Surprise Encounters with Artists and Scientists, Whales and Other Living Things

Scott McVay / Wild River Books / 592 pages

AWI presented the Schweitzer Medal to Scott McVay in 1973 to honor his work on behalf of the endangered great whales. McVay has long been in the thick of the battles to save whales and dolphins, as well as countless other conservation efforts worldwide. A man of remarkable intellectual curiosity, he has spearheaded campaigns to save tropical forests, other ecosystems, and endangered species. His decades of research in the farthest corners of the world, as detailed in this autobiography, make fascinating reading.

In the early 1960s, after graduating from Princeton and serving as an army intelligence officer in Berlin, McVay worked at the Florida research lab of Dr. John Lilly, who had published the ground-breaking book on dolphin intelligence, Man and Dolphin. The dolphin research led McVay—together with Roger Payne—to investigate the songs of the humpback whales, the haunting six-octave melodies that have captivated another species, homo sapiens.

McVay’s “The Last of the Great Whales”—an exposé of the whaling industry—appeared in the August 1966 issue of Scientific American. In that seminal article, he documented the history of commercial whaling, particularly in the 20th century when huge factory ships, high-speed catcher boats, and grenade-tipped harpoons unleashed a ghastly, inhumane slaughter on these animals. McVay detailed how the International Whaling Commission (IWC), established in 1946 to sustainably regulate the global whaling industry, was utterly failing to stop the ruthless slaughter on the high seas by more than two dozen nations led by Japan, Norway, and the Soviet Union.

McVay’s report helped rally the emerging environmental movement. In 1971, Prof. George Small published an equally scathing indictment of the whaling industry with his award-winning book on the history of modern whaling, The Blue Whale. The Save the Whales campaign was launched in 1972, the same year that Congress adopted the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which called for a moratorium on commercial whaling. At the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm later that year, the plight of the great whales became the symbol of the growing environmental crisis facing our planet.

AWI further catalyzed the anti-whaling effort by launching a worldwide “call to arms” advertising campaign with full-page newspaper and magazine ads declaring “Save the Whales” that lambasted the cut-throat whaling nations. For more than 20 years the ads reached every corner of the world in major publications, arousing public outrage.

Dozens of nascent environmental and animal welfare groups responded. The whalers and the IWC were under siege, and in 1983 the whaling commission adopted a blanket cessation on all commercial whaling. The whale killing fell from a high of more than 60,000 annually in the mid-1970s to fewer than 2,000 annually today, by just three recalcitrant nations: Japan, Norway and Iceland.

McVay’s autobiography recounts all this history, roaming the higher echelons of politics and society in the United States and abroad. He fills the pages with personal anecdotes and photos regarding presidents and prime ministers, scientists, environmentalists, and poets. His own poetry flows seamlessly through the chapters. It is one man’s witty treatise on man and nature.

—Craig Van Note, Executive Vice President, Monitor Consortium