For nearly three weeks, the world's imagination and attention have been captured by the California gray whales that have been fighting for their lives after being trapped in Arctic ice.

But now that a joint Russian-American effort has succeeded in freeing the two survivors of the three trapped whales, it will be easy for the world to forget not just this particular episode but the plight of whales generally.For that matter, the world seemed to care far more about the gray whales trapped off Alaska than it did about the more endangered species of whales being still being killed in violation of the spirit if not the letter of an international moratorium on slaughtering those dwindling species.

Clearly, mankind's span of attention can be not only short but also strangely selective. Maybe that's why the world tolerates a gaping loophole in the moratorium - a loophole that permits whaling for supposedly scientific purposes even though the whalers kill far more whales than can be possibly used for research.

What folly! Whales no longer need to perish just to provide lipstick, shoe polish, and cat food. Those products can be made from other products that make the whale slaughter unnecessary.

Meanwhile, a nagging question lingers on after the massive effort to rescue two California gray whales from Arctic ice. The question: Was this complex and costly effort worth while?

The answer has to be framed not just in economic but also in emotional terms. But if such rescue efforts are justifiable, why doesn't the world care as much about saving thousands of rare whales from human predators as it did about saving a couple of relatively abundant California gray whales from the hazards of nature?