Failure of the Storybook Whale | Hakai Magazine
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In Joyce Wan’s 2015 picture book, The whale in my pool, a large, very round blue whale sits above a boy’s small play pool, squirting water from its blowhole. In the popular 2003 animated film The world of Nemo, two fish engulfed by a baleen whale escape when the whale throws them into a jet of water. And in A whale’s talea 2008 historical fantasy for young readers, Frieda Wishinsky describes two gray whales swimming side by side who both “blew a fountain of water from their blowholes”.
Let’s be clear: any whale that expels water from its blowhole will drown.
Blowholes are modified nostrils and whales use them to breathe air. The whale’s mouth and esophagus are completely separated from its blowhole and airways, so Nemo’s friends would find no escape there, and the spray the whales spit out is not l ‘water. It’s warm, moist air from their lungs, water droplets around the vent, and some amount of whale snot.
So whales can’t breathe water any more than humans can, but that’s just children’s stories, right? A few mistakes won’t matter.
While scenes such as a talking whale in a kiddie pool are clearly fantastical, images that inaccurately reflect biological reality can lead to misinformation that lingers long after childhood. Jackie Hildering, whale researcher and marine educator, says she still encounters adults who forget that whales are mammals, not fish, and that the ‘beak’ is the breath of the whale, not the water expelled . Hildering is co-founder of the Marine Education and Research Society, based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, into the ranges of several whale species, including humpback whales, minkes, northern resident killer whales and transient (or Bigg) killer whales.
Just south of the main study area in Hildering is prime habitat for endangered southern resident killer whales, a group of fish culturists numbering just 76 individuals at last count. Like other whales around the world, southern residents are hammered by human activity – prone to ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, contaminants, climate change and the endless din of the man-made underwater noise. The whales are in serious trouble because of us. Can we solve this problem?
Hildering thinks so. The key is knowledge. In the span of a human lifetime, we have gone from being afraid of killer whales, to seeing them as cuddly performers, to seeing them as intelligent animals who deserve our respect and protection. “It’s when knowledge replaces fear that our behavior changes,” says Hildering.
So good information is important, especially for children. In a 2002 article in the journal The Reading teacher, science educator Diana C. Rice wrote that it is a mistake to assume that misconceptions about early childhood science will be corrected later. On the contrary, “science education research suggests the exact opposite, that we cannot assume that children’s ideas in science will become more sophisticated”. She cited a 1999 survey of American adults in which about half of respondents believed that early humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs, an idea she wrote derived from children’s books, films, television and, in some cases, religion.
Because whales are a popular subject in children’s books, Rice and other researchers have used their depiction as a measuring stick for scientific precision. In a 2016 article tellingly titled “Cetacean Frustration”, four British scientists examined picture books featuring whales and other cetaceans. Of 116 books, 74 had errors. The rate was higher in fiction, but almost half of non-fiction books also contained errors.
One of the paper’s authors, vertebrate biologist Nel Beaumont, wrote in an email that there weren’t enough older cetacean books in their sample to determine if the accuracy holds. was improved over time. However, the researchers have also looked at the depiction of other species and have found no indication, so far, that the newer books are more or less accurate than the older books.
As an author of science books for children, I found the low level of accuracy disturbing. There was surprisingly little overlap between the books studied by British researchers and what was available to me on the south coast of British Columbia. So I did a quick survey of whale books in three local public libraries. I, too, found inaccuracies, often due to oversimplification, though few were as extreme as spouting whales. However, among nearly a dozen books on killer whales, two serious inaccuracies stood out.
First, three books have explicitly stated that killer whales like to associate with humans and play for them, even in the wild. In Adam Woog’s 2002 title, Killer whales, the author says killer whales survive well in captivity: “The public loves watching the killer whales jump high out of the water and play with their handlers, and the animals also seem to enjoy human contact.” Woog’s book is 16 years old, but keeping killer whales in captivity was already controversial when he wrote it. In fact, the book appeared at the height of the campaign to free the famous killer whale Keiko.
Second, most of the books implied or asserted that killer whales eat all available prey. If true, they should be able to switch to new foods when their old foods disappear. But that’s not true, and therein lies the problem facing southern resident killer whales. They are fish eaters, heavily dependent on chinook salmon. It is an essential part of their culture.
Hildering says people she talks to often don’t realize killer whales have cultures. Genetic studies show that mammal-eating transient whales, which often share the same waters as southern resident killer whales, have been genetically and culturally separated for about 700,000 years. The culture of southern resident killer whales may well be just as old. Certainly, they know where to find salmon and how to hunt it, and have transmitted this knowledge from generation to generation. The fate of southern resident whales is tied to the fate of chinook, but overfishing, habitat destruction and climate change are making the future of chinook far from rosy.
Are the children who read these books – the biologists, wildlife managers and policy makers of tomorrow – likely to spot errors or question the information? Janet Logie, a teacher at University Hill Elementary School in Vancouver, says the third graders she teaches don’t question information in books and often share “facts”. “They trust them 100%,” she says.
And, to tell the truth, she doesn’t question them either. “Teachers and librarians don’t check for accuracy,” she says. “We assume the author would do the research and the editor would check the facts.”
Deborah Hodge, Vancouver children’s author and former teacher, agrees. “As a teacher, I had no doubts about the accuracy of the books. I believed that if a book had been published, it had been rigorously checked or written by an expert in the field. When she transitioned from teaching to writing in the 1990s, she discovered that publishing houses rarely have fact-checkers and rely heavily on authors to ensure their work is accurate. She also started noticing mistakes in other people’s handwriting. “For every nonfiction book I’ve written since, and that’s almost 30, I’ve found and paid an expert to proofread my work before it’s published.”
Hodge’s first editor, Val Wyatt, retired a few years ago after a distinguished career in children’s non-fiction publishing and a stint as editor of a children’s science magazine. She says science publishing for children has become more serious and professional over the past three decades. The publishers are aware that children, like most people, believe what they read. “With so much misinformation, editors feel a strong responsibility to be accurate,” she says. “If books are not thoroughly checked by scientists, mistakes can take their lives.”
The information in children’s books, good or bad, may have a wider reach than the publisher’s intended audience. I often hear from adults who have discovered new information in my own books, and Hodge says his impression is that a lot of parents get their post-school information from the books they read with their children. Accurate information in a children’s book about whales might even lead adults to abandon the biological fantasy of a whalefish springing from the water – a kind of Moby Fish – that annoys biologists so much.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Southern Resident killer whales have been developing separately from other killer whales for approximately 700,000 years. This was an editorial error. It’s the transient (Bigg’s) killer whale population that has been segregated all this time.