Big Miracle: why saving whales means saving the Arctic

Posted by Willie — 10 February 2012 at 10:48am - Comments

The film is inspired by a true story. I’m not going to recount it in detail here, as others have done that  much more splendidly than I can.  But in a nutshell, Drew’s character was involved in an international effort to save some gray whales which became trapped in Arctic ice.

It’s a historical story, but one with clear parallels for the present. The film is set just a few years after an international ban on commercial whaling came into force. Gray whales had historically been one of the first to be targeted by commercial whaling, as they swim close to shore to feed and breed and had predictable migration patterns

Along with so many other species of whales, the world’s populations of gray whales were devastated, so much so that the population in the Western Pacific remains endangered to this day.

Commercial whaling is of course still a threat, although much less so, and not now directly to gray whales. In many ways the fate of today’s whale populations is even more serious, because of the ways we use and abuse our seas and the vast array of threats we present to them directly and otherwise.

In Big Miracle, the threats from the effects of oil drilling on the Arctic environment are ever present. This is as true today in real life, with the Arctic being prospected as countries line up to rub their hands in anticipation over the melting sea ice.

And of course the melting sea ice is a problem in itself. It might sound counterintuitive when talking about whales having been trapped in it, but the human impacts on the Arctic, melting caused by climate change, are having a fundamental effect on all the species that call the area home.  Along with the iconic polar bear, the specialised ‘Arctic’ whales (bowheads, belugas, narwhals and gray whales) are at the forefront of those most threatened.

Melting sea ice brings prospectors and the imminent threat of environmental disaster, as well as declining food resources as prey simply disappears or is hoovered up by fishing vessels now able to traverse the ice-free seas. The impact of a spill on Arctic wildlife, for example, would be devastating. Even Arctic oil driller Cairn Energy admits that an oil spill would have significant long-term impacts on narwhals and puffins, and that marine mammals, such as seals and walruses, may be affected through the food chain.

But back to today and those gray whales in the Western Pacific…

We know from well-documented cases on land, with species like pandas, rhinos and tigers, that when populations of large mammals crash, we need to do what we can to protect them, and crucially the habitat they need to live in. For gray whales that means their feeding grounds, in cold Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, their breeding grounds in warmer seas, and their migration paths in-between. With a population now as low as 130 animals, the Western gray whale is in big trouble. Every year a few individuals get caught and killed in fishing gear, and pollution and lack of food take a less obvious toll on an already struggling species.

One no-brainer is that oil and gas developments in areas crucial to this species just shouldn’t be happening. That’s true around the island of Sakhalin, as well as the Arctic

 With the right protection, gray whales could recover. The story on the Eastern edge of the Pacific has been a great success.

In Big Miracle, just three whales are at the centre of an international rescue attempt. Surely we should be working together to protect whole populations and species too? And where better place to start than the Arctic?

About Willie

Hi, I'm Willie, I work with Greenpeace on all things ocean-related

Twitter: @williemackenzie

Follow Greenpeace UK