BARHARBOR, Maine -- While much of the country was giving its heart to Humphrey the disoriented humpback whale in San Francisco Bay, citizens in this seacoast village had reason to rejoice in a similar, though less celebrated, rescue.
A 15-foot minke whale, jaws tangled in strings of lobster traps, was freed recently by a group of divers, fishermen and whale-watchers. The trapped minke, ensnared five miles off the coastline amid some islands that are havens for wildlife, had fortune on its side. Bar Harbor is home to some of the world's most knowledgeable authorities on the behavior, needs and rights of whales. They are associated with Allied Whales, a marine mammal research group begun in 1971 at College of the Atlantic, one of America's most innovative liberal-arts schools.
Saving the local minke, which belongs to a species that summers in the Gulf of Maine and winters in the Caribbean near Puerto Rico, was a partial victory. The whale was freed from one small man-made hazard -- the strings of traps for lobsters, themselves creatures whose sacred rights to life and freedom are ignored -- but then turned loose to be at the mercy of a larger one: an ocean that is less and less a healthy and balanced habitat.
Steven Katona, director of Allied Whales and a professor of marine biology at College of the Atlantic, recalls that in the early 1970s saving whales meant stopping mass slaughter by commercial hunters. Extinction was a major fear. "Things are somewhat better now," Katona said. "Many of the big whales have had the opportunity to come back. The problem now is not hunting, which can be relatively easily monitored and regulated, but the many widespread unanticipated dangers: entanglements in fishing gear, collision with ships and ocean pollution -- chemical pollution, sewage pollution, oil pollution.
"What we're looking at is an ocean that 20 years ago still seemed very big to us but now, considering all the uses and abuses, is actually not so big at all. The problem now is not just protection of whales but the whole habitat in which they live and which we share with them."
This promises to be a more intractable crusade than the push in the early 1970s, involving deeper energies besides bumpering cars with "Save the Whales" stickers, passing laws or denouncing the Japanese and Norwegians for sending out factory ships to kill leviathans, which those nations are still doing today.
Personal behavior is now an issue. How many people in New England, or anywhere, are willing to stop eating lobsters so whales won't be caught in the trap strings? How many Americans, besides vegetarians and animal-rights advocates, are ready to stop eating fish so that the traffic in fishing vessels on the high seas will decrease and let whales swim in peace? Probably the same number of people who will protect Latin American rain forests by not eating meat that comes from cattle raised on cleared grazing lands.
Must whales and rain forests vanish before the link between personal choices and ecological disaster becomes obvious? The slaughter of elephants in Africa led to an international outcry against the use of ivory for trinkets. That was a safe protest, aimed mostly at boutique shoppers on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive. No similar outcry, nor even a whisper, has been heard against the consumption of tuna fish caught in the South Pacific by giant drift-nets up to 37 miles long. A year-old ban on the nets was recently lifted by an agreement among tuna-killing nations, because the fish were said to be no longer in danger of being wiped out. Star-Kist, a canning company, now advertises that no porpoises are caught when tuna are killed, as if the value of one species is higher than another.
The media's attention to Humphrey in San Francisco Bay, like the rescue of the Bar Harbor minke that had the town buzzing, can be a happy-ending distraction from what really needs to be decided: how humans and whales should coexist. They're the largest mammals, and we're the most violent.
Questions about habitat quality aren't answered when a rescued Humphrey heads to open sea, because open seas aren't clean or safe seas. Until they are, which means until we are willing to sacrifice personally and collectively to make them that way, humans are as trapped as the Bar Harbor minke.