What Can We Do To Help The Whales?

Realize what is essential to abundant life,
and let go of all that is superfluous.

Updated: 1 December 2020

What the whales need most is exactly what the whole life system on Earth needs; they need us to live differently. That is what we need as well, because our habits are harming our own health and well-being as well as the health and well-being of the whales. We can take a range of actions to help the whales, from the simple to the complex, but in the end we all need to examine our lifestyles, and reject the life of consumerism (see below).

Learn About the Ocean

One fairly simple thing we can do is to learn more about the oceans. Most of us know very little about this vital 90% of our planet. The oceans and the whales are fascinating and surprising, and almost certain to challenge conventional thinking in delightful ways.

If you have access, go on a whale watch with a reputable and respectful captain. Become acquainted with the marine mammals who live in your region. Whales are amazing creatures, and meeting one for the first time changes many people's lives.

There are many specific, practical things that would be of immense help to the whales.

Reduce Ship Strikes

Being hit by ships is a significant cause of whale deaths. Reducing ship speeds in coastal waters has been shown to reduce whale mortality. Thankfully, there has been significant movement on this, but more can be done.

Sometimes a small shift in shipping lanes can move the majority of ship traffic away from the gathering places of the whales. We have a pretty good idea of where many whales congregate, and we know exactly where the shipping lanes are. Separating them is doable, but there can be a cost in longer shipping times. This has begun to happen, thanks to public support. Shipping lanes have been moved in and out of Boston, MA and through the Bay of Fundy, Canada, both critical areas for North Atlantic right whales. Changes have also been implemented in the Santa Barbara Channel and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to avoid the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, a significant area especially for blue whales.

Ultimately, if we really want to protect the whales from collisions with ships, we have to dramatically reduce global shipping. Fewer ships means fewer ship strikes and less ocean noise pollution. Global shipping is responsible for noise pollution that affects whales' ability to communicate with each other, and raises their stress levels, making them more suceptible to disease. Reducing global shipping would therefore be of great benefit to the whales. Start becoming aware of the origin of the things you buy. Is there a local alternative that would support the economy where you live and reduce the negative impact of shipping on whales?

Granted, this means re-localizing our economies in profound ways. It could mean disrupting current economic arrangements in ways that are destabilizing. It might require us to accept a more modest standard of living and higher prices. But it seems to me unequivocal that, from the whales' point of view, the best thing we can do is have a lot fewer ships plying the oceans.

Reduce Entanglement in Fishing Gear

Entanglement in fishing gear is a huge problem for the whales. Developing fishing and trap lines that sink to the bottom and don't tangle so easily would help. Ropeless traps are being developed that could significantly reduce the amount of rope in the water column. Commercial fishermen and their representatives are understandably resistant to these changes since they increase the cost of doing business and the fishing industry is already only marginally surviving in many places thanks to dwindling numbers of fish. Dialogue, creative innovation and a willingness of consumers to pay more for fish and lobster are needed. When whales do get entangled, emergency response teams attempt to free the whales, but disentanglement is dangerous and expensive, and does not solve the problem.

North Atlantic right whales are particularly vulnerable to collisions and entanglement, and attempts to move shipping lanes and develop new methods of anchoring fishing gear so far have had little benefit. It becomes clear that we cannot truly help the whales unless we are willing to radically reorient our lives away from massive consumption of imported material goods.

Reduce or Eliminate Trawling

We need to restrict destructive fishing practices like trawling in the primary whale feeding grounds that we know about. There have been recent, modest steps in this direction, mainly to protect herring, a vital whale and human food. More can be learned about midwater trawling at NOAA Fisheries.

Limit Low and Mid Frequency Sonar

We need to stop the Navy's use of low and mid frequency sonar in areas critical to the whales. This is controversial, and the science is not conclusive. But given how deeply the whales rely on sound for their communication, and their survival, it seems to me the burden should be on the Navy to prove their sonar does not affect whales, rather than the burden being on whale advocates to prove that it does. In November 2008, the Supreme Court sided with the Navy, allowing sonar to be used in whale-inhabited waters off of southern California, in the interests of "national security." We need to decide how much life and liberty we are willing to sacrifice in the interest of "national security." We also need to realize where our true security lies, which is where an honest spiritual inquiry is essential (see below).

End "Scientific" Whaling

We need to stop the practice of "scientific" whaling. Japanese whalers kill about 1000 endangered whales every year under the ruse of doing "research" on them. But have you ever heard of scientists using a giant factory ship to process and transport the remains of their "research?" I believe the Japanese people are waking up to the situation, after years of press censorship on this issue. If you have friends in Japan, encourage them to tell their government to stop spending taxpayer money on this slaughter.

Stop Burning Fossil Fuels

Increasingly, whales are being affected by global warming. Among other issues, as the water warms, their food moves farther toward the poles and they have to travel farther, expending more energy. This is especially critical for most baleen whales, who spend the summer eating, and the winter fasting. If they have to travel farther to find their summer food, they are going to have a harder time surviving the lean winter months. This is evident in the behavior of North Atlantic right whales, who are highly endangered. To combat global warming, we have to stop burning fossil fuels, but we also have to simplify our lives, because manufacturing massive amounts of solar panels and wind turbines and batteries and shipping them all over the world will also negatively impact the whales.

Buy Sustainable Seafood

Whales need a vibrant environment and abundant sources of food, so practices that support other oceanic species also support whales. Become acquainted with the fish sources that are considered sustainable. Resources for learning about sustainable seafood can be found at the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch.

Support Organizations That Help Whales

There are many groups engaged in helping the whales. They can use support:

Blue Ocean Society

Ocean Alliance

The Natural Resources Defense Council

The International Fund for Animal Welfare

Whale and Dolphin Conservation

American Cetacean Society

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who are attempting to halt the Japanese whaling operation


The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

to name a few.

Change How We Live

Creative action is also needed at a deeper level: radically changing how we live. Thirty years ago, saving the whales was an "us" versus "them" battle, where "them" were whale hunters. Now, the greatest threats to whales are global warming, global toxic and material pollution of the oceans, being hit by ships and getting entangled in fishing gear. These involve all of us. There is no "them" anymore. These problems are the direct result of the kind of life we live: the consumer-driven life based on accumulating more and more stuff and providing ourselves with more and more insulating comfort. Our "way of life" has become deadly for us and the whales.

We can and must scale back our consumption, live with less stuff, live more slowly and consciously, and discover the joy in that.

At the very least, we need to stop flying everywhere, stop driving cars everywhere, stop eating so much meat, and dramatically lower the amount of global shipping. Obviously, such significant changes in how we live and run our economies require equally significant changes in our psyches, our sense of who we are, are ways of finding happiness in life, our beliefs about what makes a good and satisfying life. These are revolutionary changes, and most of us will resist them with everything we've got. Despite the fact that this "way of life" has only existed for a little over 100 years, we take it as inevitable and immutable. It is neither.

This is a huge challenge for us because the consumer society and the individual consumer identity are founded on the belief, deeply held and felt, that we are inadequate and incomplete, that to find fulfillment we need something more, something we do not currently have. This is as true in the spiritual marketplace as it is in the marketplace for things. Our entire social and economic system is driven by the cultivation of this belief: that you, as you are right now, are lacking something. If not the necessary stuff and power and money, then the necessary approval, or acceptance, or sex appeal, or knowledge, or experiences, or information, or status, or wisdom. The marketplace wants you to think you lack all of that so it can sell it to you, or a cheap and inadequate substitute.

Shedding the things and the beliefs and the attitudes and habits that have formed our sense of self is not trivial. To shed all of that, one needs a solid place to stand. We need to rediscover the root, the very foundation of life. For me that is to be found in nature and in deep silence. The lesson of both is the same: we lack nothing. Life is a miracle. We are in no way separate from absolutely everything that is. How, then, can we lack anything?

We Need A Spiritual Revolution

Possibly the most important thing we can do for the world, for the whales, for ourselves, is to engage in an honest contemplative inquiry.

"Contemplate" means "to observe closely." Contemplative inquiry is multifaceted. It involves observing the natural world openly, without any agenda; facing our thoughts and opinions and habitual reactions in a straightforward, uncompromising, yet nonjudgmental way; and realizing our ultimate "emptiness."

The mind is skilled at dancing around and not looking, at finding someone to blame or cooking up self-justifying excuses that are total nonsense. It is eager to be distracted by entertainments of its own making. But in my experience it is also capable of changing radically when it is faced with its own life-defeating ways, when it is allowed to see the truth of its attempts to wiggle and squirm out of the truth.

So I think it is essential that we face ourselves and our world honestly. Be still. Come to an absolute stop for just one moment. Stop imposing your worldview onto the world and your self image onto your self, for one moment, and everything changes.

This is the essence of what the whales teach us, and it may be what they are trying to tell us: there is no such thing as a separate thing. There is no such thing as lacking. Those are mere ideas, mind-created illusions. Reality, our true nature, is the dance of the whole of everything, every rock and tree, every bird and whale, every mountain, every sea, every star, every planet, and the energy it all embodies. That is what we are, the whole of everything.

Finally, there is no question that the forces that keep us in thrall to our current way of life, and therefore threaten the whales, are not merely personal, but social and political. In truth, no separation exists between the social, the political and the personal. We are all caught up in a collective agreement to live off the exploitation of the Earth and each other. Historian John Dominic Crossan refers to this as the "exploitative normalcy" of civilization.

The contemplative, spiritual life I describe above and in my essays and blog, is one part of the unraveling of this exploitative normalcy that is choking the planet. When people stop buying the story of insufficiency, and discover the natural abundance of life, the whole edifice collapses.

But there are those who think they profit directly from the status quo, much more so than the vast majority, who know they suffer terribly from it. Those of us who think our self-interest is best served by maintaining the current system are unlikely to let go of it easily, unlikely even to see the destructive part we play. Blind denial is a powerful force in us. We need creative encouragement to do the right thing. We might need a push or two from our poorer neighbors who can see the depth of our injustice much more clearly than we can. We need to look very clearly at how damaging our thought patterns and our lifestyle patterns are for this beautiful Earth. We at least need to see that we are causing our own suffering as well as the suffering of others, including the whales.

However we come at it, we will need to be open to having our entire world- and self-images turned upside down.

That's a good thing, turning your world upside down. It is a blessed relief in the end. But let us not wait so long that the Earth runs out of patience and takes care of that for us.

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