Cautionary Tales – The Revenge of the Whales

7th June, 2024

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in 1819, Owen Chase is standing on a slowly sinking ship. It’s just been headbutted by an 85 foot whale. It’s taking in water. And now the creature is coming back for another go. This is a whaling ship, and Chase is convinced that he observes “fury and vengeance” in the animal.

In 2010, an orca is performing for a crowd at SeaWorld – but he misses his mark and so he doesn’t get his reward. That’s when he grabs hold of his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, and pulls her under water. By the time he’s finished, her savaged body has multiple fractures and dislocations. And her scalp has been ripped off.

To some observers, these whales were surely out for revenge. But how much is what we think we understand about the natural world shaped by human guilt?

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Further reading

The documentary Blackfish is available on Netflix. The critique on the website can be found here. We read about the aftermath of Blackfish in an article by Laura Thomas-Walters and Diogo Veríssimo on The Conversation.

Owen Chase’s 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex can be read on Project Gutenberg. For context about how it inspired Moby Dick, see this article in the Smithsonian magazine. We learned more about the history of whaling on the US National Parks Service website.

Reportage on orcas attacking yachts came from sources including The GuardianThe Atlantic and

Frans de Waal’s article, Anthropomorphism and Anthropodenial: Consistency in Our Thinking about Humans and Other Animals, was published in the journal Philosophical Topics in 1999.

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