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011 Praise the Whale and Sea

[9 mins reading time]

[Ka Gei Kai: Praise the Whale and Sea]

“Then a whale swam up and protected his ship,

From the wind and the troll,

It seemed to have human eyes.”

                                   The Saga of Ketil-Trout


We didn’t see at all, that the whales knew so much.

A pod will wait offshore and sing. Once a thirty-metre humpback performed for twenty-three hours, the warbles and long mournful calls could be heard a thousand miles away.

The same for blue and fin and sperm, each with sub-cultures and geographically-distinct dialects and song also travelling along the deep sound channels of the ocean. Clicks, and the silent spaces between clicks. Epic poetry, repeated chorus sequence.

And shrieks too, over the centuries, more than a few.

If it happens to us, said the whales, it’ll happen to you.

This too. Orcas share all the time. An adult catches a salmon, snips it up and shares the pieces with her family. They will creep up and drag sea lions from a beach, through the crashing waves, then will gather round when a ranger steps into the sea and plays his harmonica.

In the mid-1950s, it was believed Orcas were causing carnage, herring numbers had been falling so fast in the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic. Carl Safina found this, in the records of US Naval manoeuvres, their planes flying out of Keflavik in Iceland: “We completed successful missions against killer whales, hundreds were destroyed with guns, rockets and depth charges.”

Yet on Iceland’s shore, a stranded whale meant abundance and hope. It was called hvalreki, a windfall, an unexpected stroke of luck. Bells rang in the great sea-halls, light shone on the polar waves.

There she blows, called the lookouts on the whaling ships.

There she blows.

Now many a whaler once sang shanties about these kinds of fish, they thought them fierce and savage to the seafarer, teeth ready to snap in half a boat, they would often leap from sea to fall with stunning splash.

One day recently, a diver cut a humpback free from fishing net and rope that tangled round her fins, across her mouth. She blinked slowly, lay still in the water as the whole noose was detached.

The nations of whale have become closer over recent years, the matriarchs able to grow old again. What magic was this, whales old enough to recall the clean eras before plastic filled the seas, famed storytellers amongst the whale nations, now perhaps they could see the web was mending.

In the mid-1990s, the former whalers and fishers said, “It’ll never happen.”

People, the public, they won’t pay. They’ll never pay to watch a whale, those beasts filled with oil and blubber and keratin and other products for the industrial complex, used to light the streets and feed the animals.

It was no surprise, for it took time for people to realise they could listen to a whale.

Ketil started life as a coal-biter, they say in the Norse saga, building strength from an early age by lazing beside the kitchen fire.

One night, he took his axe, and had not gone very far when he saw a mythic creature flying from a hill to the north. It had writhing coils, the tail of a snake, the wings of a dragon. People blinked when he told them about the beast, then turned away.

Yet Ketil was good at fishing for large trout, so his father called him Ketil-Trout rather than Ketil-Dragon. At the winter fish camp, he amassed such a great catch that big men tried to steal it. He knocked the one called Hæng overboard.

“You are eager for big fish,” said his father. “It seems the nickname suits you.”

He was eleven years old at the time.

When a great famine came upon their lands, and the fish swam far rather than near, and crops failed, Ketil-Trout said:

“I shall go fishing, I will aid my neighbours.”

This was the time when giants and trolls were much in presence at those distant fish camps. One day Ketil-Trout saved the camp by chopping the head off the neck of Sutr the giant. Then came a troll woman in a violent gale, and he tried to escape by boat.

So it was that a whale with sad eyes swam up and placed itself between his boat and the wind and monster. It seemed to have a human gaze.

Ketil later said to a man called Bruni, he was chopping wood on the fields above the beach:

“I think the power of magic caused that terrible wind,

Yet it was the whale who calmed the ocean.”

There were other whales too. One Sunday, Cat-Whale came to a fishing boat, placing herself so near they could not put out their lines. The skipper said oh no, throw no spears, its fluke was bigger than their boat. It is safe to have it to rest beside us, we should let it be a cat in water.

Later that week, Bull Whale created such a roar when blowing out his breath that a cow ran into the sea, she was never seen again. This was near a village port in the north of Iceland, and all the other cattle had to be kept indoor for days, as the Bull Whale kept on calling.

Redcomb was famed for swimming around the whole of the isle in just two days, her teeth were long and sharp, and the white beluga friends followed, they ate the leftovers of her fishy prey. There was Barnacle Whale and his friend Ling-Back the Fin, as large as an island with heather patches, and the Sword-Whale who loved to race any a boat. The Blue Whale, the great protector of every boat, the Blue was their friend, they would gently swim around a boat, several times, and bring them home in a storm. It was such a blue with human eyes that came to rescue Ketil-Trout.

And so there it is, the whales today are back, they are singing from the Arctic waters.

These giants of ocean wave, now can roll quite safely with their infants.

The harbour water was somewhat calm. The open-decked oak trawler plunged east. It was cast up high and raced down iron waves, then simply ploughed ahead. It was in the sky, then down so low. A sleet of cold froth poured over the prow, white and radiant. To the north, there were dark clouds over the Westfjords. The sea was black, metallic blue and green, slate and slushy brown. The wind tore away the water, and still the search continued. Eyes were pinned, legs bent, absorbing each shuddered thump. The shore was sheer cliff and long waterfall on the strip between the sea and sky.

People pointed, for a line of blue sky had appeared. It advanced across the sky, and all the clouds cleared. Now green bubbles from the boat crushed outwards. The ship paused, wallowed and yawed, and the captain said slowly on the tannoy, “At eleven o’clock.”

A sperm whale blew, and a rainbow formed in air above the long brown body lying in the water. Snæfellsjökull’s snowy dome shone beyond this beast of fifty tonnes. The whale arched, and dived, and the tail fluke rose and cut into the water, the deepest diving mammal in all the seas. There came another, in the glittering light, it wallowed and huffed, tipped its fluke.

The polar light sang on the sea, a forge of glittering fire, a magnesium surface burning bright. The bow wave rolled outwards and white droplets, fell back to green again. The whales, it seemed, also have the power to gift us sun.

How to find the good times, many a saga might ask, what became of that fine horse. How would you describe a sea to someone who’d only ever held a glass of water? It is a hundred colours, black to silver and metal sheen, fiery and foam. It is mountain of solid water, cliff and crag and no safe path, it is effervescence into light and smoke. It is a bird that flies and floats, fulmar on a locked wing, puffin circling on the surface. It is frightful waves that seem only chop from far.

It is the polar light upon this sea. It is the sun that stumbles, and comes to fade as shadows travel north.

The boat came gently to the harbour, the song of the sea had ceased. This middle world came close to saying, goodbye to every whale. This day all were wind-beaten, wet and lifted up, salty by this polar shore.

Only death will dry your feet, the old folk said.

Then whale watching began a generation back, and brings each year more income than the whale ever did as food.

These days you may take such a whaler from former fishing ports. You may sail from Olafsvik and Akureyri, from Húsavík, from Andenes in the north Lofotens, and the whales will come.

Húsavík village in northern Iceland was once called only a speedbump on the road to other places, its fishing torn away by quota capture by the larger boats. The whales of Skjálfandi Bay saved it. No one could conceive, at the start, that so many visitors would want to travel on polished wooden ships to watch a whale.

Now Húsavík attracts 100,000 visitors a year. At first there were only minke, now there are daily sightings of humpback, blue, fin, sperm and sei, plus orca and dolphin.

The town has revived: a vibrant harbour quarter of cafés and restaurants, new hotels, a museum. The regeneration of this village is being spread in a new Fragile Communities initiative in northern Iceland.

This we know too. The whales are helping with the climate.

Of course they are. All things are connected.

Whales drive blue carbon capture. The whale pump works like this. Whales dive deep and return to the surface to breathe, releasing faecal plumes. They travel from nutrient-rich parts of oceans to nutrient-poor, again releasing nutrients to boost plankton growth. Like trees, phytoplankton take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The whales create diversity and boost productivity.

When whales worldwide reach their pre-industrial population numbers of some 4 to 5 million, they will be capturing globally 1-2 Gt (gigatonnes) of carbon each year. Worldwide greenhouse gas emissions are in the mid-50s of gigatonnes, so the whale alone will not save us from ourselves.

Whale numbers are rising, thought now to be at about 1.5 million. And we ought, you would think, to be praising every single one of them.

[Ka Gei Kai: Praise the Whale]

Jules Pretty


[Sources: The Saga of Ketil-TroutSea Sagas of the North (Jules Pretty, 2022); Carl Safina, Beyond Words (2016); David Rothenberg, Thousand Mile Song (2008)]

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