Whales and walruses: our cruel fascination with stranded marine life | Whales

IIn light of the sad and controversial fate of Freya, a displaced walrus who had the misfortune to choose Norway as the last stop on her European journey (after traveling through Northumberland, Ireland and the Netherlands, where she s lately dozed off on a docked Navy submarine and sparked speculation that she might be staging an anti-nuclear protest), it’s ironic that the most famous depiction of a walrus in art western, an exquisite drawing by Albrecht Dürer dated 1521 and now in the British Museum, was also shot on a Norwegian coast. In Dürer’s case, the animal was decapitated and its head sent to Pope Leo X in Rome, who had a fondness for such curiosities. The tribute was meant to show the Medici Papacy the wonders and riches the North had to offer.

Stranger still, then, to note that a the campaign has started last week to raise a statue to Freya. The photographs of her already seem to take on a noble, if not regal, appearance in her unexpected surroundings.

These images of literal disconnection and appropriation seem to evoke the current situation of marine mammals. Outrage greeted the ‘euthanasia’ of Freya in the Oslo Fjord – she was shot to protect swimmers who had defied warnings not to approach her – after a bad summer for intruding animals in the sea. Freya’s death came just weeks after another walrus, named Mursu, ended up on the grass in someone’s garden in southern Finland. Mursu’s sudden disappearance last month has been blamed by some observers on a botched and belated attempt to save the animal from its fate.

A few days later, three Sowerby’s beaked whales – among the deepest and most enigmatic of all cetaceans – swam onto a beach in the Netherlands. The scene was almost medieval: as some bathers tried to bring the whales back to sea, a topless bather climbed on top of one of the animals and i tried to mount it. In the past 12 days, seven species of the same species have been found dead in the Moray Firth, County Durham, Denmark, Belgium and the Dutch island of Texel, raising serious concerns about responsibility for military sonar exercises.

Walrus head by Albrecht Dürer, 1521. Photography: Artifact/Alamy

Earlier this month, a four-meter-long beluga was caught in the Seine in Normandy. The emaciated whale, its pale skin blotchy as a sign of its failing immune system, was euthanized on its way to shore.

Meanwhile, late last month, 99 bottlenose dolphins were driven into a bay in the Faroe Islands and slaughtered for their meat. It was the biggest hunt of its kind for 120 years: distressing images showed the animals sliced ​​like so much sushi. And this summer, Iceland resumed hunting fin whales, the second largest animal on the planet. Norway has never stopped whaling, despite the international whaling moratorium put in place in 1986.

The decline of modern tastes for whale meat may herald the demise of whaling, but the evidence indicates that we simply don’t know how to deal with these stray animals, alive or dead. Euthanasia of marine mammals is often done with pentobarbital, a chemical that makes carcasses toxic: in 2011 in the United States, a dog fell into a coma after digging up pieces of buried whale.

Today, modern conservationists implore authorities not to drag dead whales to the dump, but to leave them on shore to support foraging animals and thus complete a natural cycle.

Engraving by Jan Saenredam depicting crowds around a beached whale in 1601 in the Netherlands.
Engraving by Jan Saenredam depicting crowds around a beached whale in 1601 in the Netherlands. Photography: Aliyah

In a recent and revealing items for Nautilus magazine, the American ecologist Ben Goldfarb notes that a minke whale stranded on a Dutch islet was visited by 57 species of beetles. In Russia, scientists have documented 180 polar bears feeding on a bowhead whale carcass. These resources can mean life or death for animals whose environments are increasingly stressed by the climate emergency.

At sea, whales are very efficient carbon sequesters: alive, their droppings fertilize phytoplankton; in death, their bodies support colonies of organisms on the seabed. Yet on earth we deny them this service by treating their remains as loathsome waste. Dead whales certainly stink; after an encounter with a dead minke on the beach at Skegness i had to throw away most of the clothes i was wearing.

But while a rotting mass of fat wouldn’t sit well on Bournemouth’s golden sands, remote beaches are another matter. “We are removing what is natural from a natural place,” said Martina Quaggiotto, an ecologist at the University of Stirling. “We dump dead whales not just because they smell bad,” Goldfarb adds, “but to escape proof of our sins.”

Human hubris comes to the fore when it comes to our interactions with the natural world. It always has been. Dürer himself died of an infection contracted in the Netherlands when he attempted to draw a beached whale in 1521. It was probably malaria, from the marshes of Zeeland; but the artist himself felt that he had paid the price for his impossible arrogance in trying to capture the leviathan.

In 1803, William Blake, who venerates Dürer, declared of a world already out of step with nature: “We are led to believe a lie / When we see not in the eye”. Sometimes just witnessing and leaving the good alone is the best we can do. Perhaps Freya should have been warned once her human name was bestowed on her. Freya wasn’t just the Norse mythological goddess of love. She was also the goddess of the dead.

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