thousands of such disentanglements shows that the whale does not try to strike you. Instead (and for reasons that are counterintuitive), it seems to catch on fast that you are trying to help—some individuals even seem to cooperate by holding still or rolling slowly as you unwind some long net section. The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, one of the pioneers in freeing entangled whales, is reported as saying that Joe Howlett’s death is the first fatality since whale rescues began, back in the early 1980s.

The US is not alone in developing techniques for disentangling whales from fishing gear, the Canadians also pioneered such techniques and both countries’ methods are widely used today. Many were developed by my late friend, Newfoundlander Jon Lien. Over his lifetime, Jon and his team rescued over 1,000 humpback whales from fishing gear without anyone sustaining a serious injury. His presence was not just a godsend to the whales but to the fishermen who owned the nets which, before Jon’s efforts, had often been destroyed or carried away by the whale—with devastating consequences to the fishermen’s lives.

At Ocean Alliance we have studied the behavior of right whales for 47 years and it is clear from that experience that right whales are tail fighters. But they don’t slap with their tails—they strike with them edge-on by making lateral, slashing blows. The thing I would like to know most is what that “big flip,” was that the whale made. Did it slap Joe with the flat of its tail or strike him with a lateral slash? Because if it was a tail slap I would strongly suspect it was not intended to cause harm—that the whale was just accelerating away and the result was a tragic accident that killed Joe—a ghastly mistake, not a tail-slash struck in anger.

There are, of course, dangers involved in disentangling whales, which is why it should only be attempted by professionals with lots of experience—never by the public (doing so is, in fact, illegal and subject to heavy fines). However, the fact that this activity is safer than it looks is so counterintuitive that even though thousands of whale disentanglements have been achieved without incident and for decades, when news broke that Joe Howlett had been killed, the first action the Canadian and US fisheries authorities took was to put a stop to all future disentangling efforts—an announcement that annoyed a lot of people, including me. I vented my anger by drafting this blog. Fortunately, I set what I had written aside (my intention was to make a more stinging rebuke the following day). Mackie Green, Howlett’s co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, expressed best what we were all thinking when he said; “Joe definitely would not want us to stop because of this. This is something he loved and there’s no better feeling than getting a whale untangled, and I know how good he was feeling after cutting that whale clear.”

So… should we stop the activity of disentangling whales? Well, should we stop welcoming dogs into our families? After all, dogs have killed hundreds of people over the years. Horses have killed thousands, but should we therefore try to stop our children from falling in love with horses? I once met a logging elephant in Nepal who had killed six people in her life—the last two, her handlers said, because she had witnessed them stealing rice from her daily food allowance.

And I have sympathy for the head ranger in the Sundarbans National Park and Biosphere Reserve (basically, the delta of the Ganges River) who must defend man-eating tigers from the people who have lost spouses and children to the tigers and want the tigers exterminated.

Any discussion of such examples as these eventually leads to the question of how important our species is and how big a deal the role is that we actually play on this planet. As I have said on other occasions, my view is that we are not the star of the show, but just another pretty face—one species among millions of other beguiling species—and unless we stop trying to upstage Nature, the show can’t go on. As a matter of cold, hard fact, our role is unimportant—a walk-on, a bit part. We aren’t important to the main act—life on earth. It can get along fine without us. It did just that for 2.5 billion years and if we self-destruct will continue to get along just fine—probably better,

However, bacteria, and moulds and plankton and nematode worms are important. Life can’t make it without them. But it can exist without us, and if we ignore our errors and destroy the conditions that support us by allowing global warming, ocean acidification, ocean pollution, overpopulation, and overconsumption to go unchecked, our kind won’t survive.

Many bacteria will survive, however, and in due time they will make the earth relivable for whatever life forms succeed us (unless we have knocked the life support balance too far out of whack with something like a runaway greenhouse effect).

We need to find a role to play that will enable us to fit in sustainably and therefore to survive (and have life survive), because that approach is our only hope if we are to have any more than a fleeting future.

Fortunately, before I embarrassed myself by sending out my first draft of this blog, the fisheries authorities clarified their position by pointing out that they had declared a temporary halt to disentanglements solely to enable an investigation that might shed light on what happened, in case they could find something that could be avoided in future to lower the chance that this tragedy would be repeated. When I read that, I was grateful for having to modify my words, because I saw that our species is moving towards enlightenment and that the need for people to recognize the inalienable rights of the rest of life is starting to be recognized. Sure, the process is moving glacially slowly, but it is moving, and that is cause for celebration, just as surely as the death of Joe Howlett is cause for mourning. For their role in giving us that ray of hope I thank the fisheries authorities of Canada and the United States.

My heart goes out to Howlett’s family for whom this tragedy is a calamity beyond expressing. Because it didn’t happen to me I have the luxury of seeing it in a different light. To me, Joe Howlett is an inspiration, a man years ahead of his time who stepped in to help another species that was suffering. It was an act unsurpassed for decency and morality. He was willing to take risks, which, though they are usually benign, are, when things go wrong, deadly. He certainly knew that. But he acted anyway.

Although I have spent the past 50 years studying whales and working to save them I never met Joe, although we shared the same atypical mission. But I admire him entirely because he was doing something of which our species—any species—could be unreservedly proud. He was showing the way, taking action in response to another species’ distress. Within our species, racism is a heinous offense to all things positive and decent; within the broader world, speciesism is equally reprehensible. Overcoming racism and speciesism are the central problems of our time—the defining achievements that we must accomplish.

We hear daily that we should pitch in to make a difference—should step up. But few do it; our lives are overwhelmingly Business As Usual. Joe Howlett, did do something—he risked his life to save a member of another species that was suffering. In the past, whales and dolphins have done that for humans; he returned the favor. In my opinion that makes him a hero. His children can be proud of him through all eternity. He didn’t get to see them grow old, but the mark he made is something they can cherish forever.

Roger Payne