The Revenge of Poseidon?

Gray whales are skinnier and scientists suspect Arctic warming is the reason why

– A talk given by Dick Russell at the “Nature and Human Nature Conference,” sponsored by the Foundation for Mythological Studies, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara, California, March 18, 2007.

When the ancient Greeks observed that the sea was rough, they said: “Poseidon is angry.” They did not speak of friction between the air and the water’s surface causing the high waves of the sea. No, Poseidon was angry. Poseidon, brother of Zeus, second only to Zeus in eminence. While Zeus ruled the sky, and another brother, Hades, the underworld, Poseidon was ruler of the sea.

Poseidon was relied upon by the seafaring Greeks to ensure a safe voyage. The god lived on the ocean floor in a palace made of coral and gems. Dolphins are associated with Poseidon. So is the trident, and the three-pronged fish spear.

Poseidon was a very moody divinity. When he was in a good mood, he created new lands in the water and a calm sea. “He drove in his golden chariot over the waters, the thunder of the waves sank into stillness, and tranquil peace followed his smooth-rolling wheels.”

But when he was in a foul temper, Poseidon would strike the ground with his trident and cause earthquakes and floods, shipwrecks and drownings.

“He commanded and the storm wind rose
And the surges of the sea,” the ancient Greeks tell us.
Odysseus swam for two days and two nights after Poseidon flung him into the wild waters.


Today, it is likely that Poseidon is very angry indeed. As are the magnificent creatures that swim in his realm. About a year ago, I was having lunch in New York with a friend of mine named Richard Ellis, an eminent author and artist of marine life. Richard has written and illustrated books on whales, sharks, squid, and many other species. I asked him what he was planning to work on next. “A book on the swordfish,” he told me. “Do you know why?”

I confessed that I didn’t.

“Because,” he said, “swordfish fight back.”

Yes, swordfish taken on a fisherman’s line have been known to impale their human captors, or the boat itself, to fatal effect, much as “Moby Dick” once silenced Ahab. Since much stricter regulations were placed on taking swordfish in recent years, they have begun to make a comeback. Unfortunately, tragically, this has not been the case with hundreds of other denizens of the deep.

I want to relate to you a personal story about another billfish, one that appears in the latest E-journal of the Foundation for Mythological Studies, a piece by myself and Jessie Benton called “The Eye of a Marlin.”

Back in the ‘80s, when we were young and passionately fishing the “blue waters” of the Atlantic off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, there were fish to be had.

Huge schools of bluefin, yellowfin and albacore tuna roamed the deep. So did dorado, an occasional wahoo, the lonely marlin – whites and big blues – and, for those inclined, a variety of sharks including the good one to eat, the mako.

Even then we would sometimes see purse seiners net an entire school of tuna from under our noses. Hundreds of fish would be swept away, along with any porpoises who happened to be running with them. You could hear the porpoises crying. It broke our hearts.

Still, we would usually manage to find and boat other fish. Mine was a large family, and it was cost-effective for us to catch and eat, even though the gas bills were high. Our old boat would usually be the last to reach the fishing grounds, but often we would find fish that others in their haste had run right past. We would leave before dawn in order to be out there for the morning feed. It was exciting and a family affair. Our two oldest sons were the crew, and on each trip we took one or two of the younger children. They all learned the art of fishing, and spotting, and cutting baits, and the sheer power and life a fish has at the other end of a line. It takes considerable perseverance and discipline, a unified crew and captain to catch a big fish; it had always been such an inspirational moment in our lives. We were never embarrassed to cry when we finally got a big fish in.

The “buy boats” were always out there, like enormous vultures. Often there were process boats as well, where tuna would be bought, paid for – $20,000 and more for a perfect giant bluefin – filleted, and flown straight to Japan the same day. Longliners, purse seiners and sport boats were all vying for the same resource. On the surface our own days on the water still seemed beautiful and exciting, but we could not escape an increasing pressure – that somehow we were contributing to the loss of these colorful, powerful and great-hearted creatures.

As time went on, the huge schools of tuna disappeared and even to see a marlin was cause for celebration. Journeying across endless expanses of water and not finding any life was disheartening and, knowing the situation, more and more frightening.

I remember a gorgeous blue day – glassy water, silver tide lines meandering, full of flying fish. We’d managed to beat the odds and had a good catch. We were happily heading for home, toasting ourselves with a fine Sauvignon Blanc, when we spotted the marlin from the bridge. She was gliding along the edge of the tide line, her back fin cutting a slice through the still water, a lovely small white marlin.

We stopped the engines and drifted down on top of her and presented a live bait. She turned right on it and lit up into glorious rainbow colors reflecting in the late afternoon sun. And after a beautiful, jumping fight, we pulled her in exhausted. She was gut-hooked and we felt we couldn’t release her, so we hauled her up on the ginpole and bled her out. There was such a poignancy, watching the life leave her and her beautiful colors turn to slate blue. White marlin is a delicious fish and we would be eating form her for days to come. We would even tan the skin and use it for decorating small things.

As we were coming into view of land, our son, who was watching off the stern of the boat, kept seeing another marlin jumping. It seemed to be following us. With a good 10 miles more to go, which would take some time in our slow-moving boat, we cut to half-speed. Sure enough, the fish was coming closer as we approached the island. At one point, it leapt not far off the side of the boat and was definitely looking at the marlin we’d tied up to the ginpole in plain view.

I swear I could see anger in its eye. Suddenly, it dawned on us that we had probably caught his mate. We watched him jump, again and again, as he pursued us into the nearshore waters that marlin rarely enter. As the sun was turning red and sinking into the sea, he made his final desperate leap and then turned to the east and back out to sea. None of us could speak. No longer could we participate in the destruction. That day marked the end of our offshore fishing.


Not so long ago, the bounty of seafood in Poseidon’s realm was believed limitless. Not anymore. An astounding ninety percent of the big fish – the tunas, swordfish, and marlin – have already disappeared over the past fifty years, at the hands of human beings. The United Nations reports that roughly two-thirds of our major fish stocks – from cod to salmon to mackerel – have already been pushed to the edge of collapse. A four-year-long analysis by marine biologists – the first such study to examine all existing data on ocean species and ecosystems – was recently published in the journal Science. If the current trends of overfishing and pollution continue, these scientists concluded, by 2048 edible sea life is going to completely disappear.

Over three-and-a-half million fishing vessels now scour our oceans, utilizing high-tech gear. “Factory” trawlers ensnare 120,000 pounds of fish in a single scoop of the net. Their impact on the seafloor is like fishing with a bulldozer that tears through fragile coral reefs. They shatter the coral, smothering sea life beneath clouds of sediment. Vessels that set 100,000 miles of longlines – holding nearly 5 million hooks – kill over 90 percent of the billfish. The majestic bluefin tuna is on the verge of extinction in the western Atlantic, the victim of seines, harpoons and traps. An estimated thousand dolphins and porpoises a day still drown in tuna nets.

In the ‘80s, the federal government considered sharks an “underutilized species” and encouraged their commercial fishing. Today, scientists are concerned that their sharp decline will severely impact the entire undersea food chain. The horrible practice of removing the fins for shark-fin soup is still rampant – 38 to 70 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, and thrown back overboard dying.

Nor can the once-abundant North Atlantic cod recover from overfishing. Pacific red snapper and grouper are equally imperiled. When one species is depleted, commercial fishermen move on to another. And what about pollution? The U.N. reports at least 200 oxygen-starved “dead zones” in our global seas, caused by excessive runoff of fertilizers, sewage, and other land-based pollution.

The most dramatic example of a fish species recovering, if given half a chance, is the Atlantic striped bass. Fighting to save this particular fish is what made me an environmental activist, and is the subject of my most recently published book, Striper Wars. It dramatic resurgence – after a five-year moratorium on keeping any – is considered an amazing success story. Today, there is a growing awareness about what we are doing to our oceans. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and nonprofit groups like Blue Ocean and Oceana offer pocket guides for consumers to avoid overfished species. A new labeling law requires supermarkets nationwide to identify where their fish is coming from. The question is, can truly global cooperation come in time to make a difference?

For perhaps Poseidon’s revenge may come in the form of rising sea levels that inundate coastal areas worldwide, and of ocean currents so altered by freshwater flow from melting glaciers and icecaps that much of Europe is plunged into a deep-freeze. Now even the very chemical composition and temperature of our oceans is changing, mainly because of carbon dioxide emanating from the burning of fossil fuels. The oceans have always absorbed much of this carbon dioxide, otherwise our atmosphere would be heating up even faster than it is. But the extra C02 is making seawater more acidic, which threatens to destroy not only sea life sustaining coral reefs but the plankton, the tiny animals that form the base of the food chain for krill, fish and many whales.

Our great whales face a myriad of threats today – from being deafened by the Navy’s use of sonar devices to being struck by passing ships to being tangled in fishing nets. Climate change is only the latest of these. Last year, gray whales were observed very sparsely on their traditional summer feeding grounds in the North Pacific. The tiny crustaceans they feed upon, on the ocean bottom, need cold, nutrient-rich waters to live – and the Arctic Ocean is rapidly heating up. So the whales must range further north to find sufficient food, and already they must make the longest migration of any marine mammal – some 6,000 miles from their birthing grounds in Mexico.

There, the grays are known as the “friendly” whales. Only a few months back, research found that many brains of cetaceans – the whales and dolphins – possess the same spindle cells that were first detected in human brains about a decade ago. These spindle cells produce feelings of love and attachment. Not only do the gray whales display these feelings to their own kind, but to humans as well. During the 19th-century, they were called “devilfish” by the whalers who pursued them, because of their ferocity in protecting their young from harpoons. In the mid-1970s, for reasons no one can explain, they began approaching small boatloads of people, mothers presenting their young. I wrote a book called “Eye of the Whale” about this phenomenon, and this amazing animal.

And I would like to close by reading a passage from the closing pages of my book.

What might gray whales be trying to ‘say’ to us? Here is Melville in Moby-Dick, describing having come upon a whale nursery: “The young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us…Floating on their sides, the mothers also seemed quietly eyeing us. – Some of the subtlest secrets of the seas seemed divulged to us in this enchanted pond.” So it is at San Ignacio Lagoon. Never is there a moment’s fear that the whales will do us harm. Their huge size makes them more sensitive, not less. On the surface, externally, they are mountains of mottled gray, leathery skin and barnacles. Beneath the surface, internally, they are as big as the imagination.

Imagine….What if lions in the jungle suddenly allowed you to pet them? What if elephants suddenly slept at your feet? The Mexicans say the gray whales are “tame.” Yet they are not domesticated. We did not “break” them like we might a horse. They tamed themselves – to come to us, their time-honored enemy, in the place where they give birth. And, mysteriously, it feels that this is how it should be, the way it used to be. The commonality is primordial. We are molded of the same clay. Eschrichtius robustus. Homo sapiens.

We are thus, in a phrase, biblically bound. Beyond Genesis and the Book of Job, we are told in Matthew XII: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” And D.H. Lawrence, in a chapter on Moby Dick that concludes his Studies in Classic American Literature, informs: “…in the first centuries, Jesus was Cetus, the Whale. And the Christians were the little fishes.”

Our Western culture is, of course, not alone in the symbolic meaning ascribed to the leviathan – “bigness, largeness, the mass that moves upon the seas,” as the Tse-shat peoples of Vancouver described the gray whale. The whale sustained and took care of the ancient peoples. The shamans knew. In trance states, a trained shaman could go to the whales and communicate with them. Western man does not understand the nature of “a god” in the same fashion. Except, it seems, in our subconscious. Moby Dick again, as the hunt approaches, as Captain Ahab wrestles with the demons of his inner being:

“’What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab?’”

Lawrence writes: “What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being of the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature. And he is hunted, hunted, hunted by the maniacal fanatacism of our white mental consciousness. We want to hunt him down. To subject him to our will.”

In more recent times, it is our psychoanalysts who have addressed this dilemma we have fashioned for ourselves, especially since the advent of industry and high technology. “Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos,” wrote Carl Jung. “He is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional participation in natural events, which hitherto had symbolic meaning for him. Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree means a man’s life, no snake is the embodiment of wisdom, and no mountain still harbours a great demon. Neither do things speak to him nor can he speak to things, like stones, springs, plants, and animals.”

James Hillman, in an essay titled Animal Kingdom, elaborates: “The reading of living form, the self-expressive metaphors that animals represent, is what is meant by the legends that saints and shamans understand the language of animals, not in the literal speech of words as much as psychically….”

Which brings us, once more, to the gray whale, the whale that despite our history in seeking to destroy it, wants to live closest to us. If they are being forgiving toward us, the implications are enormous. This is surely, in part, why they touch us so deeply. Like gray whales in their lagoons, human beings too must seek solace, a centering focal point, a place to go that remains relatively untouched and pure. A place to remind ourselves of our basic nature, not surrounded by all we have built.

What is hurting them is hurting us. As the oceans go, so go we. Can we survive global warming? Noise pollution? The wanton carelessness about our habitats? Can we pretend to endure anything that the whales cannot? Can we come to grips with the suicidal tendency to destroy what sustains us? Is this what the gray whales are reaching out to communicate?

The answers to these questions are as yet unseen, hidden, perhaps entwined in our unconscious, in the great mystery of our relationship with these most majestic of nature’s creatures. It may only be a mystery because we don’t yet have the senses to perceive it, though we bump into it occasionally in the dark. And we glimpse it, at the rippling edge of life, bursting startlingly above the surface – in the eye of a whale.