The Atlantic

It’s Tough Being a Right Whale These Days

Life can be hell for giants of the deep—but does it have to be?
Source: Tatsuro Kiuchi

We might begin with a way of killing a whale that next to no one today would find acceptable. In the autumn of 1385, far enough back in time that we tend to think of humans then and now almost as different species, a whale beached near the southern tip of Greenland. Among the Norse settlers who gathered around the animal was a recent arrival named Björn Einarsson, an Icelandic chieftain who, on a return trip from Norway, had found his home country bound in its namesake ice and was forced to carry on. With winter on the horizon, the newcomers had been struggling to procure enough food.

Einarsson has left the impression across six centuries of a man who expects to have good luck. Sure enough, as the settlers butchered the whale, they found a spearhead embedded in its flesh. By Norse law, fully half the whale belonged to whomever had struck the ultimately fatal blow, and Einarsson recognized the spearhead’s mark. It belonged to Ólafur Ísfirðingur, who lived in the same district of Iceland as Einarsson himself. Ísfirðingur obviously could not be reached in a timely manner (a typical law of the era spells out that the finder of a dead whale must alert the hunter if he can “travel there twice on the day concerned, if he leaves early in the morning”), which meant that Einarsson could claim the “shooter’s share” of the whale meat on a promise to pay his neighbor later. We can imagine much rejoicing among the misplaced sailors.

Between the lines, we can also read snatches of the whale’s story, which is considerably more of a downer. Early Norse whaling mainly involved the spear-drift technique: spear a whale, then hope that it drifts ashore nearby so that you can get your share. Unfortunately, the process could be a slow one. The whale that put food on Einarsson’s table in late-autumn Greenland had most likely been speared during the Icelandic summer. When the end came, it had swum about a thousand miles across several months, in pain, terribly injured, slowly dying.

Spear-drift whaling was eventually replaced by more efficient means of killing whales. Along the way, we grew distant enough from stranded-in-Greenland-variety food desperation to agree that wounding an animal and leaving it to die across hours, let alone months, is not okay. That troublesome vegan at the dinner party would agree, but so, too, would members of the NRA, whose hunter’s code of ethics calls on them to “insure clean, sportsmanlike kills.”

In acknowledging the brutality of certain hunting practices, we drew a baseline of human responsibility for the

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