Thar He Blows

Dick Russell has produced a long-winded, albeit important,
portrait of gray whales — and us
©The San Diego Union-Tribune, San Diego, Calif.
Jul 15, 2001 – Neal Matthews

Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage From Baja to Siberia by Dick Russell
Simon and Schuster, 688 pages, $30

Anybody who has made the trek to Baja’s remote San Ignacio Lagoon between December and March is best-described in the old phraseology of the New Age: They had their “consciousness raised” by physical contact with 30-ton gray whales.

Anybody who hasn’t made the trek by now is thoroughly sick of all the moralistic anthropomorphizing of those who have.

So it seems that Dick Russell’s immensely ambitious peregrination along the gray whale’s migratory path has a surefire audience in those misted by the exhalations of the “friendlies,” who, for reasons that remain obscure, have been approaching skiffloads of people since 1976. As for everybody else, the prospect of reading almost 700 pages, a real doorstop with the word “Epic” in the title, will seem like a homework assignment.

And that’s a shame. For this is an engaging, highly readable account that mostly succeeds in melding history, culture and science into a convincing portrait of the gray whale’s current fate and prospects. Which matters to us all. As the author points out in the Epilogue, “What is hurting them is hurting us. As the oceans go, so go we.”

It’s impossible not to say it: This is a whale of a book — massive, shapely, surprisingly agile and overblessed with blubber. Five hundred pages would have been more than enough; 400 might have made a classic.

You could start by taking a flensing knife to Russell’s wearing his whale heart on his editorial sleeve. This save-the-whale’s stance leads him into such Hallmark Moments as, “On the surface, externally, they are mountains of mottled gray, leathery skin and barnacles. Beneath the surface” — cue the violins — “internally, they are as big as the imagination.”

The author of two other well-received books, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Black Genius: And the American Experience,” Russell’s primary interest is wildlife conservation. He evidently has close ties to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental litigation organization that played a role in defeating a new salt plant in the whales’ Baja breeding lagoons. (His bio lists him as a contributing editor for Amicus Journal, the NRDC’s quarterly magazine, as well as a driving force behind the fight to strengthen conservation of the Atlantic striped bass.) He tends to lionize the contributions of Bobby Kennedy Jr. and other activist environmentalists in helping convince Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mexican government not to build the world’s biggest salt pond system in the protected Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve.

The telling of the salt plant saga — in numbing detail — proves structurally awkward. Early on, Russell writes as if the salt plant project could go either way, when any reasonably informed citizen will already know the fight was won in the gray whales’ favor in March of 2000. Russell doesn’t reveal that fact until the last 100 pages, long after he has made his fascinating journey north along the California, Oregon and Washington coastlines, across British Columbia to Vancouver Island, then up through Alaska to the Bering Strait and on over to Russia.

Russell is not only following the whales, he’s also bird-dogging the transformation of Capt. Charles Melville Scammon from the whaler who discovered the Baja breeding grounds, then set off the slaughter that decimated them just before the Civil War, into the country’s first mammologist whose detailed observations of the gray whale and other cetaceans are still respected as scientific literature. “I believe [Scammon’s] personal metamorphosis marked the start of a shift of consciousness about the wondrous creatures who inhabit out oceans: that they are there not simply to exploitbut to appreciate and learn about,” Russell asserts, reasonably.

When Scammon is on the page the book soars, especially when Russell artfully arranges excerpts from Scammon’s own papers and scrapbooks. Scammon was, in addition to being an admired sea captain, a keenly observant and elegant writer. His description of the gray whale’s mortal enemy, the killer whale, (whose 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.”

Just when you want more Scammon, the book washes up in Washington during the sometimes-dreary fight over the resumption of aboriginal whaling by the Makah tribe of the Olympic Peninsula, and you’re reaching for that flensing blade. Both the Indians and the environmentalists embarrassed themselves in this rather sordid episode that has been well-covered by all the major media. Russell tries to show that the Indians were being manipulated by the Japanese, who are trying to loosen protections on hunting the apparently healthy population of some 26,000 gray whales. But reading another tedious blow-by-blow from a clearly environmentalist, anti-whaling angle (which puts the writer on soft ground in terms of credibility) will try the patience of all but the most doctrinaire whale conservationists.

Other encounters with Eskimos in Alaska are equally intricate but somehow more engrossing, even when dealing with the micro-politics of aboriginal subsistence whaling. And it is in the far north where Russell finds local whale experts and scientists noting a worrying drop in the gray whale food supply in the bottom muds of the Bering Sea.

The grays start arriving in the primary feeding grounds, between Alaska’s Seward Island and Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula, in May, where an average gray will suck up about 67 tons of amphipods over the arctic summer. But scientists have begun to suspect that the amphipod banquet is dwindling as ocean temperatures rise, and many gray whales are thinner now when they begin the 5000-mile swim back down to Baja. Census counters have been finding more dead gray whales than usual along the migration route.

So Russell’s sense of unease about the prospects of the gray whale seems justified, and delivering that message within his tightly woven narrative encompassing Scammon, native whalers, scientists and various colorful characters along the whales’ path creates a context in which to understand what’s at stake. But there’s still something irritating about using gray whales where the environmentalist’s playbook calls for deploying big,charismatic megafauna to tug at the public’s heartstrings.

Of course it’s a profound experience to be approached by a whale in the Baja lagoons, but to imply that this is a unique cross- species contact is just untrue. Manatees do it, dolphins do it, sea lions do it; manta rays, sting rays, even certain kinds of sharks routinely approach people in the wild and seem to solicit petting. To get bowled over by gray whales nuzzling up to us can betray a disconnect from nature that is voluntary on the human’s part, and maybe even willful innocence.

But if “Eye of the Whale” ends up serving as a primary resource of gray whale history and biology, its unabashed conservationist POV won’t matter. In the end, after such an astounding journey that takes him from desert salt flats to glacial sea ice, Russell’s is a voice that deserves to be heard. And the way he sees it, whales and humans share the simplest of profound needs: a place to call home.

“Like the gray whales in their lagoons, human beings too must seek solace, a centering focal point, a place to go that remains relatively untouched and pure,” he writes. “A place to remind ourselves of our basic nature, not surrounded by all we have built. So do we commune with the whales at San Ignacio.”

Excerpts from EYE OF THE WHALE

Luther estimates probably five or six gray whales have been taken since whaling started up again in Wales, mostly in shallow water north of the village. They watched for a distinctive ring left by the tail, which I knew as a fluke print and here [on the Bering Strait] is called cameliok. “Old folks always say, you never get scared of the whale because the whale will sense this right away,” Luther says. The “devil-fish” tales were alive and well in the Arctic. A crew would generally stand well off and shoot, using the fifty-pound shoulder gun to fire the harpoon penetration bomb with its timed fuse.

There was this story: One time a crew split apart six gray whales and pursued only the medium-sized ones. Closing in on a trio, the gunner fired and hit one, but the bomb failed to go off. The other two whales slowed their pace, turned, and came around to join the first. All three whales then moved synchronously under the boat. They lifted the boat out of the water with their tales. The one that had been shot broke the motor mount. The three whales all vanished. Another crew towed the boat back to shore.