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Whales and Dolphins of the North American Pacific including Seals and other Marine Mammals

Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC's Gentle Giants

By Brian Gisborne, Scott Wallace

Review By Anna Hall

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 159 Autumn 2008  | p. 166-8

Sharks and marine mammals are charismatic and have captivated people for centuries. People have regarded them with sentiments ranging from reverence to repugnance. Historically, our principal motivations towards these creatures were financial and fatal. They were hunted for their furs, their fats, and their internal body organs. They were hunted because we wanted the fish they ate, or at least the fish we thought they ate. They were hunted for sport just because they were there. Fortunately, in the eastern north Pacific, many species are now valued for their existence, not their demise. Though these beings are still sought after, nowadays the ultimate reward is simply a sighting – perhaps with a photograph. 

These two books are superb additions to the marine natural history literature. Though both pertain to the Pacific waters of North America, the former is limited to British Columbia. Whales and Dolphins of the North American Pacific is a valuable tool for any wildlife enthusiast interested in finding, observing, and photographing wild marine mammals. Basking Sharks: The Slaughter of BC’s Gentle Giants recounts an appalling time in BC history – a time that must never be forgotten, lest history repeat itself.

In Basking Sharks, Wallace and Gisborne draw upon global knowledge of basking shark biology, ecology, and exploitation and succinctly connect the details to coastal British Columbia. The authors present an informative account of the history of basking sharks by distilling sightings records dating from 1791 (29). To elucidate the pre-slaughter provincial distribution, they incorporate accounts from eighteenth-century trade vessels (29), the Hudson’s Bay Company (30), British naval vessels (30), anthropologists (31), and historians (31-35). 

The social and governmental outlooks that synergistically fuelled a collective hatred of these plankton-eating sharks is comprehensively provided. Wallace and Gisborne recount the early twentieth-century attitudes that culminated in their almost certain extirpation. Interesting newspaper and magazine articles from around the province supplement the historical narrative. Portrayed as monsters, basking sharks were slaughtered by the government and public alike. This was truly a low point in our coastal history. Given that there have been only three confirmed sightings of these sharks in BC waters since 1994 (63), it appears that eradication efforts have been the epitome of efficiency. With the current lack of federal protection and/or recovery efforts, government cuts, sensational headlines, and social repugnance may have sealed the fate of British Columbia’s gentle giants. Potentially compounding factors, such as California Wsheries (63) and natural environmental fluctuations (65), are briefly discussed in the final chapter. However, the conclusions remain unchanged. As such, the consequences of human actions that were based on irrational loathing and ignorance make it embarrassing to claim membership in a society that could behave in such a manner. This book is well written, and the presentation makes it difficult to put down, even in light of its disheartening content. The historical attitudes and actions of British Columbians are expertly framed within a global context, highlighting the immediate need for cohesive conservation-based management of elasmobranch fish and fisheries. 

As many species presented in Whales and Dolphins were once considered commercial commodities, the post-hunting conservation successes and failures are evident through the examination of species details and distribution maps. For some, such as the gray whale (78), whose current range extends from the Bering Sea to Baja California, extinction was almost certain before protection from hunting was enacted in 1946 (80). Fortunately, extinction was staved off, and the modern population is such that communities in Mexico (179), California (180), Washington (180), and British Columbia (180) have become whale watch destinations for this once rare mammal. 

Whales and Dolphins is one of the finest marine mammal field guides available for this region as it includes not just whales and dolphins but all other marine mammals, including porpoises, seals, sea lions, and sea otters. Comparative illustrations are provided to ensure ease in identifying classifying characteristics. One of the most striking aspects of this book is the integration of extensive biological and ecological information with full-page colour images for each species, including those that are most rare. Cresswell, Walker, and Pusser offer recommendations for finding, identifying, documenting, and observing wild marine mammals. And they have included other practical suggestions, such as how to choose a whale watch operator (15), a description of sea states (18), an equipment checklist (19), and advice for taking photographs and video footage (20-22). These are excellent additions that are rarely offered in field guides, and they make this book supremely useful. 

The narrative descriptions of surface behaviours, accompanied by photographs of spouts (or blows), dorsal fins, and tail flukes, are excellent. Moreover, the species-specific behaviours, such as the tool usage of sea otters (50) and the surfacing patterns of whales (36-41), are also illustrated with photographs and collectively contribute to the superior nature of this field book.

The authors of Whales and Dolphins include schematic maps of the west coast of North America, with a colour-coded key to indicate the relative seasonal sighting probability for each species. The novice may find this overwhelming and difficult to relate to specific localities, but the experienced marine mammal observer will appreciate the inclusion of rare species such as the ginkgo-toothed beaked whale (114). Whales and Dolphins is a functional, well-written, and easy-to-use field guide. The general and species-specific information is cohesive, allowing one either to read the book from cover to cover or simply to focus on a particular section. The authors have succeeded in producing a compact and informative field guide.

Both of these books are significant contributions to coastal BC literature on the once hunted, charismatic marine species, with Whales and Dolphins being required reading for all Wsheries students and government managers.