Beluga Days: Tracking a White Whale's Truths

By Nancy Lord
Counterpoint Press, 2003; ISBN 1582431515
Hardcover, 242 pages; $25

Late in her book Beluga Days: Tracking a White Whale's Truths, Nancy Lord describes her reaction to seeing 35 beluga whales beached and slaughtered during a native subsistence hunt. She writes, "Later, I would wonder at my lack of emotional response."

So do I. In fact, that absence is to me the primary paradox of the book. On one hand, Lord writes beautifully, especially when evoking the land and waters around Cook Inlet, Alaska where she lives and fishes for salmon. Clearly obsessed by the elusive beluga whales that swirl by her nets, she ably describes their natural history and the struggle to stop the Inlet's declining population from tipping into extinction.

But on the other hand, she takes part in every form of whale abuse considered by some to be acceptable: shooting biopsy darts to pull out chunks of flesh and blood, surgically implanting transmitters into their backs, performing captures by running the whales into the shallows and then jumping on them, watching captive beluga shows in Chicago and Vancouver, and finally participating in a study of the mass slaughter in Point Lay.

How can the author love these whales and care passionately about their protection yet feel so little empathy when they are hurt and killed in front of her? Part of the answer may be in the emotional compartmentalization practiced by some scientists and veterinarians whose credo is: we mustn't confuse the specimen with the species (in other words, individuals don't matter, just populations). Another explanation may be found in regional orientation. Even though the author is a transplant from Virginia, she thinks like many Alaskans: wildlife is a resource to be used—used respectfully, hopefully, but used all the same. And it may be that she is so impressed by the integrity of native communities that she is loathe to criticize them, even if their hunting of belugas to supply the native community of Anchorage with traditional food is the primary cause of decline.

She is not as impressed with either the "green machine" do-gooders trying to save the belugas (including a brief mention of AWI), or the National Marine Fisheries Service officials who she paints as pathetically weak, perennially pushed around by the Alaskan congressional delegation. Her description of how politics stopped "best science" from extending the protection of the Endangered Species Act over these beleaguered belugas is a perfect snapshot of how our dysfunctional government fails to obey the law.

But after the long litany of historic and ongoing brutalities waged against these vocal and gentle creatures, I expected the book to end in an epiphany. It never came. There is never a realization that maybe the paltry information gleaned through biopsy darting, or captivity, or harassing with nets in the name of science contributes nothing to the well being of the ever-fewer whales trying to just live their lives.

The book unsettled me. It was as if the author loved churches but never "got" religion.
—by Ben White

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