This is a picture of two of the five sperm whales that were stranded on a beach in north-east England earlier this week. They were caught on rocks in shallow water near Skegness and could not escape to the deeps. They all died.
It was interesting to see the public reaction to this occurrence. Some newspaper front pages carried the story, and a number of television channels, both national and international ran the story. There was a mixture of fascination and compassion.
Certainly the size of the whales was arresting – the setting allowed us a glimpse of these magnificent, mysterious mammals; a glimpse we should not have seen, as their realm of natural existence is hidden from us and our plans, anxieties and preoccupations.
Yet these were not just curious exhibits, whose novelty drew our attention. Many people watched with dismay at the terminal plight of the whales because they felt compassion for these creatures. These giant mammals had been injured on the rocks as they had thrashed about in a futile attempt to be freed. On the shore, we saw their blood. It was red. Same as ours. I think the compassion that many felt was because we were aware of a link between us. We are united in the colour of our blood, and akin to them in organising our existence in social groups. Linked also by being mammals that communicate to each other – albeit in vastly different ways.
This time it was compassion extending to them that did not include anger against humans whose activities had directly precipitated their deaths – anger at a moral evil inflicted on these alien innocents. It was, rather, compassion extended to them because they were caught up in natural circumstances beyond their control – victims of a natural evil.
To begin with, their large bodies were on the beach and curious locals, as well as photographers, could approach them and see them close up. Later, red and white tape cordoned them off, hedging them around, giving them a little dignity in death. Smiling faces of children having their photos in front of the whales were understandable, but rather incongruous. Death is always a loss.
The death of these whales is a reminder that we share this planet with other animals and species whose ways are little known to us – save for the fact that they too need to feed, need the sunlight, need a place to live, need each other. The compassion that was evident is to be welcomed. It is a sign that people can see beyond their own personal projects and concerns; a sign that people are concerned not just with things that are instrumentally useful to them, but that see the intrinsic worth of creatures other than themselves. They are participants – like us – on a Living Earth. Their lives matter.