Living Large

‘The Eye of the Whale:
Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia’ by Dick Russell

Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia
By Dick Russell
Simon & Schuster. 688 pp. $35

The evolution of even a powerful idea from sound bite to cliché to cultural dustbin doesn’t take long these days. “Save the Whales” became “Save the Ales” in short order, and it didn’t seem to matter. The whales had been saved, as the whale-watching crowds leaning over the railings of excursion boats could attest to. Time to move on.

Thus a hefty tome devoted to the California gray whale takes one by surprise. Do we need this? We do. Dick Russell has written an extraordinary book. It is big and heavy, with a complex construction and a maddeningly confusing cast of characters, but worth every minute devoted to it.

This particular whale, long reputed to be ferocious, has a known migratory route that takes it from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to the Bering Strait. Russell follows the route up the coast to Alaska and then around to Siberia, including the remote Sakhalin Island (the included maps are essential), interviewing scientists and naturalists as he goes, and this is the backbone of his book. But to look simply at the whale is not enough. The lives of whales and humans are tightly interwoven, and the full accounting of this creature’s current state is more complicated. Russell has several important stories to tell about that interaction, any one of which could stand alone. Each reveals a challenge to the gray whale.

The area around the San Ignacio Lagoon in Mexico, where in winter the whales calve and raise their young, was in danger of becoming a giant salt-production facility. A group of activists, including Mexican poet Homera Aridjis, organized to fend off this threat, confronting powerful economic and political interests. Farther up the West Coast a Native American tribe, the Makahs, has received permission to begin whale hunting again, but the community is split between opponents and supporters of the hunt. Defending the whales is awkward for environmental groups that would otherwise encourage traditional tribal activities. Both oil exploration and Navy sonar may well cause great distress to the whales, which are sensitive to sound. This issue is of growing concern. On another front, the Japanese, for whom whale meat is a delicacy, want to lift the ban on commercial whaling. The recent meeting of the International Whaling Commission extended the present moratorium, but only for one year.

In recent years the gray whale has made a dramatic comeback from near-extinction during the height of whaling — in 1930 the species was thought to number only a few dozen. Now researchers tracking these whales are discovering thinner animals with fewer calves. The whales eat up to a ton a day of tiny shrimp-like creatures, and a sufficient supply may well hinge on water temperatures affected by climate change.

Those who visit San Ignacio Lagoon today find the whales to be increasingly friendly — behavior that coincided, oddly enough, with the declaration of the lagoon as a protected area. Often they actually approach boats, sometimes lifting them gently into the air; mother whales with calves present their offspring, allowing the calves to be touched and petted. On occasion, these massive animals roll to one side and look straight at you. All those who have had this honor testify that looking deeply into that huge eye is a transforming experience.

With so many stories to tell, Russell’s compelling challenge must have been weaving them together into a seamless whole. He doesn’t entirely achieve that goal. The seams show, and occasionally he becomes a prisoner of his tape recorder, but for all that it is a masterful tailoring job. In the end the threads knot.

His solution to bringing all this together is to create a book within a book. He dips into history to bring us the biography of a man who was a renowned whaler, a fine writer and an accomplished naturalist. Russell returns to the story of Charles Melville Scammon again and again, with reason. Capt. Scammon began as one kind of man — a clever and successful whaler — and ended as another. His book Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America, written late in life from his journals and notes, is a classic, and his observations of gray-whale behavior have, over the years, proven quite reliable. Yet Scammon was at his most intriguing in what was perhaps the midst of this transition, when he could describe the frantic effort of the whales to escape the men in their small boats with their torpedo harpoons, then the churning, bloody waters of a successful kill. He could then record calmly the number of whales taken and the barrels filled with oil, measure the carcasses, inspect the contents of their stomachs, make detailed drawings — yet in almost the next breath write of the loving, nurturing behavior of the mothers with their calves. This is a portrait of a man both conflicted and yet neatly detached.

There is little popular support today for the resumption of commercial whaling, yet the reader will wonder, as does Russell, when the excursion vessels chase the whales, and the tourist-held video cams take aim, if we have really ever stopped hunting them.

Nicols Fox is the author of “Spoiled: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick.”

© 2001 The Washington Post Company