‘Eye of the Whale’: The Jolly Gray Giant

It doesn’t have a sperm whale’s blunt charisma or impressive literary pedigree, but the undisputed media darling of the cetacean world is the gray whale. At first glance it might seem like an improbable celebrity, what with its Quasimodo-like hump, its massive drooping nose and its prickly crust of barnacles. But what the gray whale lacks in looks, it more than makes up in accessibility and charm.

Gray whales breed in lagoons in Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, just a Learjet away from Hollywood. Over the last decade, movie stars like Pierce Brosnan and Christopher Reeve, along with an ever-growing number of just regular folks, have made the pilgrimage to these remote pools at the desert’s edge, packing into motorboats that take them to within patting and, in some cases, kissing distance of the whales.

The whales, which have grown increasingly benign and even playful over the years, are said to look into the eyes of these water-borne tourists as if imparting some ancient, transcendental wisdom. If all goes according to plan, a person leaves the lagoon changed, wise in the ways of whales, the cosmos and, if he or she is really lucky, whale sex (it’s not uncommon for an aroused male to turn on its back and display what is euphemistically referred to as a ”Pink Floyd”). With the exception of the orca, which has the benefit of being small and trainable enough to perform in Sea Worlds across the country, the gray whale is currently the hardest-working whale in show business.

Once they’ve finished being cooed over in the Baja lagoons, gray whales begin their annual migration up the coast of North America, eventually swimming to the frigid waters of the Bering Strait. Their habit of rooting the muddy bottom for food means they are never far from land, making them the center attraction of whale-watch tours up and down the coast. It is when the whales reach the border between the United States and Canada that things have been known to get ugly. In the late 1990’s the Makah Indian tribe at Neah Bay, Wash., was temporarily granted the right to resume its longstanding tradition of hunting gray whales. After much training and even more controversy, a canoe of Makahs, armed with not only a harpoon but also an armor-piercing rifle, set upon a small gray, its natural instinct to flee perhaps modified by its time with tourists in a Mexican lagoon. Although the Makahs were almost universally condemned for killing a single whale, there are other native communities in Alaska and Russia that also hunt grays, their job made easier, no doubt, by the burgeoning whale-cuddling business down in Baja.

As the freelance journalist Dick Russell documents in ”Eye of the Whale,” there is a long and disturbing history to the gray whale’s interaction with people. When the first European colonists arrived in America, gray whales were a common sight along the Atlantic Coast. In fact, the first whale killed by a white Nantucketer in the 17th century was not a sperm or a right whale, it was a luckless gray (known to the colonists as a scrag), trapped in the town’s harbor. The Atlantic gray’s shore-hugging habits made it an easy mark, and in a matter of decades the entire species was wiped out. According to Russell, ”the Atlantic grays appear to have been the first whales rendered extinct by human beings.”

The same fate almost happened to the Pacific gray whales. In 1858 Charles Scammon discovered their breeding grounds in Baja. Over the next few years Scammon and his whalers regularly returned to massacre whatever whales they could find. It was then that the gray whale developed its reputation as the ”devil fish,” attacking whaleboats and defending its young with a ferocity that on at least one occasion sent a crew of whalers scrambling up a shoreside tree. But with no place to hide in these confined lagoons, the whales didn’t have much of a chance. By the turn of the 20th century, the grays were generally thought to be extinct. But that was not the case. A handful of them remained, and by the end of the century the Pacific gray had made a remarkable comeback, flourishing in such numbers that some scientists now wonder if the whale population has outgrown the available food supply.

”Eye of the Whale” provides a detailed account of this history interwoven with what amounts to Russell’s personal voyage of discovery as he follows the grays from Baja all the way up the remotest reaches of the Siberian coast. He also traces the life of the gray whale’s archnemesis, Charles Scammon, who after virtually killing off the species became one of its biggest fans, eventually writing the definitive treatise on the gray whale. Better than anyone else to date, Russell has documented the historical and cultural importance of the gray whale to the peoples, past and present, of the Pacific Coast.

It is in his equally painstaking documentation of the many celebrities who have taken an interest in this very fashionable whale that Russell ultimately does his subject a disservice. What he has to say about scientists striving to understand the species is interesting enough, but we learn much more than anyone needs to know about the charismatic tour guides, movie stars and other beautiful people who care so deeply about the gray whale. Much of the book is devoted to a blow-by-blow account of a successful attempt to keep the huge Mitsubishi Corporation from building a saltworks beside one of the Baja lagoons. Toward the end of this very long book (at 688 pages it rivals the length of Melville’s leviathan of a novel), Russell watches the activists ”who had fought so long and hard for the whales” drive away in two buses. ”I felt my eyes mist over,” he tells us, ”and wondered when our paths would cross again.”

Having spearheaded the successful effort to bring back the striped bass population, Russell is beyond reproach when it comes to his personal commitment to the cause of conservation. Still, the way he begins this book, with a breathless account of his first encounter with gray whales at San Ignacio Lagoon, is more than a little hard to take. ”Now I could swear I saw a gray whale smile by my fingertips,” he writes. ”Tears well up behind my eyelids.” By the end of ”Eye of the Whale,” I was less worried about the machinations of a Japanese corporation than the long-term effects of all this human-cetacean love. Is it really in the gray whales’ best interests to have us projecting our golden dreams of harmony upon them? To save the whales, we may have to learn to leave them alone.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s most recent book, ”In the Heart of the Sea,” won the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction.

Original NY Times review