Eye-catching Extraordinary work rides waves with gray whale

Eye of the Whale. By Dick Russell. Simon & Schuster. 688 pages. $35.

The title of this book refers to an almost mystical experience some people have had when they gaze into the eye of a gray whale. Throughout Dick Russell’s extraordinary and monumental work, we meet people, often with little else in common, who believe that they’ve shared a moment with another species.

“Sometimes you look into that eye and you can see all sorts of things going on,” said a marine biologist. “I reached out my hand. The boat was bobbing and bouncing, and she and I were just dancing. She never let me touch her, but that animal was completely in tune with my fingertips.”

Before his accident, actor Christopher Reeve went to San Ignacio Lagoon, the whale’s last pristine nursery site in Baja, Calif., as part of a PBS television special. He waxes poetic about that experience:

“And then making eye contact. The eye is so big and you sense an intelligence in it, that these creatures . . . have knowledge and understanding that we are only beginning to appreciate.”

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr: “I’m not a very sentimental person. I don’t think we ought to save whales because they’re cuddly or pettable. But it’s simply an amazing experience having those whales roll over and look at you eye to eye. There’s really an interspecies contact there. There’s an intelligence. . . . That’s about as far as I want to go with that, but it’s . . . extraordinary.”

Is it true? Does it really happen? Who knows? Perhaps these folks were influenced by the fact that at times these whales actually seem to seek human company. Whales at San Ignacio approach small whale-watching vessels and allow themselves and their calves to be petted. But whether or not there is something mystical about them, they definitely are of mythic proportions.

The gray whale grows to at least 35 feet at maturity and weighs in at 30 tons – or about 10 times the size of an elephant. Twice a year it migrates 5,000 miles between the Bering Straight and Baja, generally along the coast.

Russell sees them “as a kind of metaphor, holding a mirror to a number of ecological, political and social issues concerning our relationship to nature and particularly to the oceans.”

Fittingly, the book begins and ends at San Ignacio Lagoon. Fittingly, because it was here that the species was almost annihilated. Captain Charles Scammon, a mid-18th century whaler, found a way to get his ships into the shallow lagoon and virtually (though not single-handedly) decimated the species. He later became a highly regarded naturalist, Coast Guard officer and adventurer.

Russell effectively juxtaposes Scammon’s life against the survival story of the whale.

Selecting the lagoon is fitting, too, because it is the scene of a significant battle involving a global industrial power, Mitsubishi, and environmentalists, led by poet Homero Aridjis. Mitsubishi wanted to expand its salt manufacturing capabilities in the area, despite the fact that most environmentalists were convinced it would irreparably harm this key breeding area. (The good news is that over the two-plus years that Russell spent researching this book, Mexican authorities, at considerable economic sacrifice, decided to withhold permission for the expansion, a rare victory for environmentalists, especially in the developing world.)

But it may prove a hollow victory. The gray whale, which came from the brink of extinction after Scammon and again after heavy whaling in the 1930s, is in danger again. Scientists who monitor the whales say their numbers are down and those making the migration seem thinner than in years past. They guess that global warming, which is melting the polar ice cap, is wreaking havoc with the food chain up north.

But this book isn’t dry diatribe. It’s as much a story about the people associated with the whale: scientists who study them, the environmentalists who fight to protect them, even the people, including aborigines who want to hunt them, all talking about their relationship with the whale.

My guess is Russell spent three or four years on this project, clearly a labor of love. All the research he did – the thousands of miles he traveled following the whale up and down the Pacific Coast, visiting scientists and Eskimos in Alaska and Russia, the hundreds of people he spoke to – could have overwhelmed him.

But Russell has done a great job in condensing, organizing and presenting the information in an enlightening, interesting, fascinating and readable manner. This is an important book that deserves the attention of anyone concerned with the future of this planet.

Writer and reviewer Curt Schleier lives in River Vale, N.J.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 12, 2001.