A few years ago, I traveled to the island of Kauai to visit my brother and soak in a little tropical sunshine. The day after I arrived, I was invited to join him and some of his friends on a small fishing boat for a day of trolling for Ahi Tuna. We launched just prior to dawn, and the sea had three to four-foot swells; not too bad, and the little 20 ft. boat handled them well. Soon, we were about five miles from the coast of Niihau, and I could see the Ahi boiling the water as they fed on the surface nearby. The fishing was fast and furious, and most of the Ahi we caught weighed about fifteen pounds. Eaten fresh and raw, with a little lime juice, these fish are about as tasty as you can get.
After we had caught our fill, we started motoring back toward Kauai, and as I lounged on the port rail of the boat (no seats were available), I saw what appeared to be a small whale that had surfaced about 400 yards out. I motioned the Helmsman to steer a little closer, and sure enough, it was a small Pilot whale. As we maneuvered closer, I could see that it was in extreme difficulty: It had become entangled in what appeared to be a portion of a long-line fishing net. We were touched by its plight, and debated what to do: Ignore it, or help it. The latter sentiment won out, and we decided to get close, and then leap into the sea and cut the lines that ensnared it. However, as soon as we got within its personal space, it would dive and after a few minutes, resurface a few hundred yards away. We made several attempts with the same result, and anguished at its expenditure of precious energy (it probably hadn’t eaten for some time), we decided that any further attempts to render assistance would result in its demise. Sadly, we watched it drift away, still ensnared in the ghastly netting.
This got me thinking about the danger to all Cetacea (the order of aquatic mammals that include Dolphins and Whales) in a world run by Primates. Based on the brain to body mass ratio, and the absolute size of their neocortex, they are potentially the most intelligent creatures on the planet. For example, the brain mass of a mature sperm whale is about 9,000 grams; almost seven times that of the average human. I doubt they need this massive brainpower just to filter-feed, chase fish and squid, or operate their fins and sonar systems. Do they indulge in music and poetry? Certainly their “songs” are very complicated, and we have made very little headway in interspecies communications.
Yet many human cultures consider them delicacies to be eaten willy-nilly, without regard to the possibility that they might be dining on an aquatic Einstein or Bach. If we have such difficulty in communicating with these critters, so similar to ourselves, how can we possibly communicate with intelligences beyond the solar system? I think SETI should refocus its attention on our cousins in the ocean. There is much to learn there. Let’s face it, we’ve had no luck at all in picking up electromagnetic signals from outer space, and if we did, could we find any meaning? I don’t think so.
This leads me to consider this bewildering lack of success in detecting any signal at all. I think the biggest problem is the decay of energetic radiation over the vast distances of interstellar space. Our present detection devices, including the large array of radio telescopes funded by Paul Allen of Microsoft, are only good for a few hundred light years. On the other hand, maybe there is a more sinister aspect to this silence in the void. One only has to recall that the fundamental aspect of all protoplasmic life forms is to “eat or be eaten”. Aggressive behavior exists in all organisms from bacteria to humans. While silicon-based life is a possibility, all carbon-based life that we are aware of conforms to this model. Perhaps aggressive interstellar civilizations exist, and everyone else is hiding. Or, more benignly, they are all communicating via quantum entanglement techniques that we have yet to develop. The more prudent course is to be very careful until we can “tune in”.
But, back to the Cetaceans. Let’s give them a break. I’m sure the Japanese, Icelanders, and the others can forgo their culinary desires for a while as we learn to communicate with these creatures. Only after we can firmly establish that they have little to teach us, can we thrust them back into the human food chain. We have a long history as humans for indulging in cannibalism. I can think of a number of people that I would value more on the dinner table, and perhaps this is a way to deal with the issue of over-population! Of course I am jesting, but the reality is that it may become a way of life in displaced nomadic peoples looking for fresh water to drink, etc.….
For me, assuming no one wants me for dinner, upon my death, instead of a funeral, I want to be rolled out of the back of a pickup truck in the Great American Desert’s extension west of Salt Lake City. There are way too many people, and not enough Coyotes.