Eye of the Whale – Prologue


As the whale is great, so to cherish it can be proof of our greatness.
Meanwhile, and for a little longer, the great whale glides through the sea, feeling its vibrations and reading its meaning by senses it has gained through eons of time. Had the whale been created only to deepen our sense of wonder, that were enough, for it is imagination that makes us human

—Dr. Victor B. Scheffer, former director,
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,
The Year of the Whale, 1969.

Halfway down the remote Pacific coastline of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, 435 miles south of the U.S. border at San Diego, the San Ignacio Lagoon (Laguna San Ignacio) winds its way inland along the southern boundary of the Vizcaíno Desert. Millennia ago, the lagoon was formed when rising sea levels breached the sand dunes and flooded portions of the desert. Today the surrounding region is as dry as the Sahara. The lagoon’s sixty square miles fall within a stark landscape of intertidal mud flats and red and white mangrove estuaries, sand dunes and salt mounds. Miles of natural salt flats extend to the north and west, created gradually by repeated saltwater flooding over the centuries. Three mountain ranges crest near the lagoon’s narrow, often shallow reaches.

There is no electricity or plumbing, no invasive human development at all, around the San Ignacio Lagoon. Due to a lack of rainfall and any immediate source of fresh water, the area contains few permanent residents. Almost four hundred people live in six fishing communities along the shoreline. For water, propane fuel, and primary foodstuffs, they must travel either to nearby ranches or for several hours along a rutted dirt road to the oasis town of San Ignacio.

Perhaps this very isolation is why the Eastern Pacific’s California Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) have been coming here for thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of years – to breed, bear, and nurse their young in the lagoon’s warm, calm waters.

In March of 1998, I traveled for the first time to Laguna Ballenas, as the Mexicans once designated it. “Lagoon of Whales.” I was on assignment for the Amicus Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The story focused around a proposed joint venture by Japan’s Mitsubishi International Corporation and Mexico’s Ministry of Trade. Together they wanted to build the world’s largest salt factory inside the last pristine lagoon habitat of the Gray Whale.

I had heard about what marine biologists call “the friendly Gray Whale phenomenon” at the San Ignacio Lagoon. Here, with increasing frequency over the past quarter-century, mother Gray Whales have been approaching small boatloads of visitors and “introducing” their newborn calves. Often, the pair will linger alongside and allow themselves to be petted. They permit you to place a hand in their mouths. Or even plant a kiss on their massive foreheads.

What makes this phenomenon all the more astonishing is that, in this same lagoon, hundreds of Gray Whales were slaughtered during the second half of the nineteenth century. They fell prey to an American whaling fleet led in by Charles Melville Scammon, the first Western man known to have found a safe way into the lagoon from the Pacific. To Scammon and other whalers, the California Gray was considered the most dangerous quarry of all – especially when it came to protecting its young. Whalers would often corral the calf in an attempt to get at its mother, which for her part would turn upon their wooden harpoon boats and seek to capsize them with her head or a single sweep of her mighty tail flukes. The Gray Whale’s ferocity prompted a San Francisco newspaper to state in 1863: “As many men are lost in catching them as in all the other whaling grounds put together.” In those years, American whalers called the Gray Whale the “Devil-fish.” The same appelation, koko-kujira or “Devil-fish,” was bestowed by Japanese whalers upon its cousins in the Western Pacific.

Today, as the descendants make an entirely different type of contact with human beings, some go so far as to say that the whalemen’s Devil-Fish has become an Angel.

I never anticipated how my first encounters with the Gray Whales on the waters of the San Ignacio Lagoon would affect my life. As a journalist, I had been writing about ocean-related issues for many years. My interest began with the Atlantic striped bass. In the early 1980s, this magnificent fish appeared headed for the endangered species list. The combined effects of overfishing along their migratory range, and pollution in their Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds, had proven too much. I ended up organizing a coastwide campaign of sports fishermen and conservationists, calling for stronger management of commercial fishing pressure. It worked. The dramatic surge in striped bass abundance is today considered proof of a threatened fish’s ability to recover. I’d gone on to fight against ocean dumping, and for stronger protection of Atlantic tunas and marlin.

During the early 1990s, I fell in love with Baja California. A group of close friends and I pooled resources and built a house along the southern coast. I spent many a day marveling at whales and dolphins passing just offshore of our beach. Removed from the often frenetic pace of my home-base in Boston, I found a clarity of thought, a sense of hope and possibility.

At the San Ignacio Lagoon, I would find something more. Meeting the Gray Whale, I met the ineffable. I came to discover that many others have had a similar transformative experience: not only whale watchers and environmentalists, but marine scientists, indigenous peoples, and even the nineteenth-century whaling captain who discovered the lagoon. The Gray Whales would lead me on a long journey, examining the many interactions between human beings and this remarkable animal as I followed its migratory course. From the desert shores of the San Ignacio Lagoon, I would travel across California and Oregon, to the temperate rainforest along Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and on to Vancouver Island. Eventually I would make my way up the Alaskan coastline to the Bering Strait, then across to the native Siberian hunting villages of Chukotka. I would even venture to the only known outpost of the critically endangered Western Pacific Gray Whale, an isolated lagoon in the Russian Far East.

It is not known how, when, and where Gray Whales originated. The first whale ancestors lived on land about fifty million years ago, but no fossil remains of a direct Gray Whale progenitor have ever been found. The Grays, in fact, pose an evolutionary puzzle. It was once thought that they evolved from a long-extinct whale family called the Cethotheridae. However, the single complete skeleton (and a few partial ones) so far discovered of the earliest modern Gray Whales date back only 50,000 to 120,000 years. So scientists are no longer willing to hold to their earlier theory. Gray Whales have been placed in their own separate family, Eschrichtiidae.

The twice-annual migration of the California Gray Whale must be regarded as one of the most spectacular achievements on the planet. The majority of a population now estimated at more than 26,000 travels from three warm lagoon areas around central Baja to Arctic feeding grounds near the Bering Strait and then back again. At a minimum, they are swimming five thousand miles in each direction. If we consider that some have been reported as far north as the Canadian Beaufort Sea and others as far south as Baja’s Sea of Cortés, the Gray Whales lay claim to making the longest annual trek of any mammal on earth.

Unlike other whales who meander between coastal and deep ocean waters, only the California Gray follows a continuous path generally within a few miles of shore. They swim in small groups, sometimes alone, in waters often less than thirty feet deep. Some may occasionally do opportunistic feeding along their route, and a few are even known to “drop out” and take up seasonal residence in food-plentiful locations along the way. Most, though, do not pause for long, if at all. In a twenty-four-hour day, Gray Whales are capable of covering almost eighty miles. The position of the sun, the sound of the surf, and long-familiar underwater landmarks are thought to be their primary means of navigating through storms and darkness.

For an astonishing eight months in between their summertime foraging in the Arctic, most Gray Whales will have eaten little or fasted altogether. Arriving in the chilly waters of the Bering Sea, they proceed to forage continuously along the shallow bottom near the continental shelf. Their diet consists primarily of tiny, shrimp-like amphipods, of which they ingest as much as a ton per day. Gray Whales have no teeth; they capture and strain their food through a fringed curtain of baleen which hangs from the roof of the mouth.

Usually by sometime in October, as the days grow shorter and the Gray Whales sense that the “land of the midnight sun” will soon be covered by a thick layer of ice, the long journey starts anew. Pregnant females lead the way south, for time is of the essence. They are followed by mature males, females with whom these will soon mate as part of a twelve-month cycle, with juveniles bringing up the rear. All will endure water temperatures ranging between 41 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. A thirty-ton Gray Whale will expend so much energy on its return trip to the Baja lagoons, it may lose fully eight tons of its blubber.

We don’t know why they make this unique migration, or for how long they’ve pursued it. Unlike all the other species of baleen whale, they’re never known to have occupied the southern oceans. Some scientists speculate that Gray Whales might have resided year-round in Baja approximately 18,000 years ago, when sea levels were lower and those bottom-feeding areas were richer. Then, as melting glaciers receded and sea levels rose, they had to move north seeking food. Another view holds that these same higher sea levels, which caused the disappearance of a low-lying land bridge across the Bering Strait, provided Gray Whales entree to the extensive and fertile feeding grounds of the Bering and Chukchi seas.

So it’s conceivable that a new migratory orientation for Gray Whales overlapped with and paralleled a new journey being taken by human beings. Probably between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago, most archaeologists believe, Paleoindian pioneers from Beringia in today’s Asiatic Russia crossed over the broad plain of a thousand-mile-long exposed continental shelf into the New World. Over the centuries, some of these people settled at various locations along the Pacific coast. They include such tribes as the Inuit in northern Alaska and the Tlingit in southeast Alaska, the Tse-shahts on Vancouver Island, the Makah along Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the Chumash in California and Baja.

All these peoples came to know the Gray Whales who swam in close proximity to their shores. Many of them pursued the huge marine mammals from their canoes with harpoons and spears. They ate the meat, used the oil in cooking, fashioned combs and roof supports from the bones, and made chairs from the vertebrae. And each aboriginal group, in their own fashion, honored the animal.

In Siberia, the Chukchi erected settlements and memorials from the bones of Gray Whales. The Koryak danced wearing special masks to invoke the Gray Whale’s spirit. Before a hunt, the Koryak confessed their sins and asked for forgiveness. After a whale was killed, they held a communal festival. They believed that the whale had given the tribe permission to harvest it. The Gray Whale’s soul would return to the sea, where it would tell relatives whether its reception among the Koryaks had proven hospitable. For the whales were believed to live in villages beneath the sea. They could avenge the murder of their own. Or be grateful for kindnesses received.

In Alaska, the Inuit of the North country called the Gray Whale antokhak, and imitated its movements in ritual celebrations.

On Vancouver Island, the Tse-shat called the gray whale Ee-toop, and sang to it during feast days: “I search for Ee-toop, bigness, largeness, the mass that moves upon the seas.” Other tribes of that region believed “Whale People” lived in undersea dwellings as homo sapiens, assuming the form of whales when they emerged.

The Makah, who sailed from nearby Vancouver Island to settle at the very northwestern edge of the contiguous U.S., called the Gray Whale sih-wah-wihw (“beings with itchy faces”) and referred to it as “ruler of the world.” Their legends tell of a giant eagle-like being called Thunderbird. The Makah believed that Thunderbird created the universe, and was also the first whale hunter. Thunderbird possessed talons and wings powerful enough to lift a whale from the waters and carry it into the mountains to feast upon the flesh. The lightning and thunder arose from the tumultuous encounters between Thunderbird and the whale.

One day, according to another Makah legend, all the forest animals conceived a scheme against Thunderbird’s reign. The animals built an imitation whale. They covered the outside with pitch, sealing it watertight, and headed out to sea with it. There, the animals surprised Thunderbird when he attacked their whale. The god, along with several of its children, was slain.

From that time on, say the Makah, the privilege of hunting the Gray Whale passed to a few mortals born of godly unions. These became the Makah whaling families, revered among the tribe. The Gray Whale would feed the people, but only if they were prepared in spirit. Selected Makahs underwent a year of ritual cleansing to become “at one with the whale.” They prayed and fasted. They rubbed their bodies with stinging nettles. They bathed in icy waters, mimicking the actions of the whale. “If a man is to do a thing that is beyond human power,” Makah lore said, “he must have more than human strength for the task.”

Along southern California and into Baja, the Chumash villages fanned out along the coastlines. At the culmination of the Gray Whale’s migration, Chumash often camped beside the San Ignacio Lagoon. There, the Indians feasted upon shellfish and green turtles. Occasionally, they would eat the meat of a Gray Whale which had died and washed ashore. But the Chumash are said not to have hunted the massive creature which came to their waters to give birth and nurture its young.

Only remnants of Chumash culture remained when Charles Melville Scammon first came to the Baja lagoons during the 1850s. In later years, the most renowned whaling captain of the West Coast would publish his observations of the Gray Whale. Scammon watched the males wait offshore as the females swam through the narrow passages. There, he wrote, “if not disturbed, they gather in large numbers, passing and repassing into or out of the estuaries, or slowly raising their colossal forms midway above the surface, falling over on their sides as if by accident, and dashing the water into foam and spray about them. At times, in calm weather, they are seen lying on the water quite motionless, keeping one position for an hour or more. At such times the sea-gulls and cormorants frequently alight upon the huge beasts.”

Scammon studied the “huge beasts” closely, observing that “many of the marked habits of the California Gray are widely different from those of any other species of‘balaena’�The length of the female,” he noted, “is from forty to fourty-four feet, the fully grown varying but little in size….The male may average thirty-five feet in length, but varies more in size than the female.”

As Scammon traveled all along their vast range, he called them “whales of passage.” He witnessed the Makah in their eight-man canoes, who “consider the capture of this singular wanderer a feat worthy of the highest distinction.” He witnessed the Northern Eskimos, for whom the skin of a gray whale formed “an indispensable article of clothing.”

Scammon listened to the gray whales at the apex of their migration in the Bering Sea, “emerging from the scattered floes, and even forcing themselves through the field of ice, rising midway above the surface, and blowing in the same attitude in which they are frequently seen in the southern lagoons; at such times the combined sound of their respirations can be heard, in a calm day, for miles across the ice and water.”

Charles Melville Scammon recorded all this, in words and sketches, with the keen eye of a naturalist. Scammon’s Lagoon in Baja is named after him. So is Alaska’s Scammons Bay. And so are the small parasites which live on the skin of the gray whale: Cyamus scammoni. There is considerable irony in the latter distinction. For Scammon, one of the most daring and innovative whalers of his time, bears ultimate responsibility for bringing the California Gray Whale to the brink of extinction in the nineteenth century. Yet at the same time, his close encounters with this animal would have a profound effect upon his life – and upon our knowledge of natural history.

Only a few centuries ago, Gray Whales roamed the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Pacific. Their remains have been found in England, Holland, and Sweden, as well as along the Eastern seaboard of North America. Indeed, some biologists think that the species first evolved in the North Atlantic, then crossed into the North Pacific when temperatures became warm enough to permit an easier passage through the Arctic. Atlantic Gray Whales have not been seen since the advent of commercial whaling by Europeans and then Americans. Colonial records indicate that this shore-hugging species may have been among the most popular whales sought by the early New Englanders. By 1750, the Atlantic Gray had disappeared from both the European and American coastlines. It is the first – and, so far, the only – whale species known to have been driven into extinction.

A related Western Pacific Gray Whale (also called the Korean Gray Whale) also once existed in large numbers. Today, a century after its over-exploitation by Japanese and Korean whaling ships, its population has been estimated at less than one hundred, barely enough to sustain itself. These whales frequent a feeding area offshore of Piltun Lagoon, along Russia’s Sakhalin Island. Their southern range remains unknown to science, although it is speculated to be somewhere around Hainan, China, at a latitude similar to that of southern Baja California.

Given what happened to its brothers and cousins, the California Gray Whale’s survival is nothing short of miraculous. They were massacred by whaling fleets at two different junctures – first during the nineteenth century and, just as their population began to recover, then again during the early part of the twentieth century. By 1921, they were so rare that a single sighting merited publication in the Journal of Mammalogy. Two scientists reported in 1930 that it was doubtful “whether more than a few dozen individuals remained.” In 1937, the California Gray became the first whale designated for protection under a new International Agreemeent for the Regulation of Whaling promulgated by the League of Nations. A decade later, the Grays were still thought to be all but extinct. Their recovery over the second half of the twentieth century is considered the most dramatic achieved by any species of whale. In 1995, the California Gray became the first whale to be removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List. Left alone by humans, Gray Whales are estimated to have a life-span as long as seventy-five years.

As a shore wanderer, the Gray Whale is seen by more people, in more places, than any other type of leviathan. It’s the one that started the whale watching phenomenon, during the 1950s in California, in what has become a multimillion-dollar global industry. To many, its twice-yearly passage engenders a feeling of both awe and companionship. I have come to see the Gray Whale as being a kind of metaphor as we enter a new millennium, holding a mirror to a number of ecological, political and social issues concerning our relationship to nature and particularly to the oceans.

In some ways, the life-and-times of Charles Melville Scammon mirror the same complex themes. If this man had been merely a shrewd and daring whaler willing to risk venturing into Arctic waters and the Baja lagoons, we would remember him as an exploiter and probably even a villain. But in eventually turning away from whaling, Scammon became an explorer, writer, and the foremost expert of his era on cetaceans of all kinds. He was really our first marine mammalogist. I believe his personal metamorphosis marked the start of a shift in consciousness about the wondrous creatures who inhabit our oceans; that they are there not simply to exploit, but to appreciate and to learn about.

In this book, we will follow Scammon’s odyssey as we traverse the Gray Whale’s migratory path from Baja to Siberia. We will also meet his naturalist heirs, the marine scientists who devote their lives to studying the unique habits and habitats of the Gray Whale. We will look at the fight to preserve those habitats – at San Ignacio Lagoon and elsewhere – from the encroachments of industry. We will examine the magnetic effect that this particular whale has upon individuals, sometimes even whole societies, up and down the coast. These societies include the Makah Tribe, a Native American people which successfully hunted and killed a Gray Whale after a 70-year hiatus, igniting a storm of protest. These societies also include the aboriginal villagers along Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula, for whom hunting the Gray Whale has again become a matter of their survival.

From the touch of a whale to the thrust of a harpoon, this is my journey as well. Over the past several years, the Gray Whale has taken me to places, both external and internal, that I had never imagined going. Coming to trace its journey has proven a life-changing experience. Finally, this is the story of what the Gray Whale has taught me – about mystery and trust, about the spirit of place, about the animal kingdom, about my fellow human beings, about myself.

The journey begins with the moment I first entered the domain of the Gray Whale, and fell under its spell.