Thursday, May 18, 2017

Gray Whales off the Oregon Coast: A Vision

A couple of weeks ago, Michaela and I were on the Oregon Coast, camping at a state campground on the beach, next to Cape Lookout. While there, we walked along the strand of beach - about five or six miles one way - from Lookout to the next cape and the small town of Netarts. So, about a ten or twelve-mile turnaround. It was raining. A light rain, as if we were moving inside a cloud, water drops floating in the air in front of us, but there was visibility of at least a half mile. Grey sky, grey waves, and the mosaic of grey foam on the grey swells. Because the sunlight was filtered through so many layers of grey, the light seemed to have no source, sometimes looked like it was rising from everything.

And seals appeared, fishing. As they do (The last time we saw seals was when we lived in Wales, almost six years ago). Their black heads rose out of the swells, looked around, noted the two figures on the beach - the only humans on the entire strand - black eyes curious for a few seconds, then sank beneath the surface, to do some more hunting. Every so often, we could see the dark figures spinning, sailing, inside a rising wave - so different from the gravity-heavy bodies on land.

On the third day, it began to rain - real rain. Hard, cold balls of rain, beating the tent, beating the car, beating the surrounding trees. Being high desert creatures, we could handle the fog, the rain that seemed to hang in the space between the red cedars, suspended in the perpetual grey light, (maybe causing the grey light), but the hard rain was too much. We took down the tent and escaped down the coast, south, to a motel perched on a cliff in Lincoln City, a small tourist/fishing town.


Standing on the balcony that first evening, watching waves crash into a group of rocks about twenty yards out from the sand, seals once again appeared; three heads, rising out of the waves, twisting this way and that, their mermaid-dog eyes scanning the surface around them, then dipping back below. It was funny, how we knew that they were fishing, or playing, or both, chasing fish or prowling the bottom for crabs, but each time they disappeared, it seemed like they were sinking back into a great mystery. As if they were shadows inside the mind, appearing suddenly, speaking words in some ancient language, the language of stones or trees, then sinking back into oblivion. We know that oblivion, that void, belongs to us, that it's part of our own mind, but it seems alien somehow, distant, like the light from the Andromeda galaxy. There's no word for it. Why not call it Mystery.

We watched the seals move south until they were behind the group of rocks, then, suddenly out the swell, right behind the rocks, a huge body emerged, mottled, with a long snout. It turned on it's right side, exposing half of its massive flank/belly, then slipped back beneath the waves. For a few seconds afterwards, there was a huge black dorsal fin cutting the surface, rivaling the size of some of the rocks nearby, and then it was gone. We both looked at each other - what the hell had we just seen? At first, when I first saw the length of that creature, I thought "White Shark" because it rose in the place we last saw the seals. But there was no furious churning in the sea, no blood on the surface. And the dorsal fin was black. How could it be black if it was a white shark? Then we realized, at the same time, that we had seen a gray whale. A baby - because it looked like it had been "only" about twenty or twenty-five feet long. What we thought was the black dorsal fin, was one of the tail-flukes as it plunged back below the surface. The gray whale does not have a dorsal fin.

We were stunned, giddy as children. Then, seconds after the baby had gone below, a larger whale surfaced nearby, still only about twenty yards off the shoreline, and blew a large heart-shaped plume of spray into the air. The long black back glistened, rolled, and then, it too, was gone. After that, we saw a few other plumes further out, more rolling backs. We were pointing, shouting, suddenly five-year's old, fresh-eyed, goofy, and full of wonder. Call it an encounter with that almost useless word Mystery - when we are face to face with something that we can't hold, contain, that's happened too quick for the mind to categorize into something familiar.  

The waves battered the rocks, grey foam became grey birds, merged with the failing grey light. Soon, we could see a few orange lights through the cloud bank - trawlers or cargo ships. And the lights on a cape further to the south came into focus through the flying fog. It reminded me of my years in Belgium - the incredible beauty of eerie pink streetlights trying to cut through the endless night fog. When I went out walking in the dark, the water would collect on my eyelashes, run into my eyes, and turn the soft halos into sharp lines, striated pink and orange, so that the lights resembled the iris of an imagined alien eye. Glowing eyes in the night. As we looked down the coast that night, the vapor blowing off the sea into our eyes, the lights became striated in the same way…

The Gray Whale

The next day, after exploring some tide pools further down the coast (around Devil's Punch Bowl) and experiencing, open-mouthed, the merciless battering of waves against massive monoliths (Seal Rock), we ended up at the Whale Watching Spoken Here Interpretive Center at Depoe Bay. The center - a small, square, white building which sits out from the sea wall on the bay - is a state-run facility designed to teach people about the many different types of whales that pass by the Oregon coast. Just inside the door is a dry-erase board that lists sightings of various whales over the last year. Because it was closing, we quickly used the bathroom, then grabbed a brochure on the Gray Whale. What did we know about the Gray Whale? Nada.

The Gray Whale is the most common whale seen from shore along the west coast. It gets its name from the mottled color pattern. Some of the pattern is present at birth, but most of it is caused by barnacles growing in the skin or de-pigmented areas where barnacles have once been. The reach up to 45 feet in length (longer than a school bus!).  

The blow sprays up nearly 12 feet high and expels 400 liters of air. Gray whales usually surface every 45 seconds as they swim, but will often stay under for three to five minutes when they are eating. The eastern pacific group of Gray Whales (there is a dwindling group on the western side of the Pacific, off the Siberian coast) makes the longest migration of any mammal on earth - from the Baja Peninsula in Mexico (where they give birth) to the Bering Sea, off the Alaska Coast, and back. The round-trip migration is 10,000 miles (16,000 km). They cover the entire migration pattern very close to shore, staying in shallow water. There is speculation that they navigate by keeping surf noises to one side or the other. No one really knows.

Because of this consistent pattern, it was easy for whalers in the nineteenth century to hunt them down, from their calving lagoons all the way to Alaska. In the 1850's it was said that navigation inside San Diego Bay was judged hazardous because of so many breeding whales. But by 1873, the whales had been so depleted that most of the shore whaling stations along the west coast had been shut down. During the rest of the century, whaling continued inside Mexican lagoons, until the Mexican government closed whaling down in the early 1900's. What happened in the twentieth century is surprising: full protection was granted to Gray Whales in 1937 by the League of Nations, and in 1946 by the International Whaling Commission. The Gray Whale recovered sufficiently that it was taken off the endangered species list in 1994.


That evening we stood on our motel room balcony again and scanned the grey ocean. There was a cloud bank about a half-mile out that shifted with the wind. Every so often, we could see blue sky through the bank. And whales began surfacing again! Heart-shaped blows beside the rocks, further out to sea, to the south, to the north. We were ecstatic, pointing, laughing. Because we'd read that the whales come up for air every three or five minutes, we predicted where they would rise again, jumping up and down like birthday party kids when we predicted correctly.

All this time, while we're sighting whales (at least 15 that evening), down below, on the motel grass, next to the cliff, there was a man sitting in a chair, wearing a hoodie to protect his head from the blowing wet cold, drinking from a thermos, staring and tapping at his smart phone. He never once looked out at the ocean. It was a strange experience - the juxtaposition of the whales surfacing, blowing spray, disappearing, us dancing and pointing and yelling, and the man in the chair staring at his cellphone. Every once in a while, he'd put a bud in his ear and begin a conversation with someone on the other end.

Whales continued to surface, to slip back below the surface, monstrously long black backs rolling between waves, and he never once looked out to sea. Had he seen this migration so many times in his life that he was no longer impressed? No, I don't think he ever knew they were there. Would we have been just as ignorant and oblivious if we hadn't seen the baby the day before?

Later that night I began thinking of what it takes to preserve the world as it is. One third of all wild species is projected to be extinct by the twenties. And I thought part of our ability to do something to help alleviate the coming terrors of climate change, to slow down mass extinction, has to do with our ability to first see what's there. To preserve what we've got left, we must be able to connect it to our own lives, our own bodies - to viscerally feel that there is a world out there, beyond the confines of our house or apartment walls, outside the million occupations and delights of the net, beyond our network of friends or business acquaintances and their concerns…and that we are an intricate part of it.

Our bodies are from this earth. Nowhere else. Our eyes developed from a red spot organelle with light sensitive crystals in the euglena (a single-celled micro-organism) wriggling around in the first sea, allowing it to turn towards light, creating the ability to discern light from dark. The euglena is one of our ancestors. To see is not just about visual perception, but also about vision. I mean the word vision here as "the act or power of imagination." The ability to understand and feel that we are connected - to the Euglena, to the Gray Whale - and that we contain much of earth's evolution within our bodies (and so our brains…and so our thoughts…).

To see is the ability to understand that what happens to the rest of the earth will happen to us. To see is to acknowledge that we have started dealing with climate change much too late to stop much of the destruction. But to see is also the ability to take in the history of the Gray Whale…and see that something can be done. Something WAS done. Gray Whales on the west coast of North America did not disappear forever. It took a long time, almost a century, but they came back from near-extinction. To see is the acknowledgment that we need to be in it for the long haul.

And when they all die out…

Almost everyone I know feels unsettled. A growing unquiet has been developing over the last two decades. We can't help but feel that something is wrong. Amiss. The more that goes missing in the world, the more we feel something missing inside us. Because we are so a part of this earth (I'll say it again: our bodies share DNA with almost everything else on earth), I think the more animals and plants become extinct, the more holes develop in the human psyche. Back in the mid-noughties, I had this horrifying idea that our dreams are intimately connected to all the creatures of the earth - especially those that prowl at night and those that move in the deepest depths of the sea (with their strange phosphorescent lures). And I thought: "If they die out, we will cease to dream…"  And everyone knows what happens when a person is deprived of REM dream sleep - they go mad.

It doesn't matter whether this is true or not. The idea is pointing to an actual reality: as mass extinction continues and the waters rise in some places and the water disappears in others, and parts of the ocean die, human consciousness becomes more desperate, full of terror, and so narrows its focus - to a child-like ideology or a blinkered, one-dimensional life…or a tiny screen. It's a kind of madness.


In 2010, a Gray Whale was sighted in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Israel. In 2013, another one was sighted off the Namibian coast. Some Scientists think they might have been trying to repopulate old breeding grounds that have not been used for centuries (they were once plentiful in the North Atlantic). They both may have crossed from the north Pacific to the Atlantic via the opened-up North-west Passage (due to melting of Arctic sea ice).

And then there was the case of one traveling 22,000 kilometers from the west Pacific to the east, during a six-month period in 2011 and 2012. The whale known as Varvara (Barbara) made her way from her whales' primary feeding grounds off Russia's Sakhalin Island all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Baja, Mexico and back again. Again, there's speculation about why, but scientists don't really know what's going on.

After I read these reports I returned to those evenings, standing on the balcony of the motel in Lincoln City, pointing and laughing at the great plumes of spray, sighting something that is mostly out of sight, beneath the surface, scooping sections of the bottom, filtering the mud from the amphipods (shrimp-like animals) with baleen, worlds within worlds down there...and the four strange finger bones inside the flippers...and the strange finger bones pointing at the whale…

What we don't know could fill the universe…and does.

Whales Weep Not!

1885 - 1930

They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains
the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.

All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge
on and on, and dive beneath the icebergs.
The right whales, the sperm-whales, the hammer-heads, the killers
there they blow, there they blow, hot wild white breath out of
   the sea!

And they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages
on the depths of the seven seas,
and through the salt they reel with drunk delight
and in the tropics tremble they with love
and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods.
Then the great bull lies up against his bride
in the blue deep bed of the sea,
as mountain pressing on mountain, in the zest of life:
and out of the inward roaring of the inner red ocean of whale-blood
the long tip reaches strong, intense, like the maelstrom-tip, and
   comes to rest
in the clasp and the soft, wild clutch of a she-whale’s
   fathomless body.

And over the bridge of the whale’s strong phallus, linking the
   wonder of whales
the burning archangels under the sea keep passing, back and
keep passing, archangels of bliss
from him to her, from her to him, great Cherubim
that wait on whales in mid-ocean, suspended in the waves of the
great heaven of whales in the waters, old hierarchies.

And enormous mother whales lie dreaming suckling their whale-
   tender young
and dreaming with strange whale eyes wide open in the waters of
   the beginning and the end.

And bull-whales gather their women and whale-calves in a ring
when danger threatens, on the surface of the ceaseless flood
and range themselves like great fierce Seraphim facing the threat
encircling their huddled monsters of love.
And all this happens in the sea, in the salt
where God is also love, but without words:
and Aphrodite is the wife of whales
most happy, happy she!

and Venus among the fishes skips and is a she-dolphin
she is the gay, delighted porpoise sporting with love and the sea
she is the female tunny-fish, round and happy among the males
and dense with happy blood, dark rainbow bliss in the sea.



Sightings: The Gray Whale's Mysterious Journey by Linda Hogan & Brenda Peterson

Gray Whales: Wandering Giants by Robert H. Busch

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