Joana McIntyre Varawa

Saving the Whales

Recorded: August 28, 2012

How did the Save the Whales movement come about? Joana teaches us how this successful global movement has transferrable lessons that might apply to Occupy and other environmental movements seeking change.

In the 1970s, Joana Varawa [aka Joan McIntyre] founded the nonprofit Project Jonah through a grant from the Point Foundation. Her organization was the first conservation and research organization specifically dedicated to the welfare and protection of whales. Bolstered by her personal experiences swimming with Hawaiian spinner dolphins, Ms. Varawa was able to garner attention to the fact that great whales and other ocean creatures were in danger of extinction. Earlier in her career, Ms. Varawa conducted campaigns for David Brower at the Sierra Club to save fur-bearing animals and called attention to the fact that animals were being killed just for their fur. Both her campaigns were enormously effective.

Ms. Varawa is the author of three books: Mind In The Waters (Scribners, 1972), The Delicate Art of Whale Watching (Sierra Club, 1982), and Changes in Latitude (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989). Her eclectic life experiences include using a black school bus painted to look like a whale to draw attention to the animals’ plight. Her whale parade made international headlines at the 1972 Stockholm United Nations Environment Conference when hundreds of people walked out of the negotiations to join her parade.

Huey Johnson: Joan McIntyre, it’s been a long time since we had a chance to meet and it’s wonderful to see you again. I remember you and your passion for whales particularly. And what got you thinking about nature and whales way back then?

Joan McIntyre: What got me thinking about nature was as a child who was being raised by a single mother, I had books; that’s about all I had. I was born during the beginning of the Depression. My mother was working. I was alone most of the time and I read, and I read books about animals. And at that very young age, I started to identify myself with animals because they were abandoned, abused, neglected, lonely and so I became in some sense very early on a kind of a advocate for animals. In the animals we are allowed to touch the wildness in the world in a very direct way, I mean they’re warm, they’re furry, they’re comfortable, they’re interesting. They have their own personhood and so it’s always been animals. And then the whale, the whale campaign came out of that. The premise of saving the whales was it was global; it was a motto for global cooperation.

Joan McIntyre: The idea of a ten year moratorium was a finite idea; it wasn’t let’s do everything all at once. It’s let’s do something for 10 years and let’s see what happens. They had great, great symbolic resonance because whales had had a deep symbolism throughout western civilization and in many civilizations. And then the United States was for it, which made it an easy platform because we had given up whaling and therefore the government was on our side. So there were good reasons why picking whales is a subject you know would work and I always thought you know it was sort of like if we could save the whales, we can save the earth. The whales were standing up for something or standing in for something. Stewart gave me a grant from Point Foundation. I started Project Jonah on that 15,000 dollars. Went to Stockholm on that 15,000 dollars. Organized the Save the Whale Movement at Stockholm on that 15,000 dollars.

Huey Johnson: You organized a black bus in the form of a whale with big white eyes, I always remember it and there was a whale parade.

Joan McIntyre: And we went “Oooh.” We tried to sound like whales.
Huey: Every human being in that conference left all their meetings and lined to be watching out, their nose on the glass watching the whale [unintelligible].

Joan McIntyre: It was so outrageous but the thing about that that was so interesting Huey, was that at that conference there was, as you can well remember, there was every single major network from around the world represented and they had nothing, nothing to film.

Huey Johnson: You people did a wonderful job.

Joan McIntyre: They were sitting there in these huge vans totally idle and so that’s where the idea came to do the parade and the meeting because we would give them something to film. And so overnight basically, the world knew that the whales were endangered. I started Project Jonah basically as a one-woman business and then after Stockholm I traveled around to different countries and I met people and set up basically Project Jonah’s. And the whole idea was this is the name, use it, help us save the whales. So maybe I’m not an environmentalist so much as a PR lady.

Huey Johnson: Well, you’ve got a tremendous talent and you’ve got a wonderful effect.

Joan McIntyre: I think that what’s happening with the environmental movement is that it’s so problem-centered.It’s so related to this disaster and that disaster and how can we fix this and how can we fix that that the humanity in it, the kind of fun…-

Huey Johnson: Yeah, certainly.

Joan McIntyre: The courage has been bled out of it. And when I listen to these young people who were in the Occupy Movement and they describe what they’re doing, they say “well we had a meeting and so and so came to the meeting then we have a [unintelligible] session and we had a this and we had a that,”I think please, tell me what you’re doing, what you won’t, where is your heart, you know where is the there there?” So anyway, I guess if I have any advice it’s don’t be scared but be careful and don’t throw yourself in the way of a bulldozer if you’re not going to do a lot of good by doing it. You know I mean in other words don’t confuse recklessness with courage. It’s been helpful to be on Lanai because it’s so isolated. Curiously the more we know, the less we feel we can do. There’s something that becomes overwhelming in all the information. You know you look into this and its like finding out about something, you don’t want to find out too much about something because if you find out too much about something, you start finding out why you can’t do it. I am so grateful that I’ve been able to do these things and somehow I’ve accepted the freedom to make these crazy choices.

Huey Johnson: You did exactly what you wanted to do.

Joan McIntyre: I did exactly; I did exactly what I wanted to do.

Huey Johnson: Great lesson. Thank you for joining us, peace.