Sharing the song of the gray whales
BY PETER LORD, Journal Staff Writer
Russell tells of the story of the great beasts
return from near extinction
©Providence, RI Journal - September 2, 2001
EYE OF THE WHALE, by Dick Russell.
Simon & Schuster. 688 pages. $35.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
is a Journal reporter specializing in the environment.