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Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Friday, December 22, 2000

Save the really,
really old whales

MOST of us have come to the realization that killing a whale for food or oil makes as much sense as cutting down a 100-year-old redwood to make picnic tables.

Now comes news that whales and ancient trees have a lot more in common than we knew. According to recent studies by scientists in Alaska and at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, whales may be able to live for more than 200 years. That is, if they aren't harpooned by Russian or Japanese trawlers.

Whaling once was a legitimate industry. Lahaina was put on the map, for better or worse, because of its whaling history. Hawaiian waters were infested with whales. As we've discussed before, sea life that is dangerous infests the ocean, benign sea life simply lives in it. And in the 1800s, whales were as dangerous as they were plentiful.

Of course, many of the whale tales of terror were put out by the Pro Whale-Killing Lobby. Whales were constantly swallowing men or chomping off limbs (usually the bottoms of legs). Whale survivors would limp around the Pioneer Inn on their wooden stumps and tell wild tales of having taken on the giant evil mammal and won, except for the leg thing.

Then they'd launch into wild tales about their encounters with mermaids and other whimsical ocean anomalies. They'd say anything for a free drink. And because they were missing a leg or an eye, people would believe them.

In those pre-Wyland days, painters depicted whales tossing small boats full of hapless harpoonists into the air and gobbling them up like popcorn. You never saw the side of a building plastered with a huge mural of a gentle whale escorting her young pup while porpoises and sea turtles gamboled around them.

But we grew up. We've learned that instead of exploiting defenseless whales for oil, we can exploit small defenseless Arab countries for it.

At least most of us have changed. Japanese still have a taste for whale meat. The Whale Sashimi Grande Platter is a thing to behold. Russians still kill whales for oil, but do it with the same expertise they displayed in producing nuclear power. A few Native American tribes kill the odd whale or two for cultural reasons. (Why don't New Englanders still burn the odd suspected witch or two for cultural reasons?)

So whales have it pretty good. They come to Hawaii yearly for vacation and pose for photos with tourists. They are no longer considered vicious, although there's a federal law against getting within 200 feet of one. And now it turns out that those very whales hanging out off Lahaina today may be the same whales that hung out there 200 years ago. That's amazing. You'd think that in 200 years, they'd find someplace else to go on vacation, like the Bahamas or a nice lake in Canada.

How do scientists know how old whales are? Simple, they find a living venerable old whale, cut it in half and count the rings. Sorry. Whale joke. Actually, they do some of that creepy scientist junk with amino acids in the whale's eye. But think about it, there are whales living today who existed during the Civil War. They didn't take sides or anything, but they were THERE, man.

This new discovery should make protecting whales even more important. Eating whale today is like gnawing on your great, great grandfather's dog. And who could, in good conscience, read by a lamp fired by oil from a whale who might have known Abraham Lincoln?

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802
or send E-mail to

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