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Day 39: Whale

“Hiking up the coast, huh?  You must’a seen tons of whales!”  It was the same phrase, almost word-for-word, that I’d heard several times along my walk.  Yeah, I had seen a few spouts out there, but mostly I’d just heard everyone talking about the whales.  Up and down the coast this spring, headlines were breathless: Gray Whales Parade Close to Bodega Head, Unusual California Whale Sightings, Ocean Buffet Open for Business, and on it went.  Strong early-season upwelling, or perhaps strange currents carrying huge numbers of krill and squid right up to shore, enticed humpbacks, blue whales, and orcas in close, joining record numbers of gray whales migrating up the coast, and they were putting on a show.

Although I try to resist, it’s tempting coming from Southeast Alaska to feel a bit of snobbery when it comes to whales.  Here on the coast of the “Lower 48,” I envision a distant, barely-visible spout sending quivers of excitement through huge crowds of onlookers armed with 3-foot camera lenses.  But up North, a local fisherman would hardly look up, even if the spout were so close that the salty-fishy spray beaded on his beard.   I’m exaggerating of course, but we are awfully lucky in the Glacier Bay area, especially with humpbacks.  I’ve been out in an 18-foot skiff with my brother off Point Adolphus, turning my head this way and that as humpbacks broke the water in all directions, spouting around us like the middle of some Las Vegas fountain.  One whale breathed three times as it cruised straight towards us — trusting that it knew we were there somehow, we stayed put, silent, awestruck, as the broad black back arched up once more, right in front of us, the flukes sliding under almost close enough to stroke, the boat rocking gently in their wake.  And last summer, with the first group of Stanford students we brought out to the Hobbit Hole, we idled in Chatham Strait watching a dozen humpbacks feed.  They plunged down, one tail after another, then swam circles below a school of baitfish, exhaling to trap them in a net of rising air bubbles — harmless but un-crossable, like a painted cattle guard.  With the bait-ball swirling panicked in their trap, the whales rose up through the center, maws agape, throats ballooned, gulping hundreds of fish and expelling the seawater through their baleen plates.

Humpback whales 'bubble net feeding' in Chatham Strait.  Photo by Rob Dunbar.

Humpback whales ‘bubble net feeding’ in Chatham Strait. Photo by Rob Dunbar.

But my most memorable whale story in Alaska actually happened up on land.  It was the outer coast of Glacier Bay, the side exposed to the big grey seas of the open Gulf of Alaska.  Strewn with massive logs and the rare Japanese glass float, it has to be the wildest place I’ve ever been.  I remember my young legs had motored me ahead of my companions Nate and Kim, who labored over a long stretch of soft beach sand.  As I approached a river outwash, ravens and bald eagles were taking off by the dozens.  Scavenging, I thought, watching them circle around.  Something’s dead.  I picked my way forward, high on the beach among the logs, circumspect.  Coming blind around the root wad of a huge log, I froze mid-step, mid-breath: three adult brown bears were right there, their faces buried messily in the carcass of a whale.  They stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they gorged on the blubber feast, the nearest one about 10 feet away.  Silently, slowly, I backed away un-noticed, and rejoined Nate and Kim back up the beach, eyes wide with fear and wonder.  We decided to go ahead and walk past, right at the water’s edge, giving the bears plenty of room and an escape path into the woods.  So unfamiliar with humans they were, that as soon as they noticed us, they sprinted straight inland, crashing through the brush.  Several more brown bears were basking, full-tummied, a bit further down the beach, and they too hightailed it away as we approached, although one bold youngster stood up on his hind legs for a closer look before leaving the beach to us.

So having seen whales like that, dead and alive and up-close in Alaska, were some migrating gray whales really going to impress me?  I figured no way — until a wonderful moment happened.  I was still in Northern California then, approaching the broad mouth of the Klamath River.  I’d gotten camp all set up, and I was icing my sore legs in the salt water, watching the sun drop down through layers of clouds and fog, casting my long shadow back up the gold-lit beach.  Ahhhhhh, I thought, this water is so damn cold!  And then I noticed the whales: mother and calf, just offshore and silhouetted by the setting sun.  At first it was just the usual spouts and rolling backs — but then things turned different.  The mother put her fin out of the water and just lolled there, slowly turning like a log in a river.  The calf’s head bobbed up cork-like, “spy-hopping” to take a look around.  They rolled and breathed and danced with each other, staying a half-hour right in front of me, until my feet were numb.  The whales weren’t traveling, they were lounging… I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was play, teaching, love.

A dead gray whale on the Oregon beach south of Bandon.  With my backpack for scale it looks like it might be around 20 feet, a small adult.

A dead gray whale on the Oregon beach south of Bandon. With my backpack for scale it looks like it might be a bit over 20 feet, a small adult.

My brother came to visit me over Memorial Day weekend, joining for a great 30-mile hike from Gold Beach up to Port Orford.  He told me he enjoyed the updates, but couldn’t I write something uplifting once in a while?  I laughed… yes, when you work in the environmental sciences, it can get to feel like one disaster after another.  But the story of whales is for you, Dan: we did something right.

First, the bad news, which I have to report to make sense of it all (as my dad says, context is everything).  But I’ll make it cursory and spare you the gore.  Whaling stretches deep into pre-history, but really began on a commercial scale in the Seventeenth Century, with European powers sending boats out toward Spitsbergen, Greenland, and the wilder parts of the North Atlantic. The British colonies in America joined in, from the famous ports of New Bedford and Nantucket, in the dangerous era of open-boat hunts that inspired Moby Dick, and soon after our independence, the United States was the premier whaling nation of the world.  In the golden age of the Nineteenth Century, driven by the market for whale oil (a lighting source and lubricant) and baleen (providing the stays of corsets, among other novelties), whalers depleted populations of right, humpback, and sperm whales in the North Atlantic, and slowly ventured further to sea.  The voyagers turned through one ocean after another in their slaughter: the South Atlantic, Southern Ocean, South Pacific, North Pacific, and even up into the Pacific Arctic, like a great hand ticking clockwise towards extinction at the hour.  As with so many things, Twentieth Century technological advances like steel-hulled pelagic factory ships with power chaser boats and exploding harpoons turned the old romanticized sailing-ship expeditions into a blitzkrieg.

My brother walks up a log embedded in the Oregon sand -- an amazingly fun piece of playground equipment!

My brother walks up a log embedded in the Oregon sand — an amazingly fun piece of playground equipment!

But then a beautiful thing happened: the International Whaling Commission, established in 1946 to ensure conservation of whale stocks for continuation of the whaling industry, changed the rules of the game.  In response to the intensity of the Save the Whales movement of the 1970s, punctuated by the radical exploits of Greenpeace and their splinter group Sea Shepherd, in 1982 the IWC enacted a moratorium on all whaling across the seven seas, and it remains in place today.  And in the past 30 years, the whales are coming back strong, filling in their own vacuum — not every species, but almost.  Humpback whales have shown remarkable recovery almost everywhere — in the southern hemisphere, North Atlantic, and North Pacific, accounting for my amazing experiences up in Alaska.  Blue whales, the largest animals that have ever lived, are also making a modest recovery worldwide.  And gray whales, who I’ve been migrating north with this spring (but who’ve long since left me in the dust), have recovered to pre-exploitation levels — to the point where they’re even finding their way into the North Atlantic, showing up for the first time since they were driven locally extinct 300 years ago!  This recovery arises from one of the great international acts of altruism of all time — the only other event that I think comes close is the Antarctic Treaty, setting an entire continent aside for peaceful and scientific purposes.  The whaling moratorium may be the only voluntary resolution by one species to abstain from harvesting another species (or group of species) in the 3.5 billion year history of life on earth.*

What is it about whales that excites our feelings of wonder and curiosity?  Their prodigious size perhaps?  The often quoted eyebrow-raisers (a person could swim through the largest arteries of a blue whale!) truly are remarkable.  Or is it their great intelligence — tool use, problem solving, even communication nuanced with accents and regional dialects?  Their braininess brings to mind a headline from the Onion: Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs: ‘Oh Shit!’ Says Humanity.  Or is it their amazing physicality, diving to crushing depths to hunt in the dark for giant squid, or migrating longer than any mammal, as gray whales do?  I think for me, the fascination comes not from what we know about whales, but from what we don’t — I watch with numb feet and I realize that I see the whale like I see the whole ocean: just its back, with fantastical mystery beneath.  What do their eyes see under the surface in places that we fear, and what wisdom is behind them?  There is a strange distant kinship that I feel watching their breath dissolve into the air — a kinship that bespeaks their history as land mammals, before they took to the sea 50 million years ago — a kinship that doesn’t reveal the ocean’s mysteries but only makes them more palpable, as we know there is intelligent life out there that understands what we cannot.  And I thank god they’re still out there, knowing, understanding, diving deep into the ocean.

And finally, a cute sign I passed before embarking on the Lost Coast, that I figured worked in this post:





* I have 3 caveats/additions to this statement:
1) Humans have abstained from killing other species, for example through the United States’ Endangered Species Act of 1973.  However, unlike the whaling moratorium, protection through the ESA is highly controversial and enforced through sanctions, and moreover is unilateral by one nation, not an international accord by the human species.
2) There are certain dissenting nations, notably Norway, Iceland, and Japan, that ignore the treaty or continue harvesting under the guise of “scientific whaling” — though the Japanese were recently blocked from this in the Southern Ocean by a court injunction.
3) A cynic might add that the moratorium was not simply an act of altruism, but was enabled by the decline of the markets for whale oil and baleen, which were cheaply replaced by oil and other substitutes.  But I am determined to put cynicism in its box and leave it there!


One Comment Post a comment
  1. Randy Brown #

    Greetings Zach,
    I’m enjoying your writing and this segment was very nice. I think it is important to point out the problems you observe, the things we do as humans that are not sustainable or that are outright harmful to the environment of which we are a part. But we can’t change everything that is wrong with the world and if we despair with life when there are problems, we miss the truly great things about life. I think it is important to save a part of each day to appreciating the waves on the beach, the great trees in the forest, the birds that serenade your camp in the morning, and spectacular sunsets on the Pacific. We’re keeping track of you.
    Love you brother,
    Randy and Karen

    June 4, 2014

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