Bermuda: A whale of a new heritage industry

This article by Edward Cecil Harris, Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard, appeared in The Royal Gazette. Follow the link below for original article and photo gallery.

 ‘It is because whales are such grand and glowing creatures that their destruction degrades us so. It will confound our descendants. We were the generation that searched Mars for the most tenuous evidence of life but couldn’t rouse enough moral outrage to stop the destruction of the grandest manifestations of life here on earth.’—Dr Roger Payne, quoted on www.whalesbermuda.com, 2012

By sea and by land, the destruction of two of the largest species of creatures still in existence continues afoot, or rather by ship and jeep, by explosive harpoons and deadly rifles. The whale and elephant of various species may eventually join the long evolutionary heritage of creatures, great and small, that has passed into the geological record in the halls of extinction. Their demise will not be due to the strike of an asteroid, or the explosion of Yellowstone Park, but to the works of man in his greed for elephant tusks for ivory and eroticism, and for blubbery meats of the whale for the meal tables of a few wealthy nations.

Some distance from the elephantine centres of southern Africa and Asia to the east and isolated from a land transmission of any living creatures, Bermuda possessed not even the miniature elephants that once inhabited Malta, another island, nor any but a few small species such as an endemic lizard and snail. Undiscovered until the latest half-millennium of the existence of the destruction human species, the evolution of land and aerial creatures here was slow and unexpansive, due to the isolation and smallness of the place, resulting in but a few local species, such as the surviving cahow, though others went extinct long before Juan de Bermudez hove to off the south shore of this paradise for birds in 1505.

So while we are unconnected in history with the elephant, our heritage is interwoven with the whale, which for some 330 years had its northward migration interrupted at Bermuda by injury for some and death for others, from the earliest days of settlement until the last capture of such a behemoth in 1940. It was shortly after that that a world agency was set up, but, according to one source, it seems powerless to halt the roller coaster slide into oblivion for the sperm, humpback and other species of the whale.

‘When the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was formed in 1946, its preamble noted that “the history of whaling has seen overfishing of one area after another and of one species of whale after another to such a degree that it is essential to protect all species of whales from further overfishing”. But despite this clear recognition of the problem the IWC was unable to stop it, instead presiding over the decimation of species after species. It is still not known if some species will ever recover, even after decades of protection.’

In the late winter and early spring, whales pass Bermuda on their way north, many accompanied by newborn calves. Our association and history with these jumbo jets of the oceans has been rekindled in late years in a whale of a new industry for heritage tourism. Andrew Stevenson, who writes and researches on whales and gives us access to such data on his web site, www.whalesbermuda.com, is a leader of the present charge, not into the Valley of Death, but, for the whales, into the realms of preservation through exploitation in the tourism industry, Bermuda’s fundamental trade.

The concept is simple and is one that should be applied to other areas of the island and rests on the fundamental concept that whales (and other oceanic creatures), unlike Jesse James or Billy the Kid, are worth more alive than dead and may be ‘exploited’ for tourism without injury or domestic interruption to those ‘supermammals’ and their pods. Inherent to the concept is the notion that those who are able to ‘visit’ with the whales off the shores of Bermuda will become advocates for the world-wide protection of the creatures, while at the same time investing in the tourism economy of the island, that some of funding may spin off into the preservation of other classes of heritage and visitor assets. That is a win-win situation, good for the cetaceans and good for helping to reestablish a whale of a tourist trade for Bermuda.

Around 1850, the renowned author Charles Dickens, in his book Household Words, alluded to domestic heritage and practices of Bermudians about the ocean and whaling: ‘…every Bermudian, being born within a mile of the water, was bred amphibious…Then whales abounded in the neighbouring seas, and every ‘Mudian took to handling the oar, the lance, or the harpoon, at a time of life when other children were driving hoops, or riding rocking-horses’.

Of course when we are educated, every schoolchild knows that our relationship with whales began with the discovery of a piece of vomit from a sperm of the species, which lump was fought over by early settlers until it was taken by the governor for the benefit of the Bermuda Company. Highly valued then as a fixative for perfume, a lump found in recent years on an Australian beach was worth in the region of $300,000, apparently! However, that pearl of the sea has its negative side, perhaps like ‘faint praise’, as noted by Alexander Pope about 1720:

‘Praise is like ambergris;

a little whiff of it, by snatches, is very agreeable;

but when a man holds a whole lump of it to his nose;

it is a stink and strikes you down.’

For the original report go to http://www.royalgazette.com/article/20120505/ISLAND09/705059977

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