Mark Peter SimmondsDirector of Science

The tulkun, is hunted using methods very similar to those used in real whaling. What might we learn from this?


The whaling scene in ‘Avatar-the way of water’ compared with real whale hunting

January 19, 2023

The Whales of Pandora – a whaling parable. Spoiler alert for  those who have not seen the movie yet, please note that a small part of its story-line is described below. You may like to come back to this blog after you have seen the film!

Return to Pandora

I well remember the first Avatar film of some 15 years ago; the extraordinary and beautiful fantasy world of the planet Pandora combined with the novelty of being able to view it in 3D, was truly epic and deeply moving. It was also the highest-grossing film of all time and now the sequel, ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’, is on release and is also having a huge impact. My primary reason for writing about this movie here is that it takes an important sideways look at whaling. One of the main scenes in the movie features the protracted hunting and killing of the very whale-like animal, the ‘tulkun’, and the animal is hunted and killed using techniques based in reality. The scene is a real tear-jerker and the millions of fans of the film might wonder how close the depiction is to the real world whaling situation, so I will attempt to explain this.

First let me consider the fantasy animal. Apart from their four eyes and six limbs (which are features of Pandora’s wildlife) the tulkuns are really incredibly whale-like and this is reflected in all the shared features that they have with real whales. Not only are they very large and airbreathing but they possess blowholes (albeit six rather than our whales’ one or two), echolocation abilities, high-intelligence and sentience, and they have long-lives and culture. The tulkuns, like the real whales, are also social animals with a shared history and close relationship with some of the native peoples of this fantasy world. They do have some attributes that go beyond what we currently understand of real whales, including complex language (although real whales certainly do communicate) and the ability to talk via a sign language with the native people but, in summary, to me, these are clearly whale-kin! They are also armoured, explaining why they come off better in some of their violent interactions with boats, which is sadly not the case with real whales.

The hunting scene

The hunting scene is long and dramatic. The tulkun that is hunted, which by this time we know as a distinct individual (as indeed we do many whales), is chased by a fast-moving catcher boat armed with what looks very like a modern harpoon gun on its bow. The human hunters have deliberately selected a tulkun mother with a calf, because she will be slowed by the presence of her young and easier to catch.  Depth charges and sonic canons are deployed to bring the tulkuns to the surface, knocking out their acoustic sense, and to herd them. Once the tulkun is harpooned, the pursuit vessel is dragged after it through the water. So, for comparison with real whaling: the harpoon gun is close to the real thing and catcher vessels are still used to find and ‘chase’ whales by the Japanese whaling fleet, although the Japanese catcher vessels are much larger than the one in the movie and are not dragged after the whale. However, ‘Yankee whaling’ (which peaked in the mid-19th century and which was memorialized in Herman Melville’s famous 1851 novel Moby Dick) very much featured this extremely hazardous towing of a smaller boat by a harpooned whale until the animal tired and died or escaped. Similarly, the attachment of floats to the tulkun has some semblance to what happened in historical whaling when floating items were attached to whales to help slow them down, a process known as kegging. Additionally, whales are vulnerable to loud noise and this has been deployed to assist in hunting them in the past.

The hunting scene is deeply moving. The tulkun clearly suffers for many minutes and it is made all the more poignant as you see the calf at the dead mother’s side – a calf that we can assume will die a long difficult and lonely death. The International Whaling Commission long ago forbade the hunting of mother-calf pairs but there was a time when this did indeed go on because it made whale slaughter more efficient.

There is even a strange further little nod to whaling history in the name of the lead human whaler, Captain Mick Scoresby; Captain William Scoresby FRS being a very famous whale hunter and naturalist who died in 1857.

So, what are we to make of all these whaley attributions in this film. Clearly the film makers are using the story line to tell us something and there is a strong environmental theme in this movie, as there was in the first one. Human beings, including marine biologists/whalers, don’t come out of this well. We are the clear villains, cruelly exploiting sentient animals and generally acting like violent thugs. And if people are moved by the tulkun killing scene and wonder how close that is to the whale killing that still goes on, the answer is that in many ways it is very similar. The apologists for modern whaling will argue that whale killing methods used today are more efficient than the historical ones, and generally this is true, but modern whaling still features the killing of a large sentient animal, and big whales remain difficult to efficiently kill. This was most recently evidenced, for example, by the fin whale body seen at the flensing station in Iceland with multiple harpoons in its body last year.

Return to Planet Earth

There is another twist in this story that I need to relate and this is that one particular promotion of the film during its publicity tour took place in a Japanese dolphinarium just a few weeks ago. This press conference was accompanied by a dolphin show and many others have already expressed their strong condemnation of this, in which I share. In response it has been suggested that the film maker was ‘blind-sided’ by this event on a busy tour. Certainly, it was a most unfortunate incident around a monumental movie which strives so hard to awaken our empathy for the minds that live in the sea. Minds that we are only really now starting to understand.

Finally, as a science-fiction fan, I am attracted to elaborate fantasy worlds and love the intelligence that goes into creating realistic alien ecologies, but I am equally drawn to the fact that we have many real and even more fantastic animals in our seas and oceans. So, if you were moved by the tulkuns, then please turn your hearts to consider our whales, dolphins and porpoises too. They need our help and understanding now more than ever in response to our growing impacts in their habitats, not just the ongoing unnecessary and cruel whaling by some nations, but also the widespread impacts of our fishing and other industries and all the noise and chemical pollution that we are spewing into the seas and oceans.