The Three Ahabs

A report from the second Flying Dutchman

Call me Ishmael. But don’t ask me to chronicle for hundreds of pages a mythical and mad contest between obsessive whaler and elusive white whale. No. Instead I carve here one piece of analytic scrimshaw, depicting the modern whale hunters who’ve long sailed around the moratorium on whale hunting. Now they are pushing to lift the ban on commercial whaling. I wonder, do these guys practice clinking pewter mugs of rum each night and shouting a gleeful mantra like “Kill the whales!”?

Let’s find out. Gathering a bit of bleached whale bone, some India ink and a sharp knife, I sit myself down in a whaling ship that sets out in 1946 and, like a postwar version of the Flying Dutchman, stays at sea a bit longer than expected—say, 64 years, with no port in sight. On board are Captain Japan, Captain Norway and Captain Iceland. Naturally, I must carve their portraits in the whalebone, since these three are the captains who can’t leave the ship.

When we first sailed from port just after WWII, the ship was crowded with hunters from every whaling country in the world, pretty much any culture having boats, spears and sailors neither squeamish at the sight of blood nor shamed by the taking of an intelligent life form where money could be made in the taking.

(Cultures whose lives depend upon whale meat, including the Inuit, are not included on this voyage or in this story; they do not practice overfishing for profit.)

So off we set in a wooden ship with billowing sails. In the first season, they spear one humpback whale, then another. Then a dozen, a thousand, 10,000. In the first few years, they kill and sell the guts of almost 50,000 whales annually. Within a decade, it reaches 60,000 per year; by the second decade, 70,000.

For 40 years, this league of whaling nations sails and slaughters. Then in 1986, everyone begins leaving the ship. The commercial whaling industry is shut down, the whales overfished, and the International Whaling Association (IWA) votes to save the declining population.

As they leave the ship, I wave goodbye to Captains Antigua and Barbuda, Captains Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chile, China, Republic of the Congo, Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Eritrea, Estonia, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, German Ghana, Republic of Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Kiribati, Korea, Laos, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mali, Marshall Islands, Republic of Mauritania, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Morocco, Nauru, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Oman, Palau, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, San Marino, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Togo, Tuvalu, United Kingdom, Uruguay and the United States.

But wait! Captains Iceland, Japan and Norway decide to remain on board and sail through the loopholes in the agreement document. “We aren’t killing whales for commerce,” shout the three whalers. “We are killing them for science!” And so they go, jolly clinkers of pewter mugs. The boat sails on, and captains Iceland, Japan and Norway continue through the decades to hunt and slaughter whales for fun and profit.

As I carve the caricatures of these now accursed whalers, I can hear them talking in whispers from the main deck about sailing to Morocco. Though they are held by a curse and can never leave the ship, they can still raise mugs of rum and cheer from off the shore of Agadir when the IWA convenes there on June 21–25. The agenda for that meeting is to decide whether to lift the ban on commercial whaling. The three captains are behind the whole thing. They expect to win a 10-year victory over whale conservation.

I’m done with my scrimshaw now, grabbing my kit and heading for Morocco to find this out: Will the (above-listed) members of the IWA lift the ban on commercial whaling?