Save the whales? Been there, done that

If you’re mesmerized by televised efforts to escort a female humpback and her calf back to the Pacific Ocean from their less-than-idyllic swim 90 miles up the Sacramento River in California, you’re an overly sentimental sap. You’ve been suckered by the media — again.

You’ve heard of these whales, no doubt. With no young blonde women in kidnapped-or-missing distress this week, the whales are the media’s darlings of the moment.

As you read CNN.com’s story, don’t skip the link that allows you to “Watch the whales from a traffic helicopter.” You can also “Watch whales make their way to Sacramento”. Or read the New York Times story with photo showing all the spectators oogling 55-foot-long Mom and her 30-foot-long kid.

So many gawkers turned out, The Times says, “officials [had] to clear and shut the port on Thursday, though hundreds of spectators continued to line the nearby riverbanks.”

And, of course, there are the YouTube videos – complete with audio. Can’t have a whale-in-crisis media moment without those. (Wonder how they got audio? Maybe they ripped it off Paul Winters’ 1980 “Callings” album — soulful soprano sax and humpbacks singing).

The whales swam through San Francisco Bay and up to the Port of Sacramento and can’t, it seems, find their way home. They’re injured, we’re told, probably by boat propellers and need to return to salt water to heal.

Scientists, stories say, are trying to herd the whales down river using really sophisticated techniques, including playing recorded whale sounds and … banging on pipes. This could take days to weeks, scientists said.

Sounds so familiar. Into the Wayback Machine, Sherman! We’re off to October 1988!

Simple tale: Eskimo hunter finds three California gray whales trapped in a lead in Arctic ice, about 320 miles north of Point Barrow, Alaska – just a month before a U.S. presidential election. International empathy for the whales spikes. Rescue efforts ensue. Media follow. NBC gets there first. Eventually, 150 journalists from 26 nations descend on the small hole in the ice. Cost of media coverage and month-long “rescue”: $15.5 million in 2006 U.S. dollars.

Tom Rose, an American journalist who covered the “rescue” for a Japanese network, later wrote one of my favorite books: “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event.” (You can read a summary of the book and snippets here; review of book here — TimesSelect req’d.)

Times reviewer Judith Adler Hennessee, who called the predicament of the whales “a routine Darwinian cruelty,” wrote:

“The rescue effort, orchestrated by Greenpeace, brought about a collaboration between natural enemies: environmentalists and the oil industry. The two icebreakers belonging to the Coast Guard were out of commission, and the oil companies saw a public relations opportunity. They had long been lobbying to drill in the middle of a national wildlife refuge and quickly realized the value of helping to rescue the whales. However, their rescue operation foundered.

“Next came another unlikely group of saviors. Eskimos wielding chain saws and small de-icers (donated by a Minneapolis company) kept the ice from freezing over the whales. These were the very same Eskimos who would have ”harvested” the grays had the reporters and television cameras not been there to see them. The last in a long line of improbable rescuers were the Russians (invited by Greenpeace). They were delighted to be asked. For decades the West had sneered at them for being backward barbarians. Now the United States, their dearest enemy and the technological wonder of the world, was helpless, stuck without a decent icebreaker to its name. The Russians had only to cut a path through the ice and they would be transformed into instant humanitarians. Never mind that Russia is one of the four largest whale-hunting nations in the world (Norway, Iceland and Japan are the other three). …

“In many ways, this was the story television was created to cover. … It captured the imagination of millions of people in a way network executives had rarely seen. Only the immediacy of television could convey the whales’ almost hypnotic allure. Somewhat the same way that a cat stuck in a tree could mobilize an entire town, three gray whales stuck in Arctic ice mobilized an entire world. …

“What started out as an ideal story for NBC to use as a ”kicker,” a lighthearted piece used to close a news broadcast, for a brief time became almost a national obsession. . . . Just three weeks before a Presidential election, and three days after they were first reported, the stranded whales became the top story on each network newscast. Among the estimated 30 million people who watched the whales gasp for air on Sunday’s evening newscasts was President Ronald Reagan. He penned a note reminding himself to ask about the whales the following morning at his daily 9:00 AM briefing with senior White House staff members. ” [emphasis added]

So let me slip on my ol’ green eyeshades and revert to my curmudgeonly news editor days. Story about the Sacramento rescue attempt hits my desk for editing. I ask:

How much is it costing and who’s going to pay for it?

Reading through stories and televised accounts, I have found no estimates of cost or responsibility for same. I’ve only found who’s involved. So far:

• The Marine Mammal Center, an organization that says it is supported by individual donations and corporate sponsorships.

• The Alaska Whale Foundation, a non-profit organization that says it has no salaried positions.

• There’s also a non-profit outfit called the Wildlife Sanctuary in Glen Ellen, Calif., whose president, Bernie Krauze, said this:

“We call ourselves the whale whisperers. But we are not whispering loud enough. These guys are not responding.”

(Sheesh. How can he tell that volume is the sole issue here?)

Well, no tax dollars there for me to scream about. But those private donors and corporate sponsors should expect lots of fundraising calls.

However, there’s the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Pike. (You can buy a lovely photo of the 87-foot Pike and the Golden Gate Bridge on eBay for only 9$! A steal!) A cutter’s daily operating cost isn’t cheap. And yes, it would be doing something useful without the whales to contend with. But why aren’t journalists at least asking: at what cost and who’s paying?

How small does an animal — in this case, a mammal — have to be before it fails to trigger the American obsession with cuteness in the natural world and media reflections of that?

If these whales are worth “rescuing” (based on what cost-benefit analysis using what factors?), what mammals are not? What distinguishes our whale mania from lack of concern over other endangered or threatened mammals — or other kingdoms or phyla?

Meanwhile, I’m selling T-shirts. Order now while the whales are still un-saved!

And those “rescued” gray whales in the Arctic Ocean? Did they survive? Despite all the scientists, rescuers and journalists present, no one knows — because no one tagged the whales.

xpost: 5th Estate

8 replies »

  1. Well, thank the gods it’s not something REALLY cute like seals or otters. Might get Katie Couric there in person for that.

  2. Many years ago, radio geniuses Bob and Ray dealt with this important issue in their usual deadpan way. Ray announced that he had decided to save whales. But it wasn’t easy. By the time he got two of them into his apartment, there was no room for any more. So he gave up the idea and decided to begin saving something smaller. Hamsters, I believe.

  3. Wow — and I thought *I* was a cynic! I wonder what net effect all those “gawkers” are having on the local economy. I’ll bet they’re buying lots of T-shirts. Call me an overly sentimental sap, but there is something compelling and emblematic about this drama. Nature is cruel — here’s our chance to do better. Or would you rather keep the cameras rolling so we can watch them die slowly? It would be cheaper.

  4. First, thanks, Denny, for this beautiful exposure of the idiotic lengths both the media and corporate interests will go to for PR by manipulating/interfering with the natural order of the world.
    I suggest anyone interested in further reading on the subject of our “media-mediated” (for want of a better term) culture and our obsession with “non-events” of the natural world read the work of Bill McKibben, the naturalist and (now former, it seems) writer for “The New Yorker.”
    “The End of Nature” and, more on point, “The Age of Missing Information” speak to the artificial understanding of nature that Americans have with the natural world and how we have lost our connection to and understanding of the necessary occurrences of the natural world – including the death of, oh, whales, for example.

  5. Never forget that environmental organisations, like Greenpeace, are also in the fundraising business. A story like this can keep the coffers topped up for years.

    Still, we did something of some scientific merit here a few years ago. A ship went aground near Cape Town in one of our famous storms. It lost a load of oil and drenched a penguin breeding colony. This happens often enough that we have a regular volunteer squad to deal with it (vicious brutes, penguins are).

    Then the penguins were released, but far up the coast, since the cleaning effort on the breeding colony was still progressing. They did tag three of them.

    Then, to everyone’s ongoing astonishment, we watched on news reports as their epic swim home was recorded. They swam about 3 000 kilometres in two weeks to get home.

    No-one knew they swam that fast or that far.

  6. If whales are endangered or not is not for me to know, – however I know that the Norwegian excuse for whale hunting is the Norwegian economy, as they need the whale hunting to balance their economy, as they say. (Wonder what they do with billions of dollars in oil revenue?).