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Trying to Protect the Sacred

Compassion Exchange Between Sentient Beings

by Margaret Collier. Abbreviated version of a report in the Guardian, 9th January, 2013, by Paul Watson, co-founder of the Greenpeace Foundation.


Capt. Watson was aboard a chartered halibut seiner, trying to protect whales from the Soviet whaling fleet, 60 miles offshore from the California coast in 1975.   

The huge factory vessel of the whaling fleet , accompanied by three fast killer- boats armed with harpoons, had a steady stream of thick steaming blood pouring into the sea.

Capt. Watson and his crew, thirteen strong, a small band of idealists, young Canadians were out to challenge the whalers. Launching Zodian inflatables and standing in the bows, they would place themselves between the whales and the harpoons aimed at them. They were Gandhi-influenced non-violent advocates and this was the only tactic they could think of to protect the whales without injuring the whalers.

Suddenly they were racing ahead of the harpoon vessel and behind a pod of eight magnificent sperm whales racing for their lives. They were so close that Watson and his companions could smell their breath, and their object was to block the path of the harpoon. Would the whalers risk killing a human being to slay a whale?

Watson in his fragile craft looked back at them as they prepared to fire the harpoon. As the whaler captain drew his finger slowly across his throat, it was clear to Watson and his men that they could expect no Gandhian principles to restrain their opponents.

An explosive-tipped harpoon whizzed through the air, killing a female sperm whale, and the largest whale in the pod rose up out of the water to defend the others and to attack the man that had attacked them. But the harpooner pulled the trigger at point-blank range and a harpoon tore into the whale’s head.

He screamed. It was an excruciating cry of pain, shock and confusion. He fell back into the sea, rolling in agony on the surface in a sea stained scarlet with his blood.

Watson relates: I could not take my eyes off him… Then suddenly the whale was looking at me.  I saw his huge eye and I could see that he saw me. At that moment he dove once again and I saw pink bloody bubbles coming to the surface, moving closer to our boat.  Within seconds the whale’s head shot above the surface of the sea and began to tower above, rising higher but as if in slow motion and angled so that we could see that his intent was to come crashing down upon us.

And as his head rose ever higher I could see that eye once again, so close that I could see my own reflection in that deep dark orb. Suddenly I was struck with the realization that the whale understood what we were doing.

His lower jaw hung down almost touching the side of our inflatable boat, so close that I could have reached across and encircled one of the six-inch teeth with my fingers. His muscles tensed and he stopped rising and began to slowly slide at an angle back into the sea.  I kept eye contact with him until his eye sank beneath the surface of the sea and disappeared.

And so he died.

He could have killed us but he had not and the look in that eye has haunted me ever since.

I felt understanding and I knew he knew that we were there to save him, not to kill him. I felt ashamed that we had failed. I felt powerless and angry, frustrated and awed all at once. I felt indebted to him for sparing my life.

But I also saw something else in that eye, and that was pity.

Not for himself and his kind, but for us.

An uncomfortable pallor of shame fell over me as I sensed what the whale perceived. It was indeed pity, but pity for us, that we could take life so ruthlessly, so thoughtlessly, and so mercilessly, and for what?

…Captain Watson sat in his boat and remembered that the whalers were killing whales primarily for the valuable spermaceti oil, used in the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Here they were slaughtering these magnificent, intelligent, socially complex, wondrous sentient beings for the purpose of making a weapon designed for the mass extermination of human beings.

…It is from what I saw in the eye of that whale that has led me to devote my entire life to the defence of the whales and the other creatures of the sea… if we cannot save them and the other creatures of the sea, the oceans will not survive.  If the life in our oceans is diminished, humanity is diminished and if the oceans die, humanity will die; for we cannot survive on the planet with a dead ocean.



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