Monday, March 5, 2012

Whales and Other Buried Treasures

As I might have mentioned, I grew up in northeastern Ohio.  Not the best place for (among other things) whale watching.  The very thought of whale-watching seemed impossibly exotic to me.  I mean really.  Which is why it took me off-guard yesterday when I heard myself casually saying to someone who solicitously offered me a spot at the railing of a whale-watching boat, “Oh, don’t worry about me, I do this every chance I get.”
Have I become blasé?
Not really.  But…I do do this every chance I get, and I want everyone else to get a chance to do it, too.
I saw my first whale (outside of the confines of the Ohio Sea World) when I was 27 or so, and my older daughter was a baby.  It was my first Mother’s Day, and my husband had arranged for us to go whale watching.  We saw orcas, a huge matrilineal family of them, in their native habitat.  In a year clouded entirely by a post-partum depression so severe I wasn’t sure I would survive it, that one sun-lit day gave me hope.  (It also convinced me that I would never again patronize a Sea World.)
When my daughters were just three and five years old, respectively, I took them to see humpback whales off of Cape Cod:

(circa 2005)
The whole way there, my older daughter wondered excitedly, “How on earth are we going to watch whales?  I mean, how can you WATCH a WHALE???  How are we going to see whales???  How do you watch whales???”
Until finally her younger sister explained: “They gon’ stick them heads up, and we gon’ look at them.”
I couldn’t have said it better, myself.  My brother calls this “the alpha and the omega of whale-watching.”
We’ve since gone whale-watching offshore from San Diego:

(New Year’s Day, 2010—note the dwindling enthusiasm on face of elder child)
And, most spectacularly, in Hawaii:
(last week! Elder child smiling only because she had very narrowly missed falling overboard, which momentarily made whale-watching seem exciting.)
Yesterday, we celebrated my younger daughter’s 10th birthday whale watching in the Pacific off the coast of San Diego.  We set out to see the grey whales on their annual migration back to their feeding grounds in the northern Pacific, but we saw fin whales, instead. 
Fin whales are no slouch in the “cool sighting” department: they’re the second-largest whales (75 feet long), one of the fastest (called “greyhounds of the sea,” they can hit 25 miles per hour), and they’re endangered*.
Unfortunately, they’re not very photogenic:
They don’t even stick them heads up.
But…still!  It’s exciting.  A picture might say a thousand words, but they’re not always the right ones.  There’s no way a picture (even ones way better than my admittedly crappy ones) can convey the primal sounds, the whooshing plume of salt spray as they exhale, the sense of mystery as they disappear beneath the boat only to resurface minutes later close enough to startle you.
And perhaps most critically, pictures cannot convey the enormity of a whale, the enormity of the ecosystem it takes to support it, the enormity of what we do not know, and the enormity of the damage we can do with something as seemingly small as our collective arrogance, ignorance, and greed.
Whale-watching is about perspective.  It’s about making a choice to see yourself as a small part of a much larger, more complex whole.  It’s about waiting.  It’s about being open to the unpredictable: you might not see what you came for, and you might see a whole lot more.  It’s about looking beneath the surface.
We brought my daughter's friend along for the trip.  She had never seen whales (in the wild) before, had never been on a boat.  I spent the trip not so much watching whales, as watching for a space at the railing where the girls could sneak in to get a view.  (It was then that the kind gentleman offered me a space, too).
At the end of the trip, the girls were wind-tossed and sun-warmed, hanging over the railing, chattering and staring down into the water as the boat made its way back into the San Diego Harbor.  Suddenly a whoop went up from the crowd; a pod of Common Dolphins had materialized in the wake alongside the boat.  The girls stared, laughing and pointing and the sleek bicolored mammals leapt over the wake, ducked under the transparent waves, and leapt up again.  There were dozens and dozens of dolphins, adults and juveniles, and they easily kept pace with the boat.  The captain told us over the loudspeaker that the dolphins loved it if we cheered and clapped, and true or not, we bought it.
Next to me, a little boy shrieked, “Are those real dolphins, Grandma?”
“Yep, Buddy, those are real dolphins.”
He crowed triumphantly, “I saw real dolphins!” Then he turned back to his grandmother and demanded, “Why are they here?”
She said, “Because we’re really, really lucky.” 
I couldn’t have agreed more.

* And, a fin whale was the very first whale to be taken by Iceland when it resumed commercial whaling in 2006!  Go Iceland!  What a way to make sure those endangered species don’t get delisted: hunt them!


  1. I never did go whale watching the entire 9 years we lived in SoCal. Nor did I ever visit the San Diego Zoo. Sigh. I'm not very good at sight seeing apparently!

    1. I kept thinking yesterday how much I missed being able to take your girls with us!