Leviathans of the Deep

EYE OF THE WHALE Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia
By Dick Russell
Maps by Eben Given
Simon & Schuster: 688 pp., $35

Just as Herman Melville is the hagiographer of the sperm whale, Charles Melville Scammon served that function for the gray whale. Although Melville was only a sometime whaleman (he sailed aboard the New Bedford whaler Acushnet in 1841 and participated in some actual whaling before jumping ship in the Marquesas), Scammon, who was born in 1825 in Maine, spent most of his adult life as a whaling captain. His “Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America, Together With an Account of the American Whale-Fishery,” first published in 1874, has long been considered the classic discussion of the gray whale, even though there have been innumerable technical and semi-technical studies published since then. Capt. Scammon, stand aside for Dick Russell. Once in a while, a book comes along that redefines its subject to the extent that most previous works immediately become obsolete. “Eye of the Whale” is such a book.

Almost everybody, well, almost everybody in California, anyway, knows about the gray whales’ southward migration from the Bering and Chukchi seas to the lagoons of Baja, where they mate and deliver the calves of the year before turning around and swimming back to Siberian-Alaskan waters. Their 13,000-mile round trip is the longest annual migration of any mammal.

Lots of Californians and visitors to California have been whale-watching, either in boats or from shore, watching the leviathans pass on their timeless journey, and many have even made the trip to Magdalena Bay or San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja to see the so-called “friendly whales.” But if you think that watching the whales pass Point Loma or even seeing one up close from a Zodiac in Magdalena Bay is the sum of the gray whale experience, think again.

Scammon not only chronicled the history and natural history of the gray whale, he also participated in the species’ downfall. In 1858, as captain of the whale ship Lenore, he discovered the whales’ breeding grounds in Laguna Ojo de Liebre (now known as Scammon’s Lagoon) and essentially led the charge of the whalers to Baja California to kill as many gray whales as they could find there.

Since the entire population of Pacific gray whales went to Baja every year, it was not long before the whalers, who simply sailed there and waited for the whales to show up, had so reduced their numbers that the population was considered almost extinct. As any whale watcher can tell you, however, they are most assuredly not extinct, and some 20,000 of these 40-foot-long, 40-ton creatures swim past the coasts of Alaska, Vancouver, Washington, Oregon and California every year before reaching the warm salty waters of Baja California.

Russell went there too, to see the whales and talk to everybody who has ever had anything to do with the study, rescue or portrayal of Eschrichtius robustus, the well-known whale with the jaw-breaking scientific name. He records conversations with scientists Roger Payne, Jim Darling, Steven Swartz, Marilyn Dahlheim, Peter Tyack, Bob Brownell, David Rugh and others (the list is much too long to repeat here), but you’ll have to take my word for it; he spoke to everybody who ever thought about or published a cogent word about the gray whale. He couldn’t talk to Scammon, Roy Chapman Andrews, Ray Gilmore or Carl Hubbs, but he could read what they had written and used their contributions in assembling what is surely the most comprehensive book ever written on a single whale species.

We tend to think that California gray whales occur only in the eastern Pacific, but this is not so. In the recent past, no more than 400 years ago, there were gray whales in the Atlantic too, but they have now gone the way of the dodo, eliminated by Basque whalers or climate change or some other happenstance of the mysterious process we call extinction. The evidence for their existence is unequivocal: Fossil remains of a species similar to, if not identical with, the Pacific gray whale have been found in Sweden, England, the Netherlands and on the East Coast of North America from New Jersey to South Carolina.

When American scientist Andrews visited the Japanese whaling station in Ulsan, Korea, in 1912, he found that they were catching a whale they referred to as Koko-kujira (which can be roughly translated as “devil-whale”) and realized that the gray whale, which he believed was extinct in Alta and Baja California waters, was still in the western Pacific. These gray whales, believed to have been eliminated more recently by Japanese, Chinese and Korean whalers, are still there, but in much-reduced numbers.

So Dick Russell, in the course of writing this astonishingly comprehensive book, went to see these whales too. He managed to get himself to such inhospitable and almost unreachable places such as Sakhalin Island off the frozen coast of Siberia and the Diomede Islands in the middle of the Bering Strait, and he talked to the Chukchis and the Inuits, for whom gray whales are a part of history.

At Piltun Lagoon, northern Sakhalin, Russell went out with American marine mammalogist Dave Weller to see the whales. In the rough waters, a gray whale surfaces:

“Now the whale turns and gazes over at us with that intense, that immense and impeccable eye. Then it rolls again offering us a dramatic gesture of pectoral fin and tail fluke, which pounds the water and sends spray our way. The whale appears to be having a fabulous time, enjoying being pummeled and moved around by the breakers. Surf-riding no doubt! And showing off for us.”

The mighty sperm whales, for most people the quintessential whales, are still poorly known. They were hunted intensively by the Yankee whalers and later by the Soviets and the Japanese, but they were never pushed near the precipice of extinction. Gray whales, however, were at one time believed to be extinct, so their resurrection is both a testimony to their resilience and an event of uncommon significance.

William Beebe, ornithologist, aquanaut and conservationist, wrote that “when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” The loss of a species, whether fish, sparrow or whale, diminishes all of us and compels us to reconsider our role in the complex web that entwines all life on Earth.

Three gray whales were rescued to great fanfare off Point Barrow in 1988. Two whales, Gigi and J.J., were kept in captivity in California and released successfully back into the wild. In recent years, the Makah Indians of Cape Flattery, Wash., have petitioned the United States government for permission to kill a gray whale to revitalize their flagging traditions, and guess who was there to watch the hunt and talk to the Makah whalers? Right.

There is little about gray whales that Russell doesn’t know, and after reading this book, you will be able to say the same. But why would you want to read a 688-page book about whales? For starters, you might want to know about an animal that was considered extinct and is now the subject of a multi-million-dollar industry. Or that was considered so dangerous by Scammon and his whaling cronies that it was colloquially known as “devilfish”? But that’s not really the point. “Eye of the Whale” is a marvelous book, filled with insights that go beyond whales and whaling, gracefully written and utterly enthralling. Even if you’ve never read “Moby-Dick” or seen “Pinocchio” or given a passing thought to going whale-watching, you ought to read Russell’s book. It will entertain you, and it will change the way you think about the natural world.

* * * Richard Ellis is the author of “The Book of Whales,” “Men and Whales” and the forthcoming “Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea.”

©2001 Los Angeles Times