The thing about whales is not that they are beautiful goliaths of the sea - although they are - but that they and their cetacean cousins may be as intelligent as humans. Or even more so.

Which makes the so-called "scientific" slaughter of their species by the Japanese more than barbaric; it is a form of genocidal xenophobia, akin to us greeting alien ambassadors with guns blazing.

The annual "sampling" - sent straight to the supermarkets of Tokyo - demonstrates how crudely removed we humans are from the gestalt of life on planet Earth and how insufferably superior we imagine ourselves.

No surprises there. Ever since our monkey forebears learned opposable thumbs gave them an evolutionary advantage, we've used that lucky knack to waste, raze and otherwise despoil as much of our environment as possible, in the name of racial progress.


As if only we counted. As if no other life could be sacred and our mother the Earth existed for our exclusive benefit.

We've gone so far as to raise up gods to this purpose, detailing, supposedly in holy writ, how right it is for man to lord it over all else if it serves the worship of our anthropomorphic deities.

All the while excusing this rapine on the basis that only we possess "intelligence". Only we are capable of abstract thought. Only we, in short, can ponder the mysteries of the universe and imagine we perceive some higher purpose.

How naively short-sighted and delinquent we are.

For the more research is done, fuelled by the greater the ease with which we are beginning to unravel the hidden wonders of the deep oceans, the more it is becoming plain that whales, dolphins, belugas and porpoises are far more than simple fellow-mammals who frolic without purpose in the sea.

Dolphins have been shown to be self-aware, exist in social communities, use language, and have even been observed using tools - wrapping sponge around their noses to lessen abrasion while digging in the sea-bottom.

Gauging intelligence is a tricky subject, since the size of a brain is largely related to the mass of a body - larger bodies needing more brain to control them. However, a comparison of actual versus expected brain size yields an encephalisation quotient that broadly can be said to better indicate an animal's intelligence. By this measure, some species of dolphin are roughly as intelligent as humans. Whales - so hard for us land-dwellers to study in depth - could exceed this standard.

Western thought now seems to give more credence to this possibility than Eastern. Certainly the Japanese retain the belief that the sea is purely a hunting ground and discount any moral arguments for intelligence being a leavening factor.

But regardless of attitude, states must live within their international obligations. Poaching in the Southern Whale Sanctuary, or in New Zealand territorial waters - as the Sea Shepherd ships have found the Japanese whaling fleet doing - breaches these obligations.

If New Zealand is not willing to enforce the rules, how can cetaceans defend themselves?

Yet if whales are in fact more intelligent than humans, perhaps in their placid deep-sea ponderings they have intuited more of how the universe works - and what gods, if any, it contains - than humans may ever do. We might learn much from them. But clearly philosophy does not rate as highly as economics to modern man - another sign of how barbaric we still are.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.