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The New York Times: Of Humans, Oil, and Whales

New York Times image

An artist’s rendering of a bowhead whale diving. (Richard Ellis)

December 17, 2007,  11:04 am
By Andrew C. Revkin

Our endless quest for that wondrous liquid fossil fuel, oil, is expanding toward the ends of the Earth as higher prices justify more extreme extraction efforts. Jad Mouawad, my friend and colleague covering the global oil industry, ventured to frigid Barrow, Alaska, recently to write about the Royal Dutch Shell’s planned exploration push offshore into the Arctic Ocean, and the implications for the whale-hunting Inupiat natives of Barrow.

Scott McVay, a pioneer in the study of whale vocalizations, wrote to express his concerns that the article didn’t get in the vantage point of the species perhaps more at risk — the ancient bowhead whale.

Below you’ll find his note. The image above was provided with permission by his friend, the writer and illustrator Richard Ellis. The human relationship with whales remains a strange one. Environmentalists fight to sustain a moratorium on commercial whaling, but usually — as I wrote a few years ago — use arguments about rarity, rather than right and wrong, about whether they should be hunted. Do we inadequately consider the “views” of other creatures in making our way in this world?

Michael Pollan and Verlyn Klinkenborg have explored this terrain many times in the paper. What’s your take?

“Tension at the Edge of Alaska (Dec. 4) is written solely from the viewpoint of Royal Dutch Shell which is determined to exploit the oil reserves off Alaska’s coast and the Beaufort Sea (the destination of the Bowhead whales’ spring migration) and the Inupiat or Eskimos, who want not only to take 60 Bowheads a year but continue to receive oil revenues now flowing at $200 million a year.

Consider for a moment, the Bowhead or Greenland Right whale, dubbed Monarch of the Seas by Melville. The Bowhead can live deep into a second century if unmolested, it has a gorgeous seven-octave song, and is a keen listener (Cornell’s Chris Clark recorded 35,000 vocalizations during spring migration in 1985, with only 19 overlaps!). Clark also reports, using 17 sea floor recorders in Summer, 2006 to continuously monitor Shell, Conoco-Phillips and a rogue TX exploration company’s seismic exploration activities, that over 75% of the time the seismic activities were going full blast in area from Pt. Barrow to Cape Lisburne out 120 km. off shore.

What does this mean for the Bowhead whale, the Beluga, the Bearded and other seals? It means that their exquisitely attuned acoustic receptors have no defense against such a full-tilt sonic invasion. We know from the hemorrhaging of other whales elsewhere, especially Orca and Beaked whales, from the Navy’s exercises that the effects can be tragically lethal.

When will we ever learn that short-term advantage can mean long-term peril?

Scott McVay
Princeton, NJ

The author led two expeditions to study, film and record the Bowhead whale in the 1970s (Film Board of Canada made a documentary of the second & American Scientist published a cover article on the first), is co-discoverer of Songs of Humpback Whale, Science, 1971) and served on US delegation to International Whaling Commission for six years. and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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