Peter Lourie,
Scientists in the Field: Whaling Season
(Houghton Mifflin, 2009)

An old stone harpoon point tells the story of a clash with hunters more than a century ago. This venerable bowhead survived to tell the tale -- but not today.

A victim of more modern hunting techniques, this hardy male is now a corpse on the ice, a cause for celebration for the Inupiat villagers from Barrow, Alaska, who caught and butchered it -- as well as for the whale biologists who study the remains.

Much in the tradition of John James Audubon, who shot birds in order to study them, John Craighead George lives in Barrow in order to examine dead whales. For all that he loves whales and the knowledge they impart, he readily joins in the celebration and lends a hand with the slaughter as he and his team gather data.

Oops, my mistake. They never use the word "slaughter" in this book, which is intended primarily for younger readers. These whales -- more like corn and wheat than cows or pigs, apparently -- are only "harvested" by the natives. Granted, based on the colorful photos included with the text, it's a bloody harvest, so prepare young readers to see chunks of bloody meat on the ice.

Let's be clear. I'm not a vegetarian and I am not suggesting the Alaska natives give up their lifestyles and traditions in favor of a tofu diet. And, while I strongly oppose commercial whaling, I am not even saying that these low-impact hunts should cease.

But it's a little disquieting, I think, just how much the scientist studying whales in this book revels in their deaths. Unlike some cetacean biologists who tag whales to study their movements and learn what they can from watching these gentle giants in their natural environment, George learns what he can by cutting open their stomachs to see what he can learn from their last supper -- and guesses their ages by removing their eyeballs.

I guess that's science, too. And those Japanese whaling fleets really are "harvesting" whales for scientific purposes, I suppose.

OK, enough preaching. Houghton Mifflin's Scientists in the Field series is, so far as I've seen to date, an excellent collection of books designed to inspire young readers to love science and nature. To that end, Whaling Season succeeds. It's a lively and engaging account written by Peter Lourie, and the photos -- if you don't mind a little gore -- are colorful and educational. You'll learn a little about whales, a bit about whale autopsies and a lot about Eskimo customs regarding their hunting traditions. There is also information about the hardship of living in the icy north and the constant peril from polar bears.

Perhaps this book will inspire some readers to grow up and love whales, maybe even to study them without killing them first.

Oh, by the way, it's ironic to note that whales who are slaughtered, beached on the ice and chopped into edible portions without mishap are known to the Inupiat villages as "happy" whales. It is probably my own bias talking, but the corpse in these photos doesn't look too happy to me.

book review by
Tom Knapp

30 July 2011

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