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Original Issue


Mind in the Waters (Scribner's/Sierra Club, $14.95) is a book assembled by Joan McIntyre to celebrate the consciousness of whales and dolphins. It is a magnificent gathering of scientific studies, stories of personal encounters, lore from the whaling days, poems, Greek and Eskimo myths, photographs, all put together for the pleasure and sorrow of those who love or are interested in our brother and sister mammals in the sea. The sense of familial closeness is not an anthropomorphic fantasy but a recognition of the hard evidence that these creatures may have qualities of intelligence and imagination exceeding our own. And they had been wandering the oceans for millions of years when we were still theoretically tree shrews.

It is easy enough to assume equality of intelligence in whales and dolphins through data concerning brain size and development and social behavior (including apparent suicide). Our notions of intelligence all seem to center in technological adaptability and capability. Carl Sagan suggests that there are between a million and a hundred million bits of information in a half-hour song of a humpback whale. Yes, they do sing; Songs of the Humpback Whale is readily available at record stores. But what about? Sagan imagines that they might be singing of their strange odyssey on earth, sort of a Moby Dick in reverse about their "compulsive and implacable enemy," man.

Of course, all this sounds far-fetched, but our discomfort as predators in this case is increased by the evidence that we have no idea qualitatively what we are killing. Farley Mowat writes about a fin whale trapped by a storm and high tide in an inlet in Newfoundland. The opportunity to study this vast creature at close range, a rarity, was lost when dozens of local men poured hundreds of rifle shots into the whale for no other reason than it was there. The whale's mate stayed outside the inlet entrance during the weeks it took the creature to die.

Most of the book, though, deals with how whales and dolphins live, not how they die; how they eat, travel, make love, talk and how they behave toward us, the last being a truly complicated matter. Paul Spong, a cetologist, studies the killer whales (Orcinus orca) on the coast of British Columbia in their wild state. Spong has discovered that these whales are bored with records but are interested in live music. He has traveled among large pods of the orca in a kayak in the fog, stopping to play his flute while they swim within touching distance.

Meanwhile, 37,000 whales are killed every year for cosmetics, dog food and some human consumption. This number may be added to at least 250,000 porpoises that die "accidentally" in the seine nets of the tuna fishermen. The blue whale is now nearly extinct. In the old days it used to take four men to push the heart of a blue whale across the slippery deck of a whaling ship; its tongue weighs as much as an elephant.

Herman Melville contended that it was only fitting for a cultured nation to have its chief god embodied in a whale. And a Byzantine philosopher, Gemistos Pletho, considered dolphins to be the mind of God in the waters—hence the title and the splendor of the book.