Whaling, whaling, over the bounding main

Eye of the Whale: From Baja to Siberia with the World’s Largest Mammal
By Dick Russell
Simon & Schuster, 704 pages, $53.50

With Eye of the Whale, Dick Russell has filled a gaping hole in cetacean literature: a tome, nearly encyclopedic in its scale, which not only documents the life cycle of the grey whale, but also gives us in plain English the findings of the latest scientific research on these magnificent animals.

This stunning book, however, is much more than a compendium of academic research translated for the general public. Russell manages to write engagingly about the people (as well as the whales) who live in some of the harshest places on the planet: His trek includes the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, seaport hamlets in Alaska and the bleak, perestroika-forgotten villages of the Russian Bering Sea.

The skill with which he describes these seemingly forlorn locales and their inhabitants more than once brought to mind the delights of another superb travel writer who loved similarly desolate places: Bruce Chatwin. That the book itself is huge (more than 300,000 words) agreeably reflects the immensity of the whales (adults measure 15 metres in length, with some weighing as much as 37,000 kilograms) and the staggering range of their environments (with an annual round-trip migration that adds up to more than 27,000 kilometres, the greys hold the record for mammals). The book begins with Russell describing his first encounter with a grey whale in Mexico. There he has an epiphany similar to that shared in the last 20 years by hundreds of thousands of whale-watchers around the globe: You lean over the gunwale, look into the eye of a whale and then, mysteriously, inexplicably but very definitely, experience a scintillating connection to the mind of another species.

Soon after this transformative moment, Russell was lucky enough to meet Homero Aridjis, the famed Mexican poet who has done more than any other person to save the whales of Baja California. Russell movingly details Aridjis’s long and ongoing struggle against mining corporations and their collusion with Mexico’s corrupt ministries of the environment, and how, despite very real death threats, the Mexican author continues to lead a worldwide campaign to save the whales of San Ignacio and Scammon’s Lagoon.

Hooked by the singularity of his Mexican experience, Russell was determined to learn all he could about the grey whale. During his research (and he seems to have read almost everything on the subject), Russell discovered the writings of Captain Charles Scammon, the mid-Victorian whaling skipper who discovered the lagoon in Mexico where untold numbers of greys spent much of the winter. Scammon made such a killing — literally and figuratively — that within a mere five years he and his fellow whalers had managed to render the grey whale commercially extinct along the Mexican coast. Paradoxically, the lagoon was named after him around the time there were insufficient numbers of whales to attract him back.

But Scammon then underwent a sea change of sorts, and became, if not a conservationist, at least a naturalist. He took command of a vessel in the fledgling U.S. Coast Guard, and his longest and most famous patrol led him from California, past Canada, past Alaska, all the way to Asia and Sakhalin Island. Scammon’s books and articles on marine mammals, in large part resulting from this trip, remain the foundation for cetacean studies even today.

Russell cleverly interweaves Scammon’s account of this tour along the north Pacific coast with his own whale pilgrimage. Scammon’s 150-year-old descriptions of fishing ports, especially those north of Victoria, B.C., are markedly similar to those of Russell’s contemporary portrayals, though never to the point of fatigue. Through generous quotations of Scammon’s text, Russell allows the reader to discover what a keen observer of the natural world the self-taught skipper had become. Yet Russell is astute enough to know that most readers will care more about the actual condition of the whale today, and so Scammon’s account of his shore-hugging trip to the north simply but adroitly becomes the frame onto which Russell builds a compelling con- temporary account of the grey whale’s life — and death, from disease, killer whales and mankind. During his voyage of discovery, Russell encountered all kinds of people who are knowledgeable about grey whales. His catch included subsistence fishermen, some of whom still hunt whales, some of whom have learned to live more harmoniously with the animals. Also in his net were cetologists from Canada, Russia and the United States. He explains the implications of their investigations and highlights for the reader the new questions prompted by those results. Where other writers would be tempted to give succint but glib summaries of this research, Russell takes the time, when necessary, to pen fuller accounts — accounts that nicely accentuate the nuances and complexities inherent in all good scientific exploration.

Throughout the book, he wrestles with the problem of aboriginal whaling and how falsehoods and myths propagated by both sides in the debate have split the environmental movement. He is withering, however, in his description of the religious pretensions draped over the whale-hunt by the Makah of Washington State, which so captivated the world’s attention two years ago. His exposure of the links between a number of west coast aboriginal whalers (including the Makah) and the Japanese and Norwegian whaling conglomerates is irrefutable and damning. And though they are convoluted, he also delineates the connections between the Japanese whaling lobby and the far-right U.S. foundations expounding a world free of restrictions on hunting and guns.

At a time when Japan is more aggressive than it has ever been in seeking the right to slaughter whales all over the globe (the Japanese minister of fisheries just last month referred to whales as “the cockroaches of the sea”), Russell’s description of recent anomalies in grey whale numbers, feeding habits and migratory patterns are especially timely and worrying. He documents case after recent case of grey whales stretching ever further their search for food, of lactating females far thinner than previously recorded and of whales abandoning traditional calving grounds for seas hundreds of miles away and far more dangerous. While scientists cannot account with certainty for any of these changes in behaviour, most of them are convinced that environmental mutations seem to be playing a major role. Given the state of our ignorance, and of the apparent fragility of grey whale numbers, Russell argues convincingly that any resumption of commercial whaling is obscenely premature.

The past two decades have seen the publication of many books on whales and dolphins. Many are simple collections of photos with minimal captions. Others are New Age manuals pretending to interspecies communication. Others are highly technical. Few, alas, manage to combine a deep love for the animals with intelligent reportage and singular research. Of those few, however, Eye of the Whale is the best. If you love whales, you must have this book.

Greg Gatenby is artistic director of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, and the author of Whale Sound and Whales: A Celebration.