Sharing the song of the gray whales Russell tells of the story of the great beasts return from near extinction

EYE OF THE WHALE, by Dick Russell.
Simon & Schuster. 688 pages. $35.

Imagine taking your small boat out onto a bay early one morning, and seeing whales as far as the horizon. Big whales. Breaching. Spouting. Creating lovely rainbows in the vapor above their heads. Huge mother whales — three times longer than your boat — swim up and lift their heads out of the water so they can look you in the eye. They lean so close you can touch their soft, rubbery skin. Soon, the mothers nudge their calves closer, and they reach their heads up to each outstretched hand. They seem to enjoy being caressed.

Again and again, as Dick Russell tells the dramatic story of the gray whales that migrate between Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and Alaska each year, he returns to the incredible connections formed when humans visit them in their breeding waters in and near Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon. Christopher Reeves, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the president of Mexico, even hard-nosed scientists — all seem to succumb to the mysticism of forming connections with such great beasts, and then find their lives unalterably changed.

There is a lot going on in this book. For some it would be too much. But Russell’s passion and craftsmanship come through on every page. On one level, he tells a story that could be the foundation of an epic movie:

Gray whales return from the brink of extinction to thrive off the West Coast. They become the focus of a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry as well as help sustain a handful of indigenous tribes who still hunt them. Along comes Mitsubishi with secret plans to create the world’s biggest salt production plant around the San Ignacio Lagoon and build a mile-long pier directly across the whales’ migratory route.

Only a few hundred local people would be affected. Most are poor fishermen. But the locals don’t want this project. Nor do Mexican environmental activists, who voice their dissent in a political culture where such opposition can be physically dangerous. Some international environmental groups join the fray and the battle is under way.

In the end, Mistubishi backs down and the locals celebrate with an emotional feast.

There’s more. Russell quotes liberally from the observations of Capt. Charles Scammons, a Maine whaling captain who wrote so accurately about the grays’ behavior and lives that his observations are still sound 100 years later. He follows the whales’ migration route. He covers the controversial and well publicized hunt by the Makah tribe like a seasoned journalist. He provides graphic descriptions of killer whales attacking grays, homing in on their calves. He spends time with indigenous people throughout the whale migration regions. He even crosses the Pacific to look in on the handful of grays that migrate along the Russian coast.

This book says a lot about people, and much of it is good. Russell, a key figure in the movement to restore striped bass on the East Coast, introduces a number of scientists, native Americans, activists, and just regular folk who decide that whales are important and that they can do something to help them.

At one point, Russell quotes an expert who says the whales’ breath smells like cabbage. Another likens it to cauliflower. He draws his readers so deeply into the lives of these animals and the people who care about them, you might feel ready to voice your own opinion.

Peter Lord is a Journal reporter specializing in the environment.