Gray whales face new survival threats

Dick Russell, an environmental writer credited with leading a successful campaign two decades ago to save the Atlantic striped bass, has turned his attention to a considerably larger inhabitant of the ocean. The gray whale has caught his fancy, and Russell pays homage by retracing the 5,000-mile trip the animals make each year from the warm lagoons off Baja California to the Bering Sea.

These whales have recovered twice from near extinction. They are medium-size whales, ranging from 35 to 45 feet long and weighing about 1 ton per foot.

Off the Baja, they approach tourists in boats considerably smaller than the animals themselves and allow people to touch them and even kiss them. Then these same “friendly” whales roll onto their sides and stare with an eye the size of a grapefruit into the eyes of the whale watchers.

Because gray whales make their annual round-trip migration close to shore in shallow water, these are the whales in the wild that most people have seen.

Remember the TV coverage and international rescue effort launched in 1988 when three whales were trapped in the ice off Alaska? Those were gray whales. More recently, gray whales have been in the news because the Makah tribe in Neah Bay, Wash.., was granted permission to hunt gray whales and because the Mexican government considered allowing Mitsubishi to build a salt plant in San Ignacio Lagoon, where gray whales give birth. And now we hear reports that Japan, a whaling nation, is eager to hunt the once-protected grays again, even at the same time that global climate changes appear to be endangering the animals by reducing their food supply in the Bering Sea.

Russell’s long, rich book is written with great passion and personal charm. The depth of reporting is humbling. He examines every possible viewpoint regarding whales as oceanic treasures, as food, and as almost mythological symbols for whalers and whale conservationists alike.

Readers meet the Mexican fisherman who first encountered a “friendly” whale and the leader of a whaling crew in a remote part of Alaska where the sea was once considered “a garden.” Here are interviews with a biologist at a salt works in Guerrero Negro, another lagoon off Baja, and with Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet and environmentalist who led the fight against the proposed salt plant. Russell also spent time with the Makah whalers, with a tribal elder who wept at the slaughter and with the protesters who had tried to stop it.

Whale scientists met with Russell, explaining their research projects and teaching him the ways of the gray. He traveled to Piltun Lagoon on Sakhalin Island off Russia to see the few animals remaining of a Western Pacific population of gray whales once believed to be extinct. He walked across a sidewalk made of whalebone and under an arch made with whale vertebrae at a building in Monterey, Calif., used for weddings and special events by the local Junior League. And he visited Kodiak Island off Alaska, where government-sponsored missile launches will begin in 2002 as part of the Strategic Target System, a project that some residents suspect will affect the gray whales that feed nearby. Those who are concerned told Russell they worry about the launch noise, or sonic booms, and the rocket propellant, such as hydrochloric acid, that probably will go into the groundwater and then leach out into the intertidal zone.

Another man made much the same journey long before Russell. That was Charles Melville Scammon, the America whaler who first found the route into the Mexican lagoons in the 1850s and then followed the whales north. Though Scammon’s original mission was to kill as many whales as possible for money, his fascination with the animals led to meticulous notes and detailed drawings based on his observations of the whales’ behaviors and his measurements of their carcasses. Almost in spite of himself, Scammon was the first naturalist to study the gray whale, and Russell pays homage to the man’s transformation by quoting at length from Scammon’s journals and books, which adds an invaluable historical perspective to “Eye of the Whale.”

Russell first went whale watching in San Ignacio Lagoon off the Baja in 1998. Out three hours in a boat, he met “las amistosas,” or the “friendly” gray whales. The first to approach the boat were a mother and calf.

“For the timeless minutes that the whales are alongside, I seem almost to be holding my breath,” Russell writes. “It’s a primordial feeling, ancient beyond words. A fusion of two worlds, capsizing time and space.”

Later, when it is time to leave the whales and go back to shore, Russell reports that no one in the boat speaks.

“In their presence we are utterly humbled,” he writes. “We are more than captivated. We are captured.”

To my mind — and I’ve been to San Ignacio Lagoon and experienced the extraordinary gaze of a gray whale — Russell has captured here the essence of not only the animal but also our conflicted relationship with all of nature.

Patricia Corrigan is the author of “The Whale Watcher’s Guide: Whale-Watching Trips in North America” (NorthWord Press).

Gray whales are the whales in the wild that most people have seen. These friendly mammals approach boats and allow people to touch them and even kiss them.


“Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia”

By Dick Russell

Published by Simon & Schuster, 634 pages, $35

Published in the A&E section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sunday, August 19, 2001. Copyright (C)2001, St. Louis Post-Dispatch