BOOKS: Sightings: The Gray Whales’ Mysterious Journey
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2003:
Sightings: The Gray Whales’ Mysterious Journey
by Brenda Peterson & Linda Hogan
National Geographic Society (1145 17th St. NW, Washington, DC
20036), 2002. 286 pages., hardcover. $26.00.
Defenders of gray whales migrating along the Pacific coast of
Mexico, the U.S., and Canada won two important court decisions
within 18 days as 2002 closed and 2003 began.
First, on December 20, a three-judge panel of the Ninth
U.S. circuit Court of Appeals ruled in San Francisco that Makah
tribal treaty rights granted in 1855 do not supersede the intent of
Congress in enacting the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The verdict
requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct an
extensive environmental impact review before authorizing the Makah to
hunt any more gray whales.
The verdict will almost certainly be appealed now by the
Makah, backed by many other tribes whose claims to hunting and
fishing rights are based on nineteenth century treaties, but
meanwhile there is unlikely to be any more Makah whaling in the near
future. Among other reasons is that the administration of President
George W. Bush and Republican majorities in both the Senate and House
of Representatives are unlikely to give NMFS extra funds to do a
study that might support whaling.
The lavish spending by NMFS that supported the Makah whaling
effort during the Bill Clinton administration reflected the alliance
of Clinton and Vice President Albert Gore with Native American casino
gambling interests, who poured money into the Gore campaign against
Bush in 2000. Republican candidates do not get a lot of funding or
votes from Native American reservations –and Republican
administrations have historically been much stronger in opposition to
whaling of any kind than Democrats, if only to protect their images
while trying to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
The second courtroom victory came on January 8 from U.S.
District Judge Samuel Conti, who halted three weeks of sonar testing
planned by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, of
Massachusetts, and Scientific Solutions Inc., of New Hampshire.
The scientists intended to detonate underwater explosions a mile off
the northern California coast during the gray whale migration to test
a system that they hope might enable high-speed vessels to avoid
ramming whales. The protect was opposed by environmental
attorney Lanny Sinkin on behalf of the Channel Islands Animal
The anti-sonar ruling followed an October 2002 judicial order
that halted a National Science Foundation underwater mapping
experiment in the Gulf of California which might also have harmed
migrating gray whales.
The U.S. Navy soon thereafter agreed to restrict use of the
SURTASS-LFA anti-submarine sonar system to parts of the Pacific Ocean
that are less used by whales than the California coast.
These news developments update discussions in Sightings by
veteran wildlife writer Brenda Peterson and Chickasawplayright and
novelist Linda Hogan, who also describe many other episodes of note
involving gray whales. They discuss the saga of J.J., the stranded
baby gray whale who was rescued in 1997 and returned to the ocean in
1998 by Sea World San Diego, and review the long activist battle
with Mitsubishi during the 1990s over plans to expand salt production
facilities in the San Ignacio Lagoon, along the Mexican coast–but
their focus is the Makah whaling issue. Both Peterson and Hogan
contributed memorable newspaper essays to the discussion as the Makah
effort to kill a gray whale in exercise of their claimed treaty
rights gained momentum.
The Makah at last succeeded in killing one small female gray
whale in May 1999. Peterson and Hogan, enjoying more access to the
Makah than most reporters who were critical of the hunt, suggest
that this may be the last whale the Makah kill, not because of court
battles, whichever way they go, but because the Makah tribe has
found that resuming whaling after 75 years did not bring them renewed
prosperity or lastingly relieve any of their other problems, and did
deeply injure their relations with their neighbors, including the
Quileutes, just to the south.
The Quileutes, perhaps the tribe longest settled on the U.S.
west coast, are trying to promote watching gray whales from canoes.
Like the “Save the whales!” movement itself, Sightings owes
much to The Year of the Whale, the 1969 bestseller about sperm
whales by Victor B. Sheffer, who alternated between contrasting
factual and lyrical styles resembling the alternating voices of
Peterson and Hogan. Sheffer, however, feared that great whales
might soon be hunted to extinction. Peterson and Hogan seem
confident that they will survive all current threats except,
perhaps, global warming.