Dick Russell’s ‘Eye of the Whale’: the mystique of the deep

Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage From Baja to Siberia, by Dick Russell. Simon & Schuster. 688 pages. $35.

On any mild December morning, you can sit on the veranda of the La Valencia Hotel in the San Diego suburb of La Jolla, drink cappuccino and watch white spouts erupting from the dark waters of the Pacific Ocean.

These are the exhalations of California gray whales as they migrate some 5,000 miles from the Bering Sea to their winter grounds in the lagoons of Baja California. The scene is pure picture-postcard, and almost completely misleading. Since the mid-19th century, there’s been little idyllic about the gray whale’s annual journey, as whalers and man-made environmental changes have driven them twice to near extinction.

In previous books, investigative journalist Dick Russell has taken on the JFK assassination (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1992) and African-American history (Black Genius, 1998). In Eye of the Whale, he traces the bloody history of the grays from slaughter to their current status as environmental symbol.

To research Eye of the Whale, Russell paralleled the whales’ migration path, talking to marine biologists, environmentalists, poets, politicians and corporate officials in the U.S., Mexico and Russia. The result is a big mishmash of a book that is part travelogue, part natural history, part social history, part reportage and part heartfelt plea by Russell for peaceful coexistence with whales.

The issues and the explorations are engrossing, but Russell’s journey, which was not written chronologically, can be plodding and hard to follow. Typically complex is the Makah whale hunt episode that Russell uses to illustrate the whales’ difficulties.

In 1998, some members of the Native-American Makah tribe of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula decided that, after a hiatus of 70 years, they wanted to return to the traditions of their ancestors and hunt down and harpoon a whale. The hunt attracted a Greenpeace-like anti-whaling group called the Sea Shepherds, the U.S. Coast Guard, the International Whaling Commission, tribal police, various local protesters, TV cameramen and journalists. When bad weather and bad karma eventually scuttle the hunt you’re happy, not for the whales, but to leave the confusing mess behind.

Fortunately, Eye of the Whale also has Captain Charles Melville Scammon, the one consistent character (aside from Russell himself) who ties much of the rambling narrative together. Scammon was a 19th century whaling captain who, in the winter of 1857-58, discovered the warm shallow lagoons in Baja California., where mother gray whales go to give birth.

Oil from the rendering of whale flesh was an important lubricant and fuel in that era and Scammon’s discovery was a bonanza. Trapped in the lagoons, the whales were massacred. By 1870 there may have been only a couple hundred left in the world.

However, Scammon is not the story’s villain. During his whaling years he took extensive notes on the environment and behavior of his prey and he continued his observations when he captained ships for the U.S. government. In 1869 he began writing popular articles on marine subjects and in 1874 he published Marine Mammals of the North-Western Coast of North America, the pre-eminent work on whales for nearly a century.

Russell tracks the whales’ migratory path and Scammon’s career at the same time. Scammon’s adventures and colorful writings are used so extensively, Eye of the Whale is nearly a Scammon biography. But it’s not just Scammon’s place in history that makes him important, it’s his “metamorphosis from killer to chronicler.”

Though thoroughly reported, the engine that drives Eye of the Whale is a lyrical love of the whales. For Russell and many of those he meets during his travels, the grays and their plight symbolize the entire natural world. How mankind treats whales, therefore, is a metaphor for our connection with the Earth. Scammon’s metamorphosis shows that we can reach a higher, gentler, more understanding plane.

There’s a strong sense of mysticism in this whale-human connection. The book is peppered with incidents of whale watchers literally looking into a whale’s eye and – like the people contacted by aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – being transformed by the experience.

“It was a calf and I could see its eye looking into my eyes,” says marine mammologist Paco Ollervides of a close whale encounter. “I knew we were talking. I didn’t say anything. This is an experience a lot of people have had in different ways, but I know it’s there. They’re trying to save us from our human side.”

Maybe they’re succeeding. There is evidence that the human side, the side of predation and destruction, is being curbed, at least as far as whales are concerned. Whale-watching is now a far bigger industry than whale hunting; in 1995 the grays were the first whales taken off the endangered species list; and last year, facing international pressure, Japanese corporate giant Mitsubishi abandoned plans for a huge salt works by one of Baja’s whale lagoons.

Russell balances this news with troubling statistics about declining whale populations. But for the next few years at least, the cappuccino drinkers at the La Valencia will have a show. And if the spouting increases, maybe Eye of the Whale will have been partly responsible.

John Muncie, presently on leave while writing a book, is arts and entertainment editor of The Sun. From 1987 to 1995, he was assistant managing editor for features at The San Diego Union-Tribune. He has also worked for the Los Angeles Times and The Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise.