I decided to follow Route One out of the city, back south along the coast past the sites of some of the old shore-whaling stations, and into the onetime whaling center of Monterey. According to Scammon, California’s “whaling year begins on the first of April” – and I was only a few days late. In 1874, Scammon had listed eleven “whaling parties” scattered along these shorelines. I drove by Gray Whale Cove and into the first of these at Half Moon Bay. Population 10,600. Lots of surfers headed for the beach. Lots of RVs and horse paddocks. Lots of Sunday afternoon traffic. At the entry point to the State Beach, a park ranger said he’d never heard of any whaling station still standing around here. I kept on going, past artichoke and strawberry stands and into the verdant rolling hills that lead down into a whistlestop town called Davenport Landing, population 200.
This had been the last residence of Captain John D. Davenport, the man who conceived the idea of California shore-whaling. He was, Scammon tells us, “a whaling-master of much experience and enterprise” who originally hailed from Tiverton, Rhode Island, where he’d been half-owner of a 180-ton schooner that plied between California and Hawaii, trading and whaling from 1845 to 1852. Then, in 1854, Davenport had established himself with a new bride in Monterey, and recruited a dozen men to pursue Humpbacks and Gray Whales with harpoons and hand-lances from two small boats. It proved a lucrative business from the outset, one which Davenport sold to a group of Portuguese before moving in 1868 to an area fourteen miles north of Santa Cruz where he built a large wharf and named it after himself. Primarily, Davenport Landing had handled shipping for several shingle companies and lumber mills.
I turned off the highway onto Davenport Landing Road, and followed a big horseshoe curve back to Route One. The paint was peeling badly on the old Davenport place, a clapboard house and barn which I learned had recently been sold to a private owner with plans for renovation. I stopped in at the roadside Whale City Bakery Bar & Grill. It was a terracotta building accented with a colorful painting on the outside – of a smiling Gray Whale swimming through a lifesaver ring. In the window was a handwritten notice informing that I’d arrived “where the blubber meets the road,” a spot that “puts Davenport Landing on Highway 1’s destination dining and drinking map.” I settled for a cup of black coffee, as I gazed at the Gray Whale bumper stickers and whale’s tail pins and migration collector’s buttons.
Crossing the highway and some long-obsolete railroad tracks, a small path festooned with sweet-smelling white alyssum wildflowers leads out toward a spectacular cliffside. At the top of the hill, a sign warned: “Keep away, dangerous unstable cliffs, a fall can be fatal.” I went to the edge anyway and peered down. Enclosed by leaning pine trees was what remained of Davenport’s wharf. A Native American fellow was sitting nearby with his two dogs, looking out to sea. “Yeah, that’s the old pier from the whaling days all right,” he said.
A shore-whaling company, as Scammon described it, consisted of “one captain, one mate, a cooper, two boat-steerers, and eleven men; from these, two whale-boats are provided with crews of six men each, leaving four hands on shore, who take their turn at the lookout station, to watch for whales, and attend to boiling out the blubber when a whale is caught….The cruising limits of the local whalers extend from near the shore-line to ten miles at sea. At dawn of day, the boats may be seen, careening under a press of sail, or propelled over the undulating ground-swell by the long, measured strokes of oars.”
However, Scammon hastened to add, “this peculiar branch of whaling is rapidly dying out, owing to the scarcity of the animals which now visit the coast; and even these have become exceedingly difficult to approach.” California’s shore whalers, he reckoned, lost about one-fifth of their struck whales. I realized, as I continued on toward Monterey, that Scammon was really the first to undertake what’s become a fixture in marine mammal biology today – the annual whale count and estimates of abundance. In his chapter on Gray Whales, Scammon records the calculations of shore-whaling observers that “a thousand whales passed southward daily, from the 15th of December to the 1st of February, for several successive seasons after shore-whaling was established.” Scammon estimated this meant an “aggregate” gray whale population, at that time, of about 47,000. From his own observations between 1853 and 1856, he continued, the number actually “did not exceed 40,000 – probably not over 30,000.” The count of Grays since killed by the whalers, Scammon went on to speculate, “would not exceed 10,800, and the number which now periodically visit the coast does not exceed 8,000 or 10,000.” That, of course, was still a precipitous drop and, by the 1870s, Scammon cited a Captain Packard’s guess that “the average number seen from the stations passing daily would not exceed forty.”
From Scammon’s “Pacific Sea-Coast Views,” Overland Monthly, March 1872: “On rounding Point Pinos, the quiet town of Monterey, with its naturally unique surroundings, is revealed in all its loveliness. The relics of old Jesuitical times can still be seen, but they are rapidly passing away….Monterey still retains the aspect of an antique California settlement. It was at this place – in ‘Colton Hall’ – that the Constitution of the State of California was framed….Near the pier that projects into the bay stands the custom-house, which has withstood all the changes in governmental affairs since the time the pueblo became an entry-port….In rambling through the
town you meet many superior adobe structures, admirably adapted to the wants of the first settlers, being cool in summer, warm in winter, and proof against the attacks of Indians.”
The capital of California under Spanish and then Mexican rule, Monterey sprawls loosely around the gently curving arc of its vast, prolific bay. “It is impossible to describe the number of whales,” a Spaniard named De La Perouse wrote of Monterey Bay in 1786. “They blowed every half minute within half a pistol shot from our frigate.” An issue of the Monterey Californian later added: “…these marine monsters were so numerous in Monterey Bay that whalers could fill up lying at anchor.” Most experts believe that both references are to Gray Whales.
Downtown, near Fisherman’s Wharf, is the First Brick House of California, where it turns out Captain John D. Davenport was the initial occupant. It’s down the block from the Old Whaling Station, an adobe dwelling with an adjacent rose garden and arbor. Local legend has it that whalers kept their lookout from the upstairs windows which had unobstructed panoramic views of the bay. Decorated with antique furnishings, today the Old Whaling Station’s house-and-grounds are rented out for weddings and other fancy functions by the Junior League of Monterey County. Guests tread across a whalebone sidewalk entryway and pass inside under a whale vertebrae. On the second floor verandah sits a rocking chair constructed from ribs and more vertebrae.
I recalled an article Scammon had pasted into a scrapbook, written by Prentice Mulford, who sailed down the California coast on Scammon’s Revenue Marine ship Wyanda. In an 1869 edition of the San Francisco Bulletin, Mulford described the Monterey beaches “strewn with the bleaching bones of dead whales” looking from a distance like cast-up driftwood. “The great backbone joints are even used for pavements. They are buried in the earth, leaving only the round, upper surface exposed; and very good pavements they make. These blocks of bone, once the leviathan’s spinal column, the seat of that strength by which he coursed from the Arctic seas to the equator, come to these base uses at last.”
Such reminders remain abundant. Around the corner from the Old Whaling Station is California’s First Theater, a historical monument at the intersection of Scott and Pacific. An arch of whale ribs and vertebrae forming newel posts for steps marks the entrance to the low-slung adobe building where 19th-century melodramas like “Troopers of the Gold Coast” were once staged. Reportedly the theater had also once served as the equipment storage area for Davenport’s whaling company.
I proceeded a couple of miles further to the San Carlos Cathedral, advertised as “the oldest continuously functioning house of worship in California.” Its Self Guided Tour notes that, when Father Francisco Pacheco renovated and enlarged the chapel in 1858, “whale vertebrae sections were used to pave the outside sidewalks. By the early 1940’s this had become dangerous” – slippery when wet, I wondered? – “so it was taken up and stacked at the rear of the church.” Nothing was indicated about what next became of the whalebones.
I maneuvered through the commercial maze that was once Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and headed for the outskirts of town. Steph Dutton and his wife, Heidi Tiura, lived twelve miles outside Monterey. I hadn’t seen the couple since Neah Bay five months before, where they’d been among the most vocal opponents of the Makah hunt. They’d provided refuge to Alberta Thompson after the fracas between the tribe and the Sea Shepherds. Now their outspokenness had caused them to lose a substantial research grant to their organization, In the Path of Giants. The funding would have enabled them to track and document the entire migration of the Gray Whale, using a kayak as their primary research vessel. So they’d come home to central California and taken stock. Their efforts at Neah Bay had exacted quite a toll. Certain that they’d done what they had to do, it remained to be seen how they’d pull themselves out of the apparent wreckage of their lives.
I drove up a winding road into the hills overlooking Monterey Bay. The single-story ranch-style house is surrounded by pines, oaks, ferns and, as Heidi puts it, “more poison oak than should have been allowed by nature.” The couple shares these surroundings with white-tailed deer, quail, Stellar’s jays, coyotoes and rabbits. “Our garden has clearly been touted as the deer version of an all-you-can-eat salad bar,” Heidi says, giving me a quick tour, “but every year, I plant lobelia and petunias anyway.”
When they found this place in 1996, Steph Dutton went straight to the master bedroom’s bathroom and found an old ball-and-claw foot bathtub. For a leg amputee, he says, such a bathtub is a thing of beauty.
They are an unusual couple, drawn to one another and to the Gray Whales in ways that seem fated. Both are in their late forties. Heidi is a native Californian and Steph, born in Austin, Texas, grew up near San Diego. He is tall and quiet, with deep blue eyes (“the color of storm surf,” as Heidi describes them), a long mustache, and wavy graying hair that overlaps his ears. She is freckle-faced, with long strawberry-blonde hair and a vivacious smile and manner. Each of them wears a handmade whale’s tail necklace, reminiscent of the earrings I’d seen on Alberta Thompson and John Spencer.
“Let me tell you what happened when I was a little girl,” Heidi had said to me in Neah Bay. “I grew up in a rural area on the coast of Northern California. At night I used to ride my donkey across the highway and out onto the headlands above the ocean. I’d just stand there for hours. Especially when it was somewhat foggy offshore, it would be black and velvety and calm. I could smell the salt, hear the buoys and sometimes the foghorns up the coast. I was just entranced. It was partly fear, and partly fascination with what was out there. Now here I am, forty years later, and I’m wondering if even back then – because these whales were passing by my whole lifetime – were they pulling me and calling to me? Because I’ve always felt this pull, always.”
For thirteen years, Heidi Tiura started and ran a multitude of businesses: custom T-shirts, windsurfing, a deli and bar. Then her affinity for the ocean took control. She sold her businesses and went to sea. She headed north, running her own small boat towing service over Washington’s infamous Columbia River bar, working as a deckhand on charterboats and then on progressively larger tugboats on Puget Sound and in Alaska. Becoming a licensed master of offshore vessels, by 1994 she was setting up sea kayak excursions for tourists who came to the southeast Alaskan village of Sitka on cruise ships.
That is where she met Steph Dutton. Divorced with three children, at various times Steph had been a contractor, a paramedic, a firefighter, an undercover cop, and a private investigator. The experience that changed his life forever had taken place in 1978. Steph calls it his “brush with extinction.” He was driving home from working half a night shift as a favor for another firefighter, when he came upon an accident in the hills near Escondido, California. Beside a wrecked truck, Steph recalls, “a guy was lying on the road, covered with a blanket. I thought he was probably dead. But when I pulled it off, amazingly he was alive, and begging me to help him. That’s when I heard a squeal of tires, looked up, and saw headlights coming right for us.” He’d responded by pushing the accident victim off the road, then tried to dive out of the way himself. “But the oncoming driver hit me right as I was in mid-air, and smashed my leg. That threw me in under the wrecked truck. I was lying there in a puddle of gasoline, when I saw a fireman walk up holding a lit flare. That’s when I knew I’d die if I lost consciousness. I had to stay awake long enough to direct my own rescue.”
It took eighteen months of failed operations before Steph demanded amputation just below the knee of his right leg. He wanted to get on with his life. After virtually no rehab, he taught himself to walk with a prosthesis. He did concrete work, a physically demanding and grueling job even for a person with both legs. He became a paramedic. He also resumed skiing, earning accreditation as an instructor. The examiners had no idea he was skiing on a prosthesis. Steph’s intent was to teach skiing to amputees and paraplegics, but there was little demand in that area at the time.
Then he discovered sea kayaking. Not only did any trace of his limp vanish the moment he sat down in a kayak hull, his upper body strength could flourish as a paddler.
In 1993, Steph set out on a solo paddle from Victoria, British Columbia, all the way to Ensenada in Baja California – a voyage of 1,600 nautical miles that would take him two full months. Nobody had ever tried this before. And he almost didn’t make it. As Steph was passing along the Oregon coast, a raging storm struck. He remembers:
“It was a full-on gale, and I was filled with a mix of awe and terror. Mostly, I was worried about keeping myself upright. Suddenly, I was stunned to see the heaving water all around me start to make some strange moves. Then I realized – I was surrounded by a pod of spouting whales! A whale on my right dove, and then surfaced again on my left side. My gosh, I thought, forty feet of whale just swam under my kayak. It was as though they were guiding me, helping me to stay oriented to the coastline. I considered that they might be a pod of Grays, but I couldn’t be sure. Right afterward, I made it my business to find out a lot more about them.”
The following year, Heidi Tiura heard a story from her sister about a one-legged ex-firefighter who had solo-kayaked the entire Pacific coast of the contiguous United States. She thought, “How inspirational! I said to myself, ‘I want this man in my life.'” But Heidi had no idea, when she went to pick up a new kayak instructor at the little airport in Sitka, that she was about to meet him. “Even when we went drinking that night down at the Pioneer Bar, and Steph ended up telling stories of his long paddles down the coast, I still didn’t put it together that he was the very man I’d dreamed about. I did notice he had a slight limp and, the next day as we all piled into the truck, I glimpsed a steel bar poking out between the end of his pant leg and the top of his shoe. I touched it, and asked, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ Steph just quietly replied, ‘Ah, it’s nothing,’ which suddenly spoke volumes to me. So, we fell in love in a day. And we’ve been together ever since.”
They married and settled first in Astoria, Oregon. Steph’s growing reputation as one of the world’s premier kayakers led to financial support from the U.S. paddling industry. With a partner, he circumnavigated the northern Channel Islands off California. With Heidi as expedition manager, he paddled the Oregon coast in the winter of 1995, which took a full thirty days in treacherous weather.
In January of 1996, the couple was in Big Sur when they saw the misty whale-spouts offshore, dozens of them. They decided to launch kayaks from Monterey the next morning and try to follow the Gray Whale’s trail. Even a strong storm that blew ashore that night failed to dissuade them. They set off at 7 a.m. and paddled for hours. Heidi had never paddled so far and her hands blistered. The blisters broke and stung from the salt water. They ate nothing and drank only a little water. They were miles offshore, in 16-foot seas and 20-knot headwinds when, Heidi remembers, “suddenly we were surrounded by barnacle-encrusted freight trains, just blowing and thundering past us, all around us, underneath us.”
“When these whales dived beside us, about ten feet down, we could see an incredible, blue-green luminescence surrounding them,” Steph says.
“At one point, one stopped, a full-grown gray whale,” Heidi says. “It turned its head ninety degrees and rotated its eye up and looked at me. And it was like a lightning bolt. Had I been standing, it probably would have knocked me off my feet. It just grabs at your soul.”
When their kayaks slid onto the beach at 3:30 that afternoon, the couple was exhausted. Before she got out of her kayak, Heidi turned to Steph and said unhesitatingly, “I want to go. I want to go with them.”
“That solved a huge problem for me,” Steph would say later in presentations they’ve given all over the U.S. and Canada, “because I’d already decided I wanted to craft a project around these magnificent animals and I was wondering how to break the news to Heidi!”
Their research organization, In the Path of Giants, was underway. They moved to Monterey, spending the first several months in a small RV with their huge Chesapeake Bay retriever. For the next two winters, they tracked the Gray Whales migrating along the central California coast. “We got the snot kicked out of us by El Niño,” Heidi says, “me in Sea Dog, our 26-foot power boat, and Steph in a 22-foot kayak in 35-foot seas!” Steph paddled literally thousands of miles with the whales as the pair filmed and photographed them, learning their patterns and subtle nuances. He seemed to possess a phenomenal ability to adapt to a single whale or even a pod, often knowing their speed underwater, their course and when they’d surface. Much of this emanated from tracking them by a muscle-powered craft, where you must pay attention to the finest details – such as the subtle angle of a fluke as the whale sounds, signifying a change in direction – or else you end up half-a-mile from the animal the next time it surfaces. One goal of these endeavors was to document a standard Gray Whale route past Monterey Bay, which could lead to establishment of rules for human navigation that would minimize disturbance to the whales and their young. Information keyed into charts supplanted older data.
Heidi says, “We’ve never witnessed friendly whale behavior, you know. Most people assume we’ve been to the lagoons and had this wonderful soft experience with these whales. Instead, all we’ve done is beat ourselves up on the open ocean where they want very little to do with us. But we’re learning their rhythms, their habits.”
They’d taken their boat up the coast to Neah Bay and the Makah reservation in late September of 1998, with an offer to help the tribe develop whale watching and sea kayaking tourist ventures as an alternative to the hunting plans. Heidi had developed a curriculum called the Sea Dog School in Monterey, where middle- and high-schoolers were taught navigation and seamanship skills and even the rudimentaries of operating a kayak or power boat. “We offered all of this to the Makah to be woven through their culture,” Heidi says, but they were turned down on all counts. “We were branded as troublemakers, treated as outlaws, and thrown out of a federally funded marina.” So they’d stayed on just outside the reservation. They established a base camp, aiding the Sea Shepherds and using their boat to scout for any tribal canoes that might potentially be after the whales.
Until then, the National Marine Fisheries Service was ready to grant In the Path of Giants a research permit. Several other groups had been prepared to provide financial support for a planned voyage along the whales’ path all the way to the Bering Sea. Heidi would pilot the mother ship, while Steph and a team of paddlers would use kayaks as their primary research vessels. They planned to attach to the whales small dart-tags with the capacity to log all sorts of data, as well as to transmit it to satellites.
“When our biologist called us and told us to get out of Neah Bay and eliminate the advocacy stuff from our web-site – otherwise, he’d have to withdraw – we almost complied,” Steph says. “But finally we knew we couldn’t leave, even though we’d face losing all our funders. Somehow, we’d find ways to continue our work.”
And so they had, despite the project’s forced cancellation. Heidi already had her Coast Guard master’s license; in the spring of 1999, Steph obtained his. The pair found employment in Monterey and began running whale watching cruises, eventually forming their own company. “We bought a great boat and named her Sanctuary,” Heidi explains. “Steph has completely gone through her engine room and she just purrs. I put life-sized Pacific white-sided dolphins on her bows, because so often we are surrounded by them. Much like a phoenix, Sanctuary Cruises was born out of the ashes of In the Path of Giants.”
As we sit on the deck of their home looking out across tall pines, gnarled oaks, and twisted manzanitas all the way to Monterey Bay, the sun is setting. Steph is unusually talkative. “I remember going to Magdalena Bay several years back, being out there in my kayak and seeing spouts and thinking, ‘Thar she blows!’ I’d go racing toward the spouts and then I’d find myself saying, wait a minute, where does this come from? It was a little scary to me. Is this a past-life thing? I’m not a New Age kind of guy, but I was rocked by that. Then, last year, Heidi and I were in Boston at the Union Oyster House, where Daniel Webster drank brandy and ate oysters. We were seated at table two in the Pine Room, drinking Harpoon Ale. It was hot but, at the same time, we looked at each other and we had goosebumps. We both thought, we’ve been here before, we know this.”
Steph is silent for a moment. Strangely, I’m thinking of Ahab and recalling lines from Moby Dick: “Here be it said, that this pertinacious pursuit of one particular whale, continued through day into night, and through night into day, is a thing by no means unprecedented….For such is the wonderful skill, prescience of experience, and invincible confidence acquired by some great natural geniuses among the Nantucket commanders, that from the single observation of a whale when last descried, they will, under certain given circumstances, pretty accurately foretell both the direction in which he will continue to swim for a time, while out of sight, as well as his probable rate of progression during that period.”
Then Steph continues: “My fascination with the Gray Whales is not anthropomorphic. The bond I sense with them comes from something deeper. I think I feel a strong connection to the Gray Whale because of my disability. I wouldn’t say they’re flawed physically, but they’re not everybody’s idea of a whale. They’re aren’t pretty. They aren’t the high glamour species like Humpbacks, Blues, or Orcas. Yet they’ve survived two near-extinctions. They’ve withstood the ravages of greedy humans for more than a century. Somehow, they’ve found a way to endure. Deep in my mind, I have an image from an old fairy tale called ‘The Steadfast Tin soldier.’ He’s the one who’s all beat up and missing a leg, yet will never shirk his duty. That term, ‘steadfast,’ means so much to me because that’s what the Gray Whales are. They have this incredible will to survive. There’s a sense that this whale won’t quit. Nor will I.”
Along the California coast, there may be no better place to contemplate how the Gray Whales “withstood the ravages” of Melville’s era than at Whaler’s Cove inside the Point Lobos State Reserve. It’s south out of Monterey, across the Carmel River and down a pine-shrouded winding road, nestled in the lee of southwesterly breezes. These craggy headlands are among the most spectacular spots on the entire California coast. When Spanish explorers sailing past four centuries ago heard sea lions barking off the rocks, they called it “Punta de los Lobos Marinos,” Point of the Sea Wolves.
Inside what may be the oldest wood-frame building in California, a cabin built by Chinese fishermen around 1851, is the West Coast’s only on-site whaling exhibit. On the far wall is a large framed sketch of this very spot, depicting a team of shore whalers. It was drawn by Charles M. Scammon in 1865, who later described the scene:
“The one [station] which most interested us is half-hidden in a little nook, on the southern border of the Bay of Carmel, just south of Point Pinos. Scattered around the foot-hills, which come to the water’s edge, are the neatly whitewashed cabins of the whalers, nearly all of whom are Portuguese, from the Azores or Western Islands of the Atlantic. They have their families with them, and keep a pig, sheep, goat, or cow, prowling around the premises; these, with a small garden-patch, yielding principally corn and pumpkins, make up the general picture of the hamlet, which is a paradise to the thrifty clan in comparison with the homes of their childhood. It is a pleasant retreat from the rough voyages experienced on board the whale-ship. The surrounding natural scenery is broken into majestic spurs and peaks, like their own native isles, with the valley of the Rio Carmel a little beyond, expanded into landscape loveliness.
“Under a precipitous bluff, close to the water’s edge, is the station; where, upon a stone-laid quay, is erected the whole establishment for cutting-in and trying-out the blubber of the whales. Instead of rolling them upon the beach, as is usually done, the cutting-tackles are suspended from an elevated beam, whereby the carcass is rolled over in the water – when undergoing the process of flensing – in a manner similar to that alongside a ship. Near by are the tryworks, sending forth volumes of thick, black smoke from the scrap-fire under the steaming cauldrons of boiling oil. A little to one side is the primitive storehouse, covered with cypress boughs. Boats are hanging from davits, some resting on the quay, while others, fully equipped, swing at their moorings in the bay. Seaward, on the crest of a cone-shaped hill, stands the signal-pole of the lookout station. Add to this the cutting at the shapeless and half-putrid mass of a mutilated whale, together with the men shouting and heaving on the capstans, the screaming of gulls and other sea-fowl, mingled with the noise of the surf about the shores, and we have a picture of the general life at a California coast-whaling station.”
Sweeping Monterey Cypress still tower here over the front yard of the museum. A park ranger tells me that the last two native stands in the world are found here and on nearby Pebble Beach, the last two holes of whose famous golf course are visible from Whaler’s Cove. Under the boughs, a series of whalebones are anchored into the earth alongside a huge metal whaling trypot. The floor joists of the museum were fashioned from six whale vertebrae which, the curator says, “were lying all over the place when the original dirt floor got replaced around 1900. They’re strong and the termites don’t bother them, and they were free.”
There had been several small villages around this cove at different junctures – first the Chinese fishermen, next the Portuguese whalers. “When kerosene replaced whale oil,” ranger Chuck Bancroft tells me, “the Portuguese moved out by the mid-1880s, tearing the cabins down and taking the lumber with them.” Then had come Japanese at the tail-end of the nineteenth century. The latter were abalone fishermen who also temporarily established a joint venture with some Portuguese called the Japanese Whaling Company. “There was a large scaffolding down here, where they’d bring the whales and tie them off to Window Rock,” the ranger adds. After shore whaling ceased for good in 1901, it wasn’t long before Hollywood discovered Point lobos. Almost fifty movies have been filmed at these vistas since 1914.
I’m standing in front of the Scammon sketch, reading an inscription about how in 1848, Lewis Temple had “invented a new type of harpoon head that quickly became the standard of the industry. Because the harpoon head was able to pivot or toggle within the whale’s flesh, it was less likely to pull out and thus resulted in capture of many more whales.” I realized that’s the same basic type of harpoon head that the Makah Tribe intended to use for their first strike, now, one hundred fifty years later. I walk outside and across the road to an open meadow, where red-hot-poker plants blossom, and envision two-dozen trypots boiling amid the cacophonous and terrible din of Scammon’s “general life at a California coast-whaling station.”
By 1886, “of the eleven whaling stations mentioned by Scammon as established along the coast ten or twelve years ago, only five remain,” according to the Townsend report on “Present Condition of the California Gray Whale Fishery.” John Dean Caton’s article in the American Naturalist (1888) added that, in Monterey, “the old whale boats may now be seen leaning up against the sheds useless and abandoned.” Another writer, Edward Berwick, recalled in a 1900 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine how “the shores of Monterey Bay were frequented by that greatest among seabirds, barring the albatross, the giant fulmar (Ossifraga gigantea). This bird then found it to his interest to leave his haunts in the southern hemisphere, and feed his fill on dead whale, in abundance and variety, off California’s coasts. With the decline of whaling he again withdrew southward, and for many years not one has been seen here.”
What Gray Whale catch remained during the latter part of the nineteenth century –a total of 167 taken along the California coast between 1883 and 1886 – consisted chiefly of males. Females traveling north with their young were staying well offshore. For the only known time in its history, the Gray Whale’s will to survive had driven it far from the harpoon guns of its human adversaries. In Monterey Bay, as I was soon to discover, the animals still needed every bit of that will to fend off another voracious species.
As Gray Whale mothers and their young travel north together for the first time, they are able to remain in proximity of the near-shore kelp beds on most of their early sojourn across California. Upon reaching the vicinity of Point Lobos, however, they are abruptly faced with the coastline opening into a large bay. The sea here turns a deep cobalt. A vast underwater abyss commences. It snakes to a depth of 10,663 feet, as deep from rim to bottom as the Grand Canyon. Monterey Canyon was forged mainly by the erosive power of silt-laden underwater currents, and it is an extremely fecund area. The nutrient-rich cold water wells up along the gorge. The warmer water of the shore shallows mixes with the deep. The resulting explosion of algae and plankton forms the base of a complex food chain which supports everything from tiny copepod crustaceans to hundred-ton Blue Whales.
Upon arriving at this juncture, the migrating Gray Whales face a choice. They can try to take a shortcut across the canyon – one of the deepest bodies of water a Gray Whale will ever traverse. Or they can hug the shoreline, along the sloping beach and the kelp forests that ring the thirty-mile-wide Monterey Bay as it stretches from Pacific Grove to Santa Cruz.
Those who select the shortcut may not make it. For there, above a seascape of eternal darkness, the Orcas wait.
Orcas – Killer Whales – may have been the “aries marinus” of the ancients, and possibly the “horrible Sea-satyre” of Edmund Spenser, since the white marks on their heads might be fancifully interpreted as closely ad-pressed horns. Orcinus orca was the name bestowed by Linnaeus in 1758, Orca being Latin for a type of whale and Orcinus being derived from the Latin Orcus, which means “of the netherworld.” The whalers called them “whale killer,” a title later transposed to “killer whale.” For they are not whales themselves, but the largest species of dolphin. “The length of the adult males may average twenty feet, and the females fifteen feet,” Scammon informs. Other than human beings, Orcas are the most cosmopolitan mammals on the planet in their distribution, being found in every ocean basin. And, with their distinctive blend of coloration – jet-black above and white below – they are one of the most identifiable. Despite our doting upon Keiko – the film star of “Free Willy” – this particular species possesses a uniquely predatory appetite for its fellow marine mammals.
This isn’t true of all Killer Whales. Scammon had pointed out that several different species of Orcas could be found in every zone and hemisphere. Jim Nollman, who’s concentrated on analyzing their vocalizations in recent years, described it like this: “There are two Orca cultures. One group eats fish and vocalizes all the time. They have a social structure based on frequency-modulated whistles, in other words a melody. Then there’s this other group which is stealthy and are called transients. And they eat marine mammals. Recent genetic studies have shown that, even though they travel the same waters sometimes, these two groups of Orcas have not reproduced together in at least one hundred thousand years.”
It’s the “transient pods,” as scientists call them, which pursue gray whales throughout their entire range. Few have ever evoked these Killer Whales so eloquently as Scammon. He wrote about them at some length, originally for the Overland Monthly and then in his book. Reading Scammon’s anatomical description, I was struck by how much Orcas seemed the mirror opposite of Gray Whales. Where the Grays are covered with barnacle-raising parasites, the Orcas are free of such altogether, the “scarf-skin being beautifully smooth and glossy.” Where the Grays possess no dorsal fin whatsoever, the Orcas possess a “dagger-shaped” prominent upper limb. Where the Grays are toothless, the Orca mouth “is armed with strong, sharp, conical teeth, which interlock.” Where the Grays “speak” in the lowest of tones, the Orcas have shrill, high-pitched voices. Where the Grays subsist on the smallest of bottom-dwelling organisms, the Orcas subsist on the largest of surface-swimming marine mammals.
“The Gray Whales,” Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History wrote in 1914, “seem to be objects of continual persecution by the Killers; much more so than any of the other large whales.”
Scammon tells us how these “wolves of the ocean” would grapple with the Gray and other baleen whales of far greater size than themselves. “And it is surprising to see those leviathans of the deep so completely paralyzed by the presence of their natural, although diminutive, enemies….The habits of the Killers exhibit a boldness and cunning peculiar to their carnivorous propensities. At times they are seen in schools, undulating over the waves – two, three, six, or eight abreast – and, with the long pointed fins above their arched backs, together with their varied marks and colors, they present a pleasing and somewhat military aspect. But generally they go in small squads – less than a dozen – alternately showing themselves upon the surface of the water, or gliding just below, when nothing will be visible but their projecting dorsals; or they disport themselves by rolling, tumbling, and leaping nearly out of water, or cutting various antics with their flukes. At such times, they usually move rapidly over the surface of the sea, and soon disappear in the distance.”
Their attacks “may be likened, in some respects, to a pack of hounds holding the stricken deer at bay. They cluster about the animal’s head, some of their number breaching over it, while others seize it by the lips and haul the bleeding monster under water; and when captured, should the mouth be open, they eat out its tongue.”
Scammon witnessed one such moment “in a lagoon on the coast of Lower California, in the spring of 1858.” It was an attack by three Killer Whales upon a Gray Whale and her calf. The battle “lasted for an hour or more. They made alternate assaults upon the old whale and her offspring, finally killing the latter, which sunk to the bottom, where the water was five fathoms deep. During the struggle, the mother became nearly exhausted, having received several deep wounds about the throat and lips. As soon as their prize had settled to the bottom, the three Orcas descended, bringing up large pieces of flesh in their mouths, which they devoured after coming to the surface.”
The predator in Scammon made no attempt to disguise his admiration for the Orcas, which have rarely been hunted by man. As Scammon put it, “They are seldom captured by civilized whalemen, as their varied and irregular movements make the pursuit difficult, and the product of oil is even less than that of the Blackfish, in proportion to their size.” Indeed, Scammon and other commentators allude to a strange kinship – and sometimes a competition – between whalers and Killer Whales. As early as 1763, it was noted in an English Essay on the Natural History of Whales, “These Killers are of such invincible Strength, that when several Boats together have been towing a dead Whale, one of them has come and fastened his Teeth in her, and carried her away down to the Bottom in an Instant.” They had even been known to wrestle over a whale “till it draws the Boat under Water.” Scammon also cited instances on the Northwestern coast where a band of Orcas would lay siege to whales being towed to the whaling ships, “in so determined a manner, that, although they were frequently lanced and cut with boat-spades, they took the dead animals from their human captors, and hauled them under water, out of sight.”
An unusual reciprocal relationship is said to have taken place during the late 1800s and early 1900s among an Orca and some shoreside whalers in Australia. Old Tom, as the Orca was affectionately known, came to realize that both he and the whalers liked to go after Humpbacks. Eventually Old Tom started coming into the bay, lobtailing and slapping the water to let the men know when there were whales offshore. The whalers would row out and follow the Killer Whale to where the prey was, harpoon a Humpback, and allow Old Tom to feed upon his favored portion – the whale’s tender tongue – before hauling the rest ashore. It even got to the point, the legend goes, where once the whalers put a line in the water, the Orca would pick it up and tow the boat out.
Killer Whales assisted the human hunters in another way. One captain reported that, shortly after he began to hunt a group of seven Gray Whales, fifteen Killer Whales had shown up. The Grays became so terrified that the captain had no difficulty in killing three of them: “When the Orcas gathered about, the whales turned belly up and lay motionless, with fins outspread, apparently paralyzed by fright.”
Just as the vastly diminished numbers of Gray Whales had learned, in Scammon’s words, to “shun the fatal shore” – breaking their time-honored migratory patterns and traveling well away from the California coast and their human predators for many years – so it seems did Gray Whales develop means of avoiding Killer Whales. Grays were observed to “go into such shallow water as to roll in the wash and even try to hide behind rocks” when sensing Orcas nearby.
The first large-scale whale watching by people also focused around an interaction between Grays and Orcas. It happened early in 1947, at a time when many marine experts still believed the Gray Whale to be extinct. A San Diego newspaper reported: “Trapping two southward-bound whales inside kelp beds along La Jolla coastline, a vicious pack of six killer whales yesterday awed more than 3,000 beach residents in an unusual 4 ½-hour aquatic life-or-death struggle. One of the toothless Mysticeti species of whales eluded the desperately flailing killers (conical-toothed Odontoceti type), but the fate of the second was not determined because darkness set in.”
Then, in October of 1966, humans intervened directly on the whale’s behalf. “3 Gray Whales Fight Off Killers In Ocean Battle,” the San Diego Union headlined in a Page One story. Theodore J. Walker, an associate oceanographer at Scripps, was leading a whale watching cruise with nearly a hundred people aboard when he received a radio alert from some lifeguards about the attack. While hundreds of Sunday strollers packed the shoreline at La Jolla Cove, Walker instructed his skipper to make for the scene. The water was a maelstrom as they approached. Walker observed that the trio of Gray Whales didn’t panic, but were staying in close formation. They lay on their sides and swatted at the Killer Whales with their tail flukes. As Walker’s ship closed in, the Orcas broke off with a dramatic series of tail slaps and headed north. They’d abandoned the battle, Walker figured, because the engine noise must have made it difficult for the Orcas to hear each other. The exhausted Gray Whales kept coming up to blow every few seconds. As Walker’s vessel turned parallel to shore, he reported “the Grays stayed between us and the land, and I think they were using us for protection. Normally they wouldn’t let us get that close.” This went on for about two miles where, almost to Bird Rock, the three whales pointed their rostrums toward the kelp beds and the surf. There, according to Walker, the bubbles in the surf and in the plant’s anchors acted as an “acoustical screen.” The Killer Whale’s echolocating sonar wouldn’t be able to find them. The sun was going down. The Gray Whales were safe. The whale watchers departed.
A decade later, Theodore J. Walker would be among the first marine scientists ever to reach out to – and touch – a “friendly” Gray Whale at the San Ignacio Lagoon. Walker was known as a crusty sort. A companion observed this was the only time he ever saw the man break down and weep.
In Baja, Killer Whales are known to appear in the Pacific waters outside the breeding lagoons but, with the lone exception of Scammon’s account, never to enter the nursery domains.
Now, above Cannery Row and just down from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Alan Baldridge is sitting in a conference room at the Hopkins Marine Station. Recently retired after almost thirty years as the Hopkins science librarian, Baldridge probably knows as much about Gray Whales as any layman in California. He’s sailed to their Baja breeding grounds and their Bering Sea feeding areas. His fascination with the Grays had begun in April 1964, standing atop a huge cliff along the Oregon coastline, “an unusually calm, clear day when I could actually see the whales underwater as they traveled so close to shore.” Baldridge was working at the Portland Public Library at the time, and he searched the shelves to see what else he might learn about Gray Whales. There he came across an original edition of Scammon’s Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America. “Of course, there’s a legion of material today,” Baldridge says. “But in those days, the Sixties, Scammon was still the only major account about the Gray Whales’ natural history.”
Baldridge was equally intrigued by Scammon’s description of the Orcas. In the years since, he has personally witnessed three attacks on Gray Whales off Monterey, and published the most detailed account since Scammon in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1972. “The mothers and calves taking those shortcuts across the bay,” Baldridge emphasizes, “are the most vulnerable. It may be that these are simply inexperienced animals. The calves make a lot of noise, of course, and there’s considerable vocalization between the pair as they swim along and play around. Presumably the Orcas hear this from some considerable distance, and can home in on them.”
Baldridge expects it’s the more seasoned Gray Whales who stick to the inside of the breakers along the shoreline. For one thing, Killer Whales seem to fear getting beached if they probe too far into the surf. For another, as they do scan the near-shore region with their sonar, the round air sacs in the kelp forests tend to dissipate the echo. So for the Grays, it’s a decent enough place to remain undetected.
They’ve been known to adopt other strategies as well. In the Bering Sea in 1981, scientists watched from a small plane as sixteen Killer Whales in two distinct groups approached twenty-seven feeding Gray Whales. The Orcas moved in a crescent-shaped formation, synchronizing their breathing patterns to perhaps give the impression of a smaller pod. The Gray Whales suddenly ceased feeding and formed compact groupings of between three and six in each, and began swimming slowly away. It was speculated that their methodical, tight-knit interactions might provide protection similar to that of fish schooling. Meantime, the scientists had dropped a sonobuoy nearby to try to monitor sounds and transmit these to an onboard VHF broadband receiver. Over a ninety-minute period, not a single waterborne sound was picked up from either species. Both the Killer Whales and the Gray Whales, it was believed, were remaining silent to avoid calling attention to themselves. No attack was witnessed. The Gray Whales were presumed to have escaped.
When an attack has been recorded, as one of Monterey Bay’s first whale watching captains described it to me, “It sounds kind of eerie. You could hear the Gray Whales talking back and forth,” Richard Ternullo said. “When you put it on a spectogram, you can see the frequency differences in their calls. Superimposed over that are these Killer Whales making some of the weirdest sounds you’ve ever heard.”
We were sitting in an outdoor café on Fisherman’s Wharf. For the past dozen years, Ternullo and a naturalist named Nancy Black have also been conducting a photo-identification project on Orcas. They look to identify individuals by their markings, and work with others along the Pacific coast to try to determine where they go. And they’ve probably witnessed more attacks on Gray Whales than anyone, about one a year since the early 1990s, generally in the submarine canyon area of Monterey Bay. In 1998, Ternullo and Black had a contract with the BBC, which managed to film a couple of these events from Ternullo’s 53-foot Pt. Sur Clipper. In 1999, they had a similar deal with National Geographic TV.
Ternullo is a short, stocky fellow who wears his long white hair tied back behind his head. He had on a Sportfishing Sam Monterey cap (the name of his charterboat operation) and blue jeans. I wanted to know what he’d been learning about the Gray –Orca interactions. Alan Baldridge had told me that “the observations of Richard and Nancy show that some of the same individual Orcas are involved in these kills from year to year. We don’t know whether the Orcas have followed the whales up the coast, or whether they know the Gray Whales will be heading north and are intercepting them as they migrate.”
Ternullo nodded and expanded on the theme. He said there seemed to be a distinct pattern of hierarchy as well as cooperation among the Orcas. “Some Killer Whales will hang around the edges, as if they’re positioning to block an escape route, while others try to separate the mother from the calf.” Precisely like Scammon and the other lagoon whalers did, I thought to myself. “Then one Killer Whale will kind of take the lead, seem to be putting in more effort than the others during the direct attack. The next day, the one doing the hard work won’t be the same one as the day before.”
The orcas generally attack first from underneath, ambush-style. Ternullo has seen several adult males take out a Gray Whale calf in a matter of a couple of hours. He’s also seen a female Orca, and what was apparently her own offspring, take as long as six or seven hours to separate a calf from its mother and kill it. Ternullo figures there is “probably some instructional element” transpiring in the latter instance. “At the end,” he continued, “they actually physically get on top of the calf to hold it down. I mean, right on its back, like riding a horse. What they’re doing, of course, is drowning it.”
An examination of Gray Whales taken for research purposes at a California whaling station in 1971 had shown that eighteen percent exhibited evidence of having been attacked by a Killer Whale. From what he’s observed, Ternullo thinks the number is most likely higher than that. He recently photographed a Gray Whale with track marks from the front of its rostrum all the way down its back along the dorsal ridge. “If you look at the tails of Gray Whales, which often have chunks taken out, you realize a lot of them have had experiences with Killer Whales.”
What percentage escapes, nobody knows. Killer whales often aren’t seen for months until gray whales begin showing up off California on their southbound migration. Then, like cheetahs that follow the wildebeest migrations across the African Serengeti, the orcas close in when their prey is most vulnerable, either just before or just after a calf has been born.
Ternullo’s voice lowered as he began to reflect on the most memorable encounter he’s witnessed. It happened during the spring of 1998, in the deep, unprotected waters across the canyon. A pack of five Killer Whales had zeroed in on a mother and her calf. The mother proceeded to innovate a desperate strategy. Time and again she would roll onto her back and swim belly-up. The calf would climb on top of her, right between its mother’s flippers and just out of reach. Simultaneously, they would roll over and breathe, then resume the same position. The Orcas did everything they could to separate the pair. The calf did get bitten, but was never hamstrung and maintained its vigor.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ternullo said. “I’ve seen one trying to support a calf on her back before, but never holding the calf to the chest like this. At the same time, the mother took advantage of a man-made object in the vicinity. A boat. My boat. The Killer Whales kept circling around us, but she stayed real close and used the hull for protection. After a couple of hours, the Orcas just gave up.”
There followed a perfect spring day in Monterey Bay. Florian Graner, an underwater photographer from Germany, had arrived and was also staying with Steph Dutton and Heidi Tiura. He was hoping to get some more footage here for a documentary, “Wonderworld of the Kelp Forest,” that he was working on for German TV. Heidi would take us out on Sea Dog, the twenty-six-footer they’d trailered to Neah Bay last year.
The three of us left the harbor around noon. “You can see Cannery Row over there,” Heidi pointed out. “Some of the older buildings have been dandied up and made into restaurants and hotels. And those boats on moorings are two of the original sardine fleet, they go back to the Thirties and Forties.” As we approached a Coast Guard vessel, Heidi went on, “That’s the newest class. They’re made to self-right if they capsize, for the most horrendous conditions. Finally, our tax dollars well spent!” Next we came alongside a colony of sea lions lying in the water with flippers extended upwards in the air, “doing some thermal regulation to keep themselves warm,” Heidi said.
We cruised past the amber glades of lush kelp forests growing not far from shore, home to various rockfish and mollusks and crustaceans, and sanctuary at times for Gray Whales avoiding Orcas. “This is the Orca’s main stage,” Heidi said. “They know they can come down here and find the Grays.” Had she ever seen an attack? I wondered. “No, and I don’t want to. I’d probably be out there trying to separate them.” But we were heading for Monterey Canyon, where anything might happen.
Florian readied his camera gear and prepared to don a wetsuit. He was in his late twenties and built like a welterweight fighter, a good thing since his two diving tanks weighed eighty pounds apiece. The tanks came complete with a re-breather, because Gray Whales don’t like bubbles. Attached to a small boat, Florian had done filming in fifty to eighty feet of water at San Ignacio Lagoon, and stayed down for as long as seven hours in a single day. He’d swum there amid lobsters and grouper and beautiful soft corals, and once counted sixteen horn sharks under a single rock. He’d accidentally awakened a sleeping whale, which lashed its tail-fluke and came straight for him to give Florian a little wake-up call of his own. He’d also had a baby Gray gently pick him up – and lift him on its nose straight out of the water! We’d watched some of his footage the night before, including some mesmerizingly long takes on the eye.
“My idea is, when they’re migrating that’s business,” Heidi said as she made a sharply angled turn. “But when they’re down in Baja – ‘Okay, let’s do a little sunbathing.'”
Some Dall’s porpoises, which look like small Orcas, came racing towards us and began cavorting around the boat. A week earlier, while running a whale watching trip, Heidi said she’d seen a mysterious interaction between a group of these porpoises and a very large Gray Whale. “This whale was swimming very slowly and we were concerned for it,” she recalled. “Usually Dall’s move like lightning, but they stayed with her, encircling her. Perhaps she was just resting, but the spectacle of her minimal movement, surrounded by the Dall’s, was really touching. We had two little boys onboard. When one of them turned toward us and declared, ‘She is the Princess of whales, and they are her knights, escorting the Princess,’ Steph turned to me and said, ‘That’s the name of our next boat.'” While they started their company with Sanctuary, a catamaran later added to their fleet has indeed been christened Princess of Whales.
Now Heidi got on the radio with Richard Ternullo, who reported seeing a couple of Humpbacks. “What I suggest,” Heidi replied, “is we go north-northwest and see if we can find some Gray Whales over the canyon.” I heard Ternullo agree to follow in our wake.
“These guys don’t have much of a fishing industry anymore,” Heidi said. “Most of them would rather fish, but rockfish have declined tremendously. Catches keep getting smaller, so they run whale watching trips. Back when we started doing Gray Whale research, they didn’t talk to us. Then slowly, they started. We’ve been out here at times when they were desperate to find a whale. It makes sense to use all of your resources: if people are out there every day, talk to them. Tinker, on Check Mate, was the first. One day, he called me on the radio and said, ‘Heidi, I need a whale.'”
She stopped and put Sea Dog into reverse, circling back to retrieve somebody’s floating plastic bag. She explained that leatherback turtles and other sea creatures ingest plastic bags and balloons, mistaking them for jellyfish; it’s a fatal meal for many. Then, as we started out again, Heidi wheeled around and brought the binoculars up. “I don’t know what it was, but something very large just breached about a half-mile off my bow. It looks like it was headed back toward the point, maybe we can go get a better view of it.” She turned and charted a course southwest.
Sure enough, within ten minutes, a lone Gray Whale was clearly discernible at the southern edge of the Monterey Canyon. Heidi alerted a party boat of our location. Soon the Magnum Force hove into view, its foredeck crammed with people holding cameras. The whale was moving at a fast clip along the upper fringe of the swells. I could see an ethereal blue-green coloration reflecting off its barnacles. Washing along directly ahead of it, leaving a ripple like a snake, was a reddish-brown cloud. “This Gray Whale is surface feeding on krill!” Heidi exclaimed. “This is something you hardly ever see!”
Indeed, Gray Whales are considered to be classic benthic feeders and they feed almost exclusively in the Arctic. But here, thousands of miles from their feeding grounds, the ocean was hundreds of feet deep and there’s no way they could be bottom feeding. The whale watchers aboard Magnum Force hadn’t made it in time to see what we did as, throwing up its flukes, the Gray Whale sounded. “Should stay down about three-and-a-half minutes,” I heard somebody say over the radio. Twelve minutes went by, however, and we hadn’t seen the whale come up again. I watched the large vessel turn towards port. There was another group of prospective viewers to pick up. “I’ll try to keep track of the Gray for when you get back,” Heidi radioed Leon, the captain, over the radio.
“When the whales are on a mission like this,” she explained to Florian and me, “they’ll pop up here one minute and next time they’re a half mile over there. We were tracking one whale with a very distinctive scar on its back yesterday, but there was no telling where it was going to be next.”
We kept rolling. Nothing happened for another half-hour or so. Then, as we began retracing our path along the edge of the canyon again, a distinctly rank odor wafted up from the sea. I remembered the breath of Gray Whales at the lagoon being inoffensive and even almost fragrant, but this was something else again. At least we knew we were on the right track.
“Gray Whales still there?” I overheard one captain asking another.
“Roger, Richard, just about same area, bud.”
“You know if it’s the same whale?”
“Heidi out here’s been on it.”
“Look look look look!” Heidi exclaimed again, and reached for the radio to call one of the other skippers. “Oh wow, Leon, there’s something very interesting going on in front of our bow! This Gray Whale looks like it’s rushing under the water!”
“It’s going almost in circles!” Florian cried out. “Whale going sideways,” as if he was talking to some invisible personage in code.
“Whale blew right in front of me! Right on that tide rip!” Heidi radioed again.
Concentrated in the rip, the whale was trailing a ball of krill that appeared at the surface as a pink swarm. Krill is a minute form of crustacean. Each individual is about the size of a human’s little fingernail, and such swarms are known to be the major dietary staple of Blue Whales in the Antarctic. But Gray Whales? This one’s mouth was swinging like a barn door, ingesting all it could in a pellmell chase that Heidi informed us is “sometimes called Pac Manning – gulping in vast mouthfuls like in the videogame, Pac Man.”
“I think I recognize this guy! I think I’ve filmed him before!” Florian shouted again.
“Holy shit! A 180-degree turn, just like that, right next to us! It looked more like a salmon!” Heidi exulted. “We’re in Whale Central again,” she radioed an approaching tourist vessel, Star of Monterey.
I helped Florian adjust his tanks and he jumped over the side holding his camera. It didn’t take more than a few minutes, however, for him to realize the waters were far too murky to capture anything underwater. The hungry Gray Whale had disappeared again, but the bay seemed to be teeming with life. Stormy petrels and small active gray birds called Cassin’s auklets dove for prey. A Humpback Whale breached ahead, briefly displaying its long, wing-like pectoral fins. Another boat reported seeing a Minke whale. We cruised a tide rip, finding ourselves surrounded by more than fifty Pacific whitesided dolphins. Just outside of their perimeter, more Dall’s porpoises circled.
As we adjusted our course for Monterey, I hadn’t felt so exhilarated since my first morning on San Ignacio Lagoon. “So they don’t eat till they get to the Bering, eh?” Heidi said. “Well, we shot the shit out of that theory!”
The next morning, I went to visit with Alan Baldridge again at the Hopkins Marine Station. The librarian asked me quite a few questions about what I’d seen, then shook his head and said: “You know, I’ve talked to a number of zoologists here who know a lot about krill. But when I brought up the subject of these daytime krill swarms, they said, ‘Alan, that’s not right.’ According to them, when the sun comes up, the krill sink from the surface down to the edge of the dark zone about three hundred to four hundred feet, which hides them from predation. Then as the sun goes down, they rise to the surface again to feed on the phytoplankton. So what you saw proves the scientists off-base on a couple of points. It’s been observed here before, Gray Whales in association with some of these spring krill swarms, which I believe are reproductive swarms. But it’s not been published in the literature. You were very lucky to see that.”
For the Gray Whales, Baldridge thinks, this represents “opportunistic snacking.” Their traditional feast was still waiting thousands of miles to the north, beyond the coastlines of California, Oregon, and Washington, on past Vancouver Island and most of the vast Alaskan shoreline, waiting along the shallow bottoms of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. More than ever, that’s where I longed to accompany them.