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Another Account Of Penn Cove

December 11, 2014

Peter Ward, a paleontologist, writes an account of his life in science. Part of his journey included working for Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin during the Penn Cove captures. Here is what he has to say about the experience:

In 1970 and 1971, I was part of the infamous Penn Cove (Washington) whale hunts. At that time the Puget Sound region, or its salmon-fishing community, despised the orca, which routinely ate half the salmon returning each year to spawn. Trapping was applauded. We encircled pods of 30 to 40 whales with seine nets thrown from fishing boats, and culled and captured with ropes the babies for aquaria. My job was to be in the water with the whales and separate mothers from their young. (I once found my leg down the throat of an enraged mother, who spit me out). Rumor had it the going price for an orca was $50,000. I was paid $50 a day.

But another part of my job was to dive down into the seine nets at night, should the whales try to break out. During those nights I learned more about fear than I ever wanted to know—down 40 feet in low visibility, with a dive light in one hand and a knife in the other to confront the poorly seen but certainly felt struggles of a gigantic, multi-ton behemoth fighting for its life in a heavy net, its massive tail thrashing through the blackness. We mostly succeeded in cutting the whales loose from the nets. But not always. That brought about shame, followed by rage, at myself, and at the greedy, voracious men who then, as now, make money from the incarceration of these intelligent creatures.

Following an expose of the hunts by Seattle TV news reporter Don McGaffin in 1971, some of my fellow divers and I testified to state authorities that our employers had been covering up evidence of whales killed in the hunts. Our proof helped launch a state and then federal law to prevent capturing whales in U.S. territorial waters and giving them a life sentence in solitary confinement. It remains the most important work of my life: helping stop the obscene captures.

It’s always interesting to get a new perspective on Penn Cove. But Ward’s real purpose in his article is to pay homage to the nautilus, the extraordinary and (up until humans come into the picture) resilient mollusc he has spent a lifetime studying:

In 2011 and 2012 I returned to my old study sites in the Pacific, and collected DNA samples that helped confirm that Nautilus pompilius is many separate species. But I also discovered that unlike in the deep past, perhaps only a few thousand individuals make up each species. A few thousand individuals swimming long distances to be caught in a baited trap, from which they are hauled to the surface, killed, and sold for $1 a shell. For buttons and cheap tourist jewelry.

It’s a savage irony. Although the nautilus ruled the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, Earth’s changing conditions dwindled the number of species, about 3 million years ago, to less than a handful—or even a single species. Then came the advent of the Ice Ages and a radical drop in global sea level and temperatures, which, combined, created cool, highly oxygenated oceanic conditions similar to those when hundreds of nautiloid species existed. The nautilus was making a huge comeback in diversity, to the point where it may have been poised to once again be a presence in every ocean, rather than its current confinement to the western tropical Pacific.

But as recently as 50 years ago, the comeback hit a roadblock: us. In the Philippines and  Indonesia, the distant nautilus species are being harvested to extinction. Between 2007 and 2010, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife discovered that more than half a million nautilus shells or artifacts were imported into the United States alone. Fleets of nautilus boats now scour the coastlines of the South China Sea.

The life of the nautilus is providing its last lesson about chance events. But this time it’s about bad luck. It’s bad luck that nautiluses use their olfactory system rather than vision to find prey, because this trait makes them ludicrously easy to catch. Worse luck comes from a trait over which they never had control: they produce a shell with a visual power that humans covet.

Killer whales. The nautilus. The destructive power of human desire crosses all species.

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