The whale

August 08, 2023 08:19
Photo: RTHK


A lifeless blob, a landmass of shredded tissues held together by a briny coagulant, a wreck crawling with mealworms.

A whale carcass was found earlier this week in Hong Kong’s eastern waters. Experts have suggested that this was the same specimen that was first spotted two weeks ago - a rare Bryde’s whale, a baleen whale known for its moderate size, twin blowholes with a slow splashguard, and teethless-ness. Bryde’s whales are fairly long, and are dorsally dark, smoky grey. I’m not a marine biologist - the information is available for all to see online, just as the devastation wrought by mankind in the war fought to satisfy the most vainglorious and purposeless of aims.

It's been laid bare for all of us to see, and yet we remain blind.

The whale didn’t have to die.

But in many ways, its death was preordained.

How could these two sentences be true?

The whale didn’t have to die, because it shouldn’t be the case that we take it for granted that we can comb through the waters in search of a ‘rare’ specimen’, and render Hong Kong’s near-shores some of the most crowded and densest areas amongst the natural habitats for the whale. We didn’t have to be there to see for ourselves the legacy we have left upon Planet Earth - a marine ecosystem in many places starved of oxygen (sometimes literally, at other times figuratively), drained of nutrients, and clogged up with pollutants and chemicals that produce unsustainable and toxic overgrowth. We didn’t have to chase after a vulnerable, likely intimidated animal with the purpose of taunting it to emerge from its restive shadows, only to leave it to rot and dry once we are done with it, and it is of no ‘further use’.

We didn’t have to ram a high-speed boat into the whale, piercing its skin, splintering its organs, and killing it in the process. There is no intrinsic reason to think that our right to inquisition and curiosity ought to entail our ability to unreasonably increase the risk of severe injury and even death for particular animals. Animals have rights… we learn in schools, on videos broadcast on silicon screens on busses, and in open conversations in which we must act civilly and politely. In private we continue to treat animal welfare with wanton nonchalance, as if killing an animal inadvertently is akin to adding a “1” to a “50” (kills).

Now, now, there would always be that reader, who posits that unless one is a vegetarian (e.g. one abhors consuming meat), one should not protest so vocally upon hearing of the killing of the whale. After all, surely all animals are equal, and all killings are equivalent in nature?

Yet I would argue that one need not be a vegetarian in order to find the mauling of the whale gruesome and morally repugnant. There is no unique utility or value to be derived from sailing recklessly through waters populated by whales, amongst other special organisms within the marine ecosystem. There is no reasonable excuse for the recklessness with which group ‘tour guides’ have latched onto the ‘whale craze’ out there, in leading wildlife ‘tours’ for which they are so woefully unequipped and ill-trained. Unlike meat consumption - which could well be unethical in its own right - there is no sociocultural tradition that entails or justifies the mindless, unhinged chasing of whales in their natural habitats.

And yet the whale’s death was preordained - the question to ask isn’t so much, ‘Will it get killed?’, but ‘When will it get killed’. The moment it was born into a world that prizes short-term sentiments of thrills and hedonism over long-term virtues of conservation and a respect for life; into an ecosystem that is increasingly out of sync and depleted thanks to over-consumption and over-extraction of resources, the whale’s fate had been sealed. That it, despite being a member of an endangered species, stumbled into the waters of one of the busiest cities on planet Earth - a cosmopolis housing many a curious and highly educated, seemingly conscientious and most definitely morally uptight citizen - could only be said to be a case of bad, bad luck. After all, callous homicides could also be attributed to bad luck, no?

Prometheus gave us fire, and he was bound by chains and had his immortal liver eaten by an eagle each day. Years later, Heracles killed the eagle and freed Prometheus from the torment. My fear is that there would be no Heracles to bail us out of the crisis we have collectively engendered ourselves, and that would send us down a path of no return. First, it’s the whale, then it’s the forest, and then the soil, and then the air… till there’s nothing left for us to consume, to take for granted, to claim as our own, and to maul.

What can we learn from the Whale? Very little.

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Assistant Professor, HKU