The story goes that people are not satisfied with small catch. Even though there were enough small fish to sustain their lives, people were looking for a big catch. To succeed at this mission, they ventured out into the deep blue sea. They needed a harpoon to succeed at this mission so they were given the opportunity to invent one. The human mind has the ability to create all of the tools it needs to fulfil its ambitions.

The Ainu People of Japan call the Orca Repun Kamuy meaning God of the Offshore. They greatly respected orcas as deities and ancestors and even held traditional funerals for stranded or deceased orcas. Viewing them as fellow kin, they also held funerals for other large animals such as brown bears. It is a revered relationship between the apex predators of their respective environments.

Bear spirit sending ceremony in Hokkaido, Japan. Artwork by Hirasawa Byozan, 1875.

Repun Kamuy is an important mythological figure amongst the Ainu People because the sea, and in particular the deepest parts of the sea, represented opportunities for harvests that could not be found on land: deep sea fishing, the hunting of whales as well as maritime trading expeditions to discover what lay on the other side of the shore.

In the story of Repun Kamuy, he harpoons a whale and her young and throws them ashore near a human village. When he arrives at home, he is visited by a wren, who tricks him and tells him that the humans are cutting up the whales using sickles and axes. They are not showing proper respect to life-giver who has given them his life as a gift.

Rather than growing angry, Repun Kamuy laughs, saying that the meat belongs to the humans and they can do with it as they like. Later on, when he sets out again, he happens to pass the same village that the wren told him about. He discovers that the wren has lied. He finds humans are dressed in ritual robes and cutting the flesh from the whales with sacred swords, in the proper manner.

Moved by this display of piety, Repun Kamuy assures humans that the bounty of the sea will keep them from famine.

The Sonar Navigation System

Whales rely on an instinctual and inbuilt sonar navigation system (they navigate using sound waves) for detecting and determining the distance and direction of underwater objects by acoustic means. Sound waves emitted by or reflected from the object are detected and analysed for the information they contain.

We humans, however, needed to invent tools to help us do the same. For animals, these ‘superpowers’ if you will, are inbuilt into their technological system. Whales are expert navigators by their very nature, but like Repun Kamuy, if they hear the wrong sort of information, they can be deceived. It is not the system itself (their instincts) that are unreliable, but the information that it is receiving.

You know how growing up we were told, “Don’t believe everything that everyone says.” It’s a little like that. Actually, it’s a lot like that. We need to know what information we can rely on for what purpose.

The scientific explanation is that individual whales may beach themselves for a host of reasons. From genetic mutations, to illnesses from infections or parasites, to injuries from predators or to entanglements in fishing gear and old age may all play a role.

But the reasons behind group strandings are far more mysterious. As whales are social creatures, much like us humans, one theory proposes that group strandings occur due to the social bonds, hierarchy and and kinship which exist within a pod. Most whale species travel in packs as a part of their survival strategy. Dominant whales emerge as leaders to lead the pod. If the Alpha Whale becomes sick or confused, it may lead the pod too close to shore, where they can become trapped by a low tide.

The Japanese have a long history of whaling. Some towns have a whaling history that is officially documented to go back hundreds of years. This history plays an important role to answer the question why the Japanese have kept hunting whales in recent years despite strong international condemnation. Can we stop a pod of people from being who they have been for thousands of years?

In either case, I came to the conclusion that whales end up breaching themselves when noise pollution grows too great to bear.

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