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PAUL J. MILA - SWIMMING WITH WHALES

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by Irene Bagley / Fundraising Chair

The slap of a fluke on the water, a sudden spout, and a graceful arcing dive - this is what Paul J. Mila lives for. Specifically, his passion is whales, humpback whales, and learning about them, swimming with them, and working for their survival has become his mission in life.
Paul is a retired corporate executive who has devoted his retirement to writing, scuba diving, and underwater photography, particularly of whales. He first became aware of the plight of the whales when he read The Whale War by David Day, a Sierra Club book published in 1987. After reading the book, he met a woman who told him about her experiences swimming with whales in the Dominican Republic. He took a trip there to try it, and the experience changed his life. While swimming next to a full-grown humpback, the whale held its fluke up as it passed by to avoid harming him. Another whale came near, and as it passed held its pectoral fin away so as not to strike him with it. When he finally came eye to eye with the whale, he saw an intelligence and respect for humans he had never encountered before.
This is all the more astonishing considering the history of man’s interaction with whales. According to Mr. Mila, between 1900 and the 1980s an estimated 200,000 humpbacks were killed in the southern ocean alone. Worldwide estimates range between 20,000 and 30,000 whales today.
He states that historically, whales were used for many things. Corsets were made from baleen; perfume was made with ambergris. Blubber was used for oil lamps. Today, plastics and petroleum products have replaced whale products, and there is no longer a need to hunt whales.
In 1946 the International Whaling Commission was established by whaling nations in an effort to conduct sustainable whaling. However, it was unsuccessful and whale numbers continued to decline. Nonwhaling countries began to join the commission and press for a moratorium on whaling. The U.S. took a leading role in the fight against whaling. In 1986 a moratorium went into effect, banning all whaling except by certain indigenous peoples and for scientific purposes.
Mr. Mila tells us that today three nations, Japan, Norway and Iceland, continue to conduct whaling. According to Mr. Mila, Japan is the greatest offender, hunting the most whales, ostensibly for scientific purposes. However, most of the whale meat ends up on supermarket shelves in Japan. He states the scientific purpose is a ruse. Unfortunately, third world nations on the International Whaling Commission are being pressured by Japan to vote in favor of whaling with promises of investment and financial aid for their countries. Whales face other threats to their survival besides whaling. Global warming is one. Paul explains that whales winter in warm waters where they mate and bear their young, but there is no food in the clear warm waters. Whales do not eat for the four months they spend there. They migrate in summer to the cold northern waters that teem with food, plankton and krill. Scientists are concerned that if glaciers continue to melt and fresh water melts into the ocean, the decreased salinity will have an effect on these microscopic creatures, which could decrease or even eliminate the whales’ food supply, leading to their starvation. Other threats to whales include pollution, overfishing, ozone depletion, sonar weapons, and ship strikes.
Paul’s presentation on April 5 is a video of his experiences swimming with humpback whales in Tonga,near Fiji in the South Pacific. This population was hunted almost to extinction but is slowly recovering. This breathtaking footage shows whales interacting with humans and each other in amazing ways. He filmed mother whales teaching their calves to tail lob, breach, and slap their pectoral fins. It also demonstrates whales swimming towards and with people in what appears to be a real effort to reach out and make contact with them. It is unbelievably beautiful and moving.
Paul’s goal in making this presentation is to get people involved in the fight to save the whales from extinction. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have anti-whaling campaigns in which they launch boats against the whaling vessels to stop the hunt. He also urges people to write, e-mail and phone their senators and congressmen expressing support for whales and laws to protect them. Currently the Bush administration overruled a federal judge who said the Navy must not conduct sonar tests where whales are present. There is also an ongoing battle to stop whale strikes in the shipping lanes by either moving the shipping lanes out of the path of migrating whales, or requiring ships to travel at slower speeds so they can avoid killing whales in their path.
Paul’s message is this: we cannot allow these beautiful, intelligent, and simpatico mammals to be driven to extinction. After seeing his presentation, I think you will agree.

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