The Fight to Save the Gray Whale

EYE OF THE WHALE: Epic Passage From Baja to Siberia, by DickRussell. Simon & Schuster, 688 pp., $35.

OF ALL THE SLOGANS recent political movements have produced, “Save the Whales” may be the only one that actually sounds silly. Whales, after all, have gotten themselves the kind of attention most humans would envy, and other than their occasional troublesome habit of decomposing on beaches, they seem to be enjoying life. No other animal has made it as a corporate entity (at Sea World and in movies) while functioning as an international bargaining chip to be flashed in front of Russia and Japan. As cultural signifiers, too, whales have been as hotly contested as the Elgin Marbles. They’ve already got an agent and several lawyers. But underneath the joke lies the assumption that they’re either doomed or doing much better; nobody is quite sure which. Did we, somewhere along the line, tacitly agree to give up a whale or 10 as the price of inner peace in this time of social overload? The answer seems to be yes, and by the time the loyal Dick Russell gets through with you, you’re going to want your whales back.

The gray whale, all 50 feet of it, isn’t a sleek little item like the orca. This monster mammal is frescoed with itchy barnacles; it likes to scratch its head on tourist boats in Mexico, which makes whale-watching a particularly up-front experience there. Whales have a way of looming just underneath canoes in tropical zones and gently blowing peoples’ minds. They can’t afford to be sociable in the north, however, since they were taken off the endangered species list in 1998. At that time, the Makah Indians of Neah Bay in Washington state had been heavily petitioning the U.S. government to allow them to hunt and kill a gray whale. This, they said, would shore up their flagging sense of well-being by uniting them with their traditional lifestyle and diet. Though the ensuing struggle between Indians and ecologists wound up being portrayed in the media as a culture war, we learn from Russell’s elaborate and painstaking explanation that the situation was vastly more complicated. He shows that any simple accounting of the conflict remains in doubt, even while the idea that the payoff could be strictly spiritual is effectively deep-sixed. The Indians got their whale, and – this is much less well-publicized – were poised to do it again two years later when a young anti- whaling activist named Erin Abbott zoomed in on a Jet Ski. She scared the whale off, whereupon the Coast Guard deliberately ran her down.

Appearances to the contrary, this isn’t a book about the Makah, the Coast Guard or whaling in general. It’s a long, tough, 688-page swim through the environmental milieu upon which humans and whales depend. Concern about the gray has been on the books, in fact, since the late 19th century, when a whaler named Charles Melville Scammon became the foremost expert on his chosen prey. Scammon is an integral part of Russell’s book, and serves as a useful reminder that conservation is anything but a recent and self-serving invention. It’s the conflict of the Makah, however, that ignites the complex story of politics and the history of environmentalism. Why the whales became available for slaughter is a story in itself and relates more to Japanese political muscle than it does to the self-preservation of 1,500 Indians.

The most alarming aspect of Russell’s tidal wave of information is how close the gray whale is to being put back on the menu in countries that can do a lot more damage to it than the Makah ever could. Japan has pressured the United States to allow the resumption of commercial whaling around the globe; Russia, Finland, Norway and South Korea are dying for a piece of the action. Not that it hasn’t been going on anyway: Plenty of whales taken under the guise of “scientific research” seem to mysteriously end up in cans. Furthermore, the U.S. Navy’s underwater acoustical research project, designed to detect submarine activity in 80 percent of the world’s oceans, took a ghastly toll before it was discontinued: Whales were washing up on shore bleeding from the eyes as a direct result of the inconceivably horrid noise. We can chalk up whale stress and death to global warming, too: Their microscopic food needs very specific cold conditions to reproduce. Aboriginal hunters like the Makah can reasonably argue that it makes no sense to deny them their livelihood even as enormously powerful groups waste the prey.

Japan was preparing to do that in an entirely different way, in the very nursery of the species, Mexico’s Laguna San Ignacio. There, in a series of maneuvers that took up much of the 1990s, Mitsubishi planned to build the biggest salt evaporation facility in the world. This enormous project was originally held off by a small but determined environmental coalition, La Grupo de los Cien, led by the writer Homero Aridjis (whose whale poem opens the book). For anyone who doubts that a bunch of puny artists/activists can change anything, this particular chapter is a real eye-opener. Through organization and sheer persistence, and a threatened boycott in the United States, Aridjis and his cohort turned the corporate monster away from their jewel of a lagoon, saving the birthplace of their favorite animal. Lest you buy the old canard that a crusade in favor of beasts necessarily leaves a region in economic shambles, the whales turned out to be this fishing region’s ace in the hole.. Whale-watching in Mexico is high on the list of supreme environmental thrills. Russell worries about the traffic, though, and rightly so; chasing a whale with a camera instead of a harpoon is an improvement, but it still can hurt.

So why come down so hard on the Makah, as most of Russell’s readers will be tempted to do? It’s easy to see why they decided to forego their time-honored purification ritual of scrubbing themselves bloody with shells and hemlock twigs, for instance, before they went after the whale. That they took to the sea with a cell phone and an anti-tank gun while claiming their spiritual agency is less easy to forgive. Ultimately, the situation with the Makah is representative of the struggles over property and identity as they relate to collective assets – wild animals. What makes Russell’s telling special in this case is that the author, having honed his appetite for grim scenes, does something for the whale nobody else, not even the woman on the Jet Ski, could do. “The remains of the whale were cordoned off with yellow police tape, the kind customarily found at murder scenes,” he writes, and in this we see the whale as a dead body in the public realm – a citizen. And it’s sad.

Whose nature deserves to be rescued here? As long as we’re going to be fighting about it, let’s accept Russell’s story and say the whales’. Not that the process of deciding this is without pleasure for people. In fact – and here’s the bit of poetic information that bests Aridjis’ and rocks the entire book – “the leviathan, wild and untamed in its element” is its own reward. You yourself can see them, and the sweetly flippant behavior of the beasts in their tropical nursery indicates that they might want to see you, too. The experience, it’s said, is beyond compare. The author describes onlookers being approached by the animal, his hero, as if it were a visitation from the divine. “People are shouting, ‘Oh, my God!’ and the phrase is one not of epithet but of faith.”

Copyright (c) 2001, Newsday, Inc.


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