Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 17, 2011

The Whale Road

Like countless kids before and after me, I was fascinated by dinosaurs. The idea that massive, outlandish monsters roamed the earth tens of millions of years ago captivated me. I regretted that I’d never be able to see one. I’ll bet that the primary reason that humans fantasize about time machines is the desire to see a living dinosaur. When I was five years old, my parents took me to see the dinosaur skeletons in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. THAT was a thrill I vividly remember more than fifty years later. (Other dinosaurs  roamed the streets of Washington in 1956: there were still trolley cars in service then!) My favorite dinosaur was Tyrannosaurus Rex, the fearsome predator of the Cretaceous era, but T-Rex inhabited a world that included even more massive creatures, including Argentinosaurus, which may have extended more than 100 feet in length and weighed nearly 100 tons. In those distant days of my youth, though, Argentinosaurus was decades away from discovery, and its smaller relatives that were known in those distant days, Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, weighed in at a fraction of that.

Another thing that caught my attention back then was that there was a living animal that dwarfed any of these titanic beings: the blue whale. At sizes approaching 100 feet in length and 200 tons in weight, they are likely the largest animal ever to live on this planet. But, by the time I was born, blue whales had been hunted to near-extinction by highly mechanized whale fleets (Melville mentions blue whales in Moby-Dick, but the technology of his day didn’t make pursuing the huge, speedy blues profitable). A lot of early 20th-Century ingenuity went into devising weapons and systems to pursue, kill and process them, to the extent that the worldwide population of blue whales had shrunk from hundreds of thousands to somewhere between five and 12 thousand, with their numbers moving quickly to nonexistence. Here was a living creature, fifteen times as massive as Tyrannosaurus and more than three times the size of the largest dinosaur then discovered. It would be the chance of a lifetime to board a ship and travel to some unimaginably remote ocean to see such a creature, but it seemed likely that they would evaporate into legend first.

But, here I am, living in California, a few miles from the northeast Pacific Ocean. A couple of thousand blue whales inhabit this part of the Pacific. Unusually cold water in the Pacific for the past two years has promoted the growth of large quantities of krill, the shrimp-like creatures that are the primary food for blue whales, close to land. From the bluffs overlooking the ocean near our house, we’ve been seeing spouts a few miles out that are not part of the annual California gray whale migration. Blue whales! Surfers and open ocean swimmers aren’t happy about having the always-chilly Pacific water get even colder than usual, but it’s brought the whales.

This week, we boarded a boat in Redondo Beach harbor and went out a few miles.  We saw four blue whales.

The whales were busy, eating. It’s not possible to say just how large the ones we saw were, but a safe guess might be at least 60 to 70 feet long, weighing — tough guess — 60 to 80 tons. Eating is a serious, all-consuming business to keep those massive bodies fueled. When we saw these whales, they were coming to the surface to breathe, then diving for about 10 minutes to collect tons of krill. Daily krill intake for an adult whale is somewhere around 4 tons, equal to more than 1.5 million calories. Try that on your Weight Watchers scale! The whale dives deep, straining krill through its baleen, then comes to the surface where it breathes four or five or six times, then dives again for ten minutes or more. What you see is a tall spout of water as the whale hits the surface and exhales, then the nostrils and back as it breathes in, repeated a few times. You get about a minute to watch the gigantic, long shape progressively emerge. We were close enough to a couple of “our” whales to hear them breathe out as they emerged. The sign that it’s going to dive is a glimpse of the whale’s dorsal fin, and it’s gone for another ten minutes. Depending on how deep they’re going to dive, they may or may not flip their tail — the flukes — up before they dive. And then a long wait while it dives hundreds of feet down.

Fittingly, our last sight of a whale that day was from behind. The long, tapering body curling down into the dark blue Pacific, and the water closing over it as it nosed out to the open ocean, under the western sky. A blue whale!

I don’t have any photos to show you. Had I attempted it, I would have spent all my attention on trying to zoom into a little spot two hundred yards away, and fussing about whether or not I’d get another shot. It was enough to watch and to gather enough from the moment to always remember what I saw.

Whales have caught fire in the human imagination long before Melville made a myth out of a great white whale. Real whales no doubt inspired practically every sort of sea-monster legend. The bible has a sea monster named Leviathan, which is the modern Hebrew word for whale. I’ve previously mentioned the Anglo-Saxon (and Old Norse, Old Icelandic, etc.)  practice of using “kennings” in poetry — a colorful metaphoric way of describing things — so that a sword was “the leavings of hammers,” and blood was “battle sweat.” The Beowulf poet, as well as the anonymous authors of works like “The Seafarer” described the ocean as “hron-rad” and “hwael-weg” meaning “the whale road” and “the whale’s way.”

Within my lifetime, international treaties eventually slowed and then almost stopped blue whale hunting. Almost. Today, there is some evidence that their population may have stabilized at around ten or 12 thousand, worldwide. That is possibly less than one half of one per cent of the number of blue whales that were alive when the 20th Century began. I hope that some child born in another generation can still realize the dream of traveling the whale-road while the mighty creatures are still there, and travel with them, however briefly.

© 2012 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. Nice, Brad. Good things happen to those who wait. I’m glad you were able to view the “Blue Monster,” as opposed to the “Green Monster,” with which your Eastern cousins are familiar.

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  2. So clever of you to realize ahead of time that the event was to watch and experience and not fool with a camera.

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  3. Brad the Explorer, you paint such vivid pictures. No whale photos needed. As always, thank you!!

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  4. To paraphrase former New Orleans football coach Jim Mora at a press conference when asked if the Saints could make the playoffs (when the Saints were REALLY bad), “Beowulf, Beowulf, who’s talking about Beowulf?!” (Insert “playoffs” for “Beowulf.”)

    OK, I do remember Beowulf from my English lit class at Miami. But the NAME is all that I remember, aside from the fact that Beowulf was some sort of a big deal. Why it was a big deal has long since evaporated from my memory. It would be great if you could kindly enlighten the uninformed.

    Merci beaucoup!

    Like


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