|ORCAS AND GRAYS ALONG THE SHORES OF MONTEREY|
"We love being out there with the whales and after our time at Neah Bay, we were desperate to infuse people with a sense of stewardship for the ocean and its creatures. What better way than by taking them out there? To transport people into this other world, a place where dolphins dance on your bow, luminous jellies pulse by and great whales go about their slow motion business is the best way we can think of to enlist them as foot soldiers in the whales' navy."
|Heidi Tiura, Monterey, California.|
My northbound tracing of the Gray Whale's path began in San Francisco.
I drove through the neighborhood northwest of downtown, where Charles
Scammon and his family lived between 1856 and 1874. The original house
on Ellis Street, I learned, had been destroyed by fire during the 1906
earthquake. I continued down to the harbor and looked out over San Francisco
Bay, where Scammon had "cast anchor before the Golden City of
the Western Slope" for the first time on February 21, 1850. From
here, he had set sail on his eight whaling voyages, as commander of seven
different ships with the Revenue Marine, and on the Western Union Telegraph
Expedition. At the wharf, a charterboat captain told me a strange story.
While Gray Whales rarely linger in the bay, he said, for five years in
a row at least one had swum in during the annual springtime festival known
as the "blessing of the fleet."
I decided to follow Route One out of the city, back south along the coast
past the sites of some of the old shore-whaling stations, and into the
onetime whaling center of Monterey. According to Scammon, California's
"whaling year begins on the first of April"
and I was only a few days late. In 1874, Scammon had listed eleven "whaling
parties" scattered along these shorelines. I drove by Gray Whale
Cove and into the first of these at Half Moon Bay. Population 10,600.
Lots of surfers headed for the beach. Lots of RVs and horse paddocks.
Lots of Sunday afternoon traffic. At the entry point to the State Beach,
a park ranger said he'd never heard of any whaling station still standing
around here. I kept on going, past artichoke and strawberry stands and
into the verdant rolling hills that lead down into a whistlestop town
called Davenport Landing, population 200.
This had been the last residence of Captain John D. Davenport, the man
who conceived the idea of California shore-whaling. He was, Scammon tells
us, "a whaling-master of much experience and enterprise" who
originally hailed from Tiverton, Rhode Island, where he'd been half-owner
of a 180-ton schooner that plied between California and Hawaii, trading
and whaling from 1845 to 1852. Then, in 1854, Davenport had established
himself with a new bride in Monterey, and recruited a dozen men to pursue
Humpbacks and Gray Whales with harpoons and hand-lances from two small
boats. It proved a lucrative business from the outset, one which Davenport
sold to a group of Portuguese before moving in 1868 to an area fourteen
miles north of Santa Cruz where he built a large wharf and named it after
himself. Primarily, Davenport Landing had handled shipping for several
shingle companies and lumber mills.
I turned off the highway onto Davenport Landing Road, and followed a
big horseshoe curve back to Route One. The paint was peeling badly on
the old Davenport place, a clapboard house and barn which I learned had
recently been sold to a private owner with plans for renovation. I stopped
in at the roadside Whale City Bakery Bar & Grill. It was a terracotta
building accented with a colorful painting on the outside - of a smiling
Gray Whale swimming through a lifesaver ring. In the window was a handwritten
notice informing that I'd arrived "where the blubber meets the road,"
a spot that "puts Davenport Landing on Highway 1's destination dining
and drinking map." I settled for a cup of black coffee, as I gazed
at the Gray Whale bumper stickers and whale's tail pins and migration
Crossing the highway and some long-obsolete railroad tracks, a small
path festooned with sweet-smelling white alyssum wildflowers leads out
toward a spectacular cliffside. At the top of the hill, a sign warned:
"Keep away, dangerous unstable cliffs, a fall can be fatal."
I went to the edge anyway and peered down. Enclosed by leaning pine trees
was what remained of Davenport's wharf. A Native American fellow was sitting
nearby with his two dogs, looking out to sea. "Yeah, that's the old
pier from the whaling days all right," he said.
A shore-whaling company, as Scammon described it, consisted of "one
captain, one mate, a cooper, two boat-steerers, and eleven men; from these,
two whale-boats are provided with crews of six men each, leaving four
hands on shore, who take their turn at the lookout station, to watch for
whales, and attend to boiling out the blubber when a whale is caught....The
cruising limits of the local whalers extend from near the shore-line to
ten miles at sea. At dawn of day, the boats may be seen, careening under
a press of sail, or propelled over the undulating ground-swell by the
long, measured strokes of oars."
However, Scammon hastened to add, "this peculiar branch of whaling
is rapidly dying out, owing to the scarcity of the animals which now visit
the coast; and even these have become exceedingly difficult to approach."
California's shore whalers, he reckoned, lost about one-fifth of their
struck whales. I realized, as I continued on toward Monterey, that Scammon
was really the first to undertake what's become a fixture in marine mammal
biology today the annual whale count and estimates of abundance. In
his chapter on Gray Whales, Scammon records the calculations of shore-whaling
observers that "a thousand whales passed southward daily, from
the 15th of December to the 1st of February, for
several successive seasons after shore-whaling was established."
Scammon estimated this meant an "aggregate" gray whale population,
at that time, of about 47,000. From his own observations between 1853
and 1856, he continued, the number actually "did not exceed 40,000
probably not over 30,000." The count of Grays since killed
by the whalers, Scammon went on to speculate, "would not exceed
10,800, and the number which now periodically visit the coast does not
exceed 8,000 or 10,000." That, of course, was still a precipitous
drop and, by the 1870s, Scammon cited a Captain Packard's guess that "the
average number seen from the stations passing daily would not exceed forty."
From Scammon's "Pacific Sea-Coast Views," Overland Monthly,
March 1872: "On rounding Point Pinos, the quiet town of Monterey,
with its naturally unique surroundings, is revealed in all its
loveliness. The relics of old Jesuitical times can still be seen, but
they are rapidly passing away....Monterey still retains the aspect of an
antique California settlement. It was at this place in 'Colton Hall'
that the Constitution of the State of California was framed....Near the
pier that projects into the bay stands the custom-house, which has withstood
all the changes in governmental affairs since the time the pueblo became
an entry-port....In rambling through the
town you meet many superior adobe structures, admirably adapted to
the wants of the first settlers, being cool in summer, warm in winter,
and proof against the attacks of Indians."
The capital of California under Spanish and then Mexican rule, Monterey
sprawls loosely around the gently curving arc of its vast, prolific bay.
"It is impossible to describe the number of whales," a Spaniard
named De La Perouse wrote of Monterey Bay in 1786. "They blowed every
half minute within half a pistol shot from our frigate." An issue
of the Monterey Californian later added: "...these marine monsters
were so numerous in Monterey Bay that whalers could fill up lying at anchor."
Most experts believe that both references are to Gray Whales.
Downtown, near Fisherman's Wharf, is the First Brick House of California,
where it turns out Captain John D. Davenport was the initial occupant.
It's down the block from the Old Whaling Station, an adobe dwelling with
an adjacent rose garden and arbor. Local legend has it that whalers kept
their lookout from the upstairs windows which had unobstructed panoramic
views of the bay. Decorated with antique furnishings, today the Old Whaling
Station's house-and-grounds are rented out for weddings and other fancy
functions by the Junior League of Monterey County. Guests tread across
a whalebone sidewalk entryway and pass inside under a whale vertebrae.
On the second floor verandah sits a rocking chair constructed from ribs
and more vertebrae.
I recalled an article Scammon had pasted into a scrapbook, written by
Prentice Mulford, who sailed down the California coast on Scammon's Revenue
Marine ship Wyanda. In an 1869 edition of the San Francisco
Bulletin, Mulford described the Monterey beaches "strewn with
the bleaching bones of dead whales" looking from a distance like
cast-up driftwood. "The great backbone joints are even used for pavements.
They are buried in the earth, leaving only the round, upper surface exposed;
and very good pavements they make. These blocks of bone, once the leviathan's
spinal column, the seat of that strength by which he coursed from the
Arctic seas to the equator, come to these base uses at last."
Such reminders remain abundant. Around the corner from the Old Whaling
Station is California's First Theater, a historical monument at the intersection
of Scott and Pacific. An arch of whale ribs and vertebrae forming newel
posts for steps marks the entrance to the low-slung adobe building where
19th-century melodramas like "Troopers of the Gold Coast"
were once staged. Reportedly the theater had also once served as the equipment
storage area for Davenport's whaling company.
I proceeded a couple of miles further to the San Carlos Cathedral, advertised
as "the oldest continuously functioning house of worship in California."
Its Self Guided Tour notes that, when Father Francisco Pacheco
renovated and enlarged the chapel in 1858, "whale vertebrae sections
were used to pave the outside sidewalks. By the early 1940's this had
become dangerous" slippery when wet, I wondered? - "so it
was taken up and stacked at the rear of the church." Nothing was
indicated about what next became of the whalebones.
I maneuvered through the commercial maze that was once Steinbeck's Cannery
Row, and headed for the outskirts of town. Steph Dutton and his wife,
Heidi Tiura, lived twelve miles outside Monterey. I hadn't seen the couple
since Neah Bay five months before, where they'd been among the most vocal
opponents of the Makah hunt. They'd provided refuge to Alberta Thompson
after the fracas between the tribe and the Sea Shepherds. Now their outspokenness
had caused them to lose a substantial research grant to their organization,
In the Path of Giants. The funding would have enabled them to track and
document the entire migration of the Gray Whale, using a kayak as their
primary research vessel. So they'd come home to central California and
taken stock. Their efforts at Neah Bay had exacted quite a toll. Certain
that they'd done what they had to do, it remained to be seen how they'd
pull themselves out of the apparent wreckage of their lives.
I drove up a winding road into the hills overlooking Monterey Bay. The
single-story ranch-style house is surrounded by pines, oaks, ferns and,
as Heidi puts it, "more poison oak than should have been allowed
by nature." The couple shares these surroundings with white-tailed
deer, quail, Stellar's jays, coyotoes and rabbits. "Our garden has
clearly been touted as the deer version of an all-you-can-eat salad bar,"
Heidi says, giving me a quick tour, "but every year, I plant lobelia
and petunias anyway."
When they found this place in 1996, Steph Dutton went straight to the
master bedroom's bathroom and found an old ball-and-claw foot bathtub.
For a leg amputee, he says, such a bathtub is a thing of beauty.
They are an unusual couple, drawn to one another and to the Gray Whales
in ways that seem fated. Both are in their late forties. Heidi is a native
Californian and Steph, born in Austin, Texas, grew up near San Diego.
He is tall and quiet, with deep blue eyes ("the color of storm surf,"
as Heidi describes them), a long mustache, and wavy graying hair that
overlaps his ears. She is freckle-faced, with long strawberry-blonde hair
and a vivacious smile and manner. Each of them wears a handmade whale's
tail necklace, reminiscent of the earrings I'd seen on Alberta Thompson
and John Spencer.
"Let me tell you what happened when I was a little girl," Heidi
had said to me in Neah Bay. "I grew up in a rural area on the coast
of Northern California. At night I used to ride my donkey across the highway
and out onto the headlands above the ocean. I'd just stand there for hours.
Especially when it was somewhat foggy offshore, it would be black and
velvety and calm. I could smell the salt, hear the buoys and sometimes
the foghorns up the coast. I was just entranced. It was partly fear, and
partly fascination with what was out there. Now here I am, forty years
later, and I'm wondering if even back then because these whales were
passing by my whole lifetime were they pulling me and calling to me?
Because I've always felt this pull, always."
For thirteen years, Heidi Tiura started and ran a multitude of businesses:
custom T-shirts, windsurfing, a deli and bar. Then her affinity for the
ocean took control. She sold her businesses and went to sea. She headed
north, running her own small boat towing service over Washington's infamous
Columbia River bar, working as a deckhand on charterboats and then on
progressively larger tugboats on Puget Sound and in Alaska. Becoming a
licensed master of offshore vessels, by 1994 she was setting up sea kayak
excursions for tourists who came to the southeast Alaskan village of Sitka
on cruise ships.
That is where she met Steph Dutton. Divorced with three children, at
various times Steph had been a contractor, a paramedic, a firefighter,
an undercover cop, and a private investigator. The experience that changed
his life forever had taken place in 1978. Steph calls it his "brush
with extinction." He was driving home from working half a night shift
as a favor for another firefighter, when he came upon an accident in the
hills near Escondido, California. Beside a wrecked truck, Steph recalls,
"a guy was lying on the road, covered with a blanket. I thought he
was probably dead. But when I pulled it off, amazingly he was alive, and
begging me to help him. That's when I heard a squeal of tires, looked
up, and saw headlights coming right for us." He'd responded by pushing
the accident victim off the road, then tried to dive out of the way himself.
"But the oncoming driver hit me right as I was in mid-air, and smashed
my leg. That threw me in under the wrecked truck. I was lying there in
a puddle of gasoline, when I saw a fireman walk up holding a lit flare.
That's when I knew I'd die if I lost consciousness. I had to stay awake
long enough to direct my own rescue."
It took eighteen months of failed operations before Steph demanded amputation
just below the knee of his right leg. He wanted to get on with his life.
After virtually no rehab, he taught himself to walk with a prosthesis.
He did concrete work, a physically demanding and grueling job even for
a person with both legs. He became a paramedic. He also resumed skiing,
earning accreditation as an instructor. The examiners had no idea he was
skiing on a prosthesis. Steph's intent was to teach skiing to amputees
and paraplegics, but there was little demand in that area at the time.
Then he discovered sea kayaking. Not only did any trace of his limp vanish
the moment he sat down in a kayak hull, his upper body strength could
flourish as a paddler.
In 1993, Steph set out on a solo paddle from Victoria, British Columbia,
all the way to Ensenada in Baja California a voyage of 1,600 nautical
miles that would take him two full months. Nobody had ever tried this
before. And he almost didn't make it. As Steph was passing along the Oregon
coast, a raging storm struck. He remembers:
"It was a full-on gale, and I was filled with a mix of awe and terror.
Mostly, I was worried about keeping myself upright. Suddenly, I was stunned
to see the heaving water all around me start to make some strange moves.
Then I realized I was surrounded by a pod of spouting whales! A whale
on my right dove, and then surfaced again on my left side. My gosh, I
thought, forty feet of whale just swam under my kayak. It was as though
they were guiding me, helping me to stay oriented to the coastline. I
considered that they might be a pod of Grays, but I couldn't be sure.
Right afterward, I made it my business to find out a lot more about them."
The following year, Heidi Tiura heard a story from her sister about a
one-legged ex-firefighter who had solo-kayaked the entire Pacific coast
of the contiguous United States. She thought, "How inspirational!
I said to myself, 'I want this man in my life.'" But Heidi had no
idea, when she went to pick up a new kayak instructor at the little airport
in Sitka, that she was about to meet him. "Even when we went drinking
that night down at the Pioneer Bar, and Steph ended up telling stories
of his long paddles down the coast, I still didn't put it together that
he was the very man I'd dreamed about. I did notice he had a slight limp
and, the next day as we all piled into the truck, I glimpsed a steel bar
poking out between the end of his pant leg and the top of his shoe. I
touched it, and asked, 'Hey, what's this?' Steph just quietly replied,
'Ah, it's nothing,' which suddenly spoke volumes to me. So, we fell in
love in a day. And we've been together ever since."
They married and settled first in Astoria, Oregon. Steph's growing reputation
as one of the world's premier kayakers led to financial support from the
U.S. paddling industry. With a partner, he circumnavigated the northern
Channel Islands off California. With Heidi as expedition manager, he paddled
the Oregon coast in the winter of 1995, which took a full thirty days
in treacherous weather.
In January of 1996, the couple was in Big Sur when they saw the misty
whale-spouts offshore, dozens of them. They decided to launch kayaks from
Monterey the next morning and try to follow the Gray Whale's trail. Even
a strong storm that blew ashore that night failed to dissuade them. They
set off at 7 a.m. and paddled for hours. Heidi had never paddled so far
and her hands blistered. The blisters broke and stung from the salt water.
They ate nothing and drank only a little water. They were miles offshore,
in 16-foot seas and 20-knot headwinds when, Heidi remembers, "suddenly
we were surrounded by barnacle-encrusted freight trains, just blowing
and thundering past us, all around us, underneath us."
"When these whales dived beside us, about ten feet down, we could
see an incredible, blue-green luminescence surrounding them," Steph
"At one point, one stopped, a full-grown gray whale," Heidi
says. "It turned its head ninety degrees and rotated its eye up and
looked at me. And it was like a lightning bolt. Had I been standing, it
probably would have knocked me off my feet. It just grabs at your soul."
When their kayaks slid onto the beach at 3:30 that afternoon, the couple
was exhausted. Before she got out of her kayak, Heidi turned to Steph
and said unhesitatingly, "I want to go. I want to go with them."
"That solved a huge problem for me," Steph would say later
in presentations they've given all over the U.S. and Canada, "because
I'd already decided I wanted to craft a project around these magnificent
animals and I was wondering how to break the news to Heidi!"
Their research organization, In the Path of Giants, was underway. They
moved to Monterey, spending the first several months in a small RV with
their huge Chesapeake Bay retriever. For the next two winters, they tracked
the Gray Whales migrating along the central California coast. "We
got the snot kicked out of us by El Niño," Heidi says, "me
in Sea Dog, our 26-foot power boat, and Steph in a 22-foot kayak
in 35-foot seas!" Steph paddled literally thousands of miles with
the whales as the pair filmed and photographed them, learning their patterns
and subtle nuances. He seemed to possess a phenomenal ability to adapt
to a single whale or even a pod, often knowing their speed underwater,
their course and when they'd surface. Much of this emanated from tracking
them by a muscle-powered craft, where you must pay attention to the finest
details such as the subtle angle of a fluke as the whale sounds, signifying
a change in direction or else you end up half-a-mile from the animal
the next time it surfaces. One goal of these endeavors was to document
a standard Gray Whale route past Monterey Bay, which could lead to establishment
of rules for human navigation that would minimize disturbance to the whales
and their young. Information keyed into charts supplanted older data.
Heidi says, "We've never witnessed friendly whale behavior, you
know. Most people assume we've been to the lagoons and had this wonderful
soft experience with these whales. Instead, all we've done is beat ourselves
up on the open ocean where they want very little to do with us. But we're
learning their rhythms, their habits."
They'd taken their boat up the coast to Neah Bay and the Makah reservation
in late September of 1998, with an offer to help the tribe develop whale
watching and sea kayaking tourist ventures as an alternative to the hunting
plans. Heidi had developed a curriculum called the Sea Dog School in Monterey,
where middle- and high-schoolers were taught navigation and seamanship
skills and even the rudimentaries of operating a kayak or power boat.
"We offered all of this to the Makah to be woven through their culture,"
Heidi says, but they were turned down on all counts. "We were branded
as troublemakers, treated as outlaws, and thrown out of a federally funded
marina." So they'd stayed on just outside the reservation. They established
a base camp, aiding the Sea Shepherds and using their boat to scout for
any tribal canoes that might potentially be after the whales.
Until then, the National Marine Fisheries Service was ready to grant
In the Path of Giants a research permit. Several other groups had been
prepared to provide financial support for a planned voyage along the whales'
path all the way to the Bering Sea. Heidi would pilot the mother ship,
while Steph and a team of paddlers would use kayaks as their primary research
vessels. They planned to attach to the whales small dart-tags with the
capacity to log all sorts of data, as well as to transmit it to satellites.
"When our biologist called us and told us to get out of Neah Bay
and eliminate the advocacy stuff from our web-site otherwise, he'd have
to withdraw - we almost complied," Steph says. "But finally
we knew we couldn't leave, even though we'd face losing all our funders.
Somehow, we'd find ways to continue our work."
And so they had, despite the project's forced cancellation. Heidi already
had her Coast Guard master's license; in the spring of 1999, Steph obtained
his. The pair found employment in Monterey and began running whale watching
cruises, eventually forming their own company. "We bought a great
boat and named her Sanctuary," Heidi explains. "Steph has completely
gone through her engine room and she just purrs. I put life-sized Pacific
white-sided dolphins on her bows, because so often we are surrounded by
them. Much like a phoenix, Sanctuary Cruises was born out of the ashes
of In the Path of Giants."
As we sit on the deck of their home looking out across tall pines, gnarled
oaks, and twisted manzanitas all the way to Monterey Bay, the sun is setting.
Steph is unusually talkative. "I remember going to Magdalena Bay
several years back, being out there in my kayak and seeing spouts and
thinking, 'Thar she blows!' I'd go racing toward the spouts and then I'd
find myself saying, wait a minute, where does this come from? It
was a little scary to me. Is this a past-life thing? I'm not a New Age
kind of guy, but I was rocked by that. Then, last year, Heidi and I were
in Boston at the Union Oyster House, where Daniel Webster drank brandy
and ate oysters. We were seated at table two in the Pine Room, drinking
Harpoon Ale. It was hot but, at the same time, we looked at each other
and we had goosebumps. We both thought, we've been here before, we know
Steph is silent for a moment. Strangely, I'm thinking of Ahab and recalling
lines from Moby Dick: "Here be it said, that this pertinacious
pursuit of one particular whale, continued through day into night, and
through night into day, is a thing by no means unprecedented....For such
is the wonderful skill, prescience of experience, and invincible confidence
acquired by some great natural geniuses among the Nantucket commanders,
that from the single observation of a whale when last descried, they will,
under certain given circumstances, pretty accurately foretell both the
direction in which he will continue to swim for a time, while out of sight,
as well as his probable rate of progression during that period."
Then Steph continues: "My fascination with the Gray Whales is not
anthropomorphic. The bond I sense with them comes from something deeper.
I think I feel a strong connection to the Gray Whale because of my disability.
I wouldn't say they're flawed physically, but they're not everybody's
idea of a whale. They're aren't pretty. They aren't the high glamour species
like Humpbacks, Blues, or Orcas. Yet they've survived two near-extinctions.
They've withstood the ravages of greedy humans for more than a century.
Somehow, they've found a way to endure. Deep in my mind, I have an image
from an old fairy tale called 'The Steadfast Tin soldier.' He's the one
who's all beat up and missing a leg, yet will never shirk his duty. That
term, 'steadfast,' means so much to me because that's what the Gray Whales
are. They have this incredible will to survive. There's a sense that this
whale won't quit. Nor will I."
Along the California coast, there may be no better place to contemplate
how the Gray Whales "withstood the ravages" of Melville's era
than at Whaler's Cove inside the Point Lobos State Reserve. It's south
out of Monterey, across the Carmel River and down a pine-shrouded winding
road, nestled in the lee of southwesterly breezes. These craggy headlands
are among the most spectacular spots on the entire California coast. When
Spanish explorers sailing past four centuries ago heard sea lions barking
off the rocks, they called it "Punta de los Lobos Marinos,"
Point of the Sea Wolves.
Inside what may be the oldest wood-frame building in California, a cabin
built by Chinese fishermen around 1851, is the West Coast's only on-site
whaling exhibit. On the far wall is a large framed sketch of this very
spot, depicting a team of shore whalers. It was drawn by Charles M. Scammon
in 1865, who later described the scene:
"The one [station] which most interested us is half-hidden in a
little nook, on the southern border of the Bay of Carmel, just south of
Point Pinos. Scattered around the foot-hills, which come to the water's
edge, are the neatly whitewashed cabins of the whalers, nearly all of
whom are Portuguese, from the Azores or Western Islands of the Atlantic.
They have their families with them, and keep a pig, sheep, goat, or cow,
prowling around the premises; these, with a small garden-patch, yielding
principally corn and pumpkins, make up the general picture of the hamlet,
which is a paradise to the thrifty clan in comparison with the homes of
their childhood. It is a pleasant retreat from the rough voyages experienced
on board the whale-ship. The surrounding natural scenery is broken into
majestic spurs and peaks, like their own native isles, with the valley
of the Rio Carmel a little beyond, expanded into landscape loveliness.
"Under a precipitous bluff, close to the water's edge, is the station;
where, upon a stone-laid quay, is erected the whole establishment for
cutting-in and trying-out the blubber of the whales. Instead of rolling
them upon the beach, as is usually done, the cutting-tackles are suspended
from an elevated beam, whereby the carcass is rolled over in the water
when undergoing the process of flensing in a manner similar to that
alongside a ship. Near by are the tryworks, sending forth volumes of thick,
black smoke from the scrap-fire under the steaming cauldrons of boiling
oil. A little to one side is the primitive storehouse, covered with cypress
boughs. Boats are hanging from davits, some resting on the quay, while
others, fully equipped, swing at their moorings in the bay. Seaward, on
the crest of a cone-shaped hill, stands the signal-pole of the lookout
station. Add to this the cutting at the shapeless and half-putrid mass
of a mutilated whale, together with the men shouting and heaving on the
capstans, the screaming of gulls and other sea-fowl, mingled with the
noise of the surf about the shores, and we have a picture of the general
life at a California coast-whaling station."
Sweeping Monterey Cypress still tower here over the front yard of the
museum. A park ranger tells me that the last two native stands in the
world are found here and on nearby Pebble Beach, the last two holes of
whose famous golf course are visible from Whaler's Cove. Under the boughs,
a series of whalebones are anchored into the earth alongside a huge metal
whaling trypot. The floor joists of the museum were fashioned from six
whale vertebrae which, the curator says, "were lying all over the
place when the original dirt floor got replaced around 1900. They're strong
and the termites don't bother them, and they were free."
There had been several small villages around this cove at different junctures
first the Chinese fishermen, next the Portuguese whalers. "When
kerosene replaced whale oil," ranger Chuck Bancroft tells me, "the
Portuguese moved out by the mid-1880s, tearing the cabins down and taking
the lumber with them." Then had come Japanese at the tail-end of
the nineteenth century. The latter were abalone fishermen who also temporarily
established a joint venture with some Portuguese called the Japanese Whaling
Company. "There was a large scaffolding down here, where they'd bring
the whales and tie them off to Window Rock," the ranger adds. After
shore whaling ceased for good in 1901, it wasn't long before Hollywood
discovered Point lobos. Almost fifty movies have been filmed at these
vistas since 1914.
I'm standing in front of the Scammon sketch, reading an inscription about
how in 1848, Lewis Temple had "invented a new type of harpoon head
that quickly became the standard of the industry. Because the harpoon
head was able to pivot or toggle within the whale's flesh, it was less
likely to pull out and thus resulted in capture of many more whales."
I realized that's the same basic type of harpoon head that the Makah Tribe
intended to use for their first strike, now, one hundred fifty years later.
I walk outside and across the road to an open meadow, where red-hot-poker
plants blossom, and envision two-dozen trypots boiling amid the cacophonous
and terrible din of Scammon's "general life at a California coast-whaling
By 1886, "of the eleven whaling stations mentioned by Scammon as
established along the coast ten or twelve years ago, only five remain,"
according to the Townsend report on "Present Condition of the California
Gray Whale Fishery." John Dean Caton's article in the American
Naturalist (1888) added that, in Monterey, "the old whale boats
may now be seen leaning up against the sheds useless and abandoned."
Another writer, Edward Berwick, recalled in a 1900 issue of Cosmopolitan
Magazine how "the shores of Monterey Bay were frequented by that
greatest among seabirds, barring the albatross, the giant fulmar (Ossifraga
gigantea). This bird then found it to his interest to leave his haunts
in the southern hemisphere, and feed his fill on dead whale, in abundance
and variety, off California's coasts. With the decline of whaling he again
withdrew southward, and for many years not one has been seen here."
What Gray Whale catch remained during the latter part of the nineteenth
century a total of 167 taken along the California coast between 1883
and 1886 - consisted chiefly of males. Females traveling north with their
young were staying well offshore. For the only known time in its history,
the Gray Whale's will to survive had driven it far from the harpoon guns
of its human adversaries. In Monterey Bay, as I was soon to discover,
the animals still needed every bit of that will to fend off another voracious
As Gray Whale mothers and their young travel north together for the first
time, they are able to remain in proximity of the near-shore kelp beds
on most of their early sojourn across California. Upon reaching the vicinity
of Point Lobos, however, they are abruptly faced with the coastline opening
into a large bay. The sea here turns a deep cobalt. A vast underwater
abyss commences. It snakes to a depth of 10,663 feet, as deep from rim
to bottom as the Grand Canyon. Monterey Canyon was forged mainly by the
erosive power of silt-laden underwater currents, and it is an extremely
fecund area. The nutrient-rich cold water wells up along the gorge. The
warmer water of the shore shallows mixes with the deep. The resulting
explosion of algae and plankton forms the base of a complex food chain
which supports everything from tiny copepod crustaceans to hundred-ton
Upon arriving at this juncture, the migrating Gray Whales face a choice.
They can try to take a shortcut across the canyon one of the deepest
bodies of water a Gray Whale will ever traverse. Or they can hug the shoreline,
along the sloping beach and the kelp forests that ring the thirty-mile-wide
Monterey Bay as it stretches from Pacific Grove to Santa Cruz.
Those who select the shortcut may not make it. For there, above a seascape
of eternal darkness, the Orcas wait.
Orcas Killer Whales - may have been the "aries marinus" of
the ancients, and possibly the "horrible Sea-satyre" of Edmund
Spenser, since the white marks on their heads might be fancifully interpreted
as closely ad-pressed horns. Orcinus orca was the name bestowed
by Linnaeus in 1758, Orca being Latin for a type of whale and Orcinus
being derived from the Latin Orcus, which means "of the netherworld."
The whalers called them "whale killer," a title later transposed
to "killer whale." For they are not whales themselves, but the
largest species of dolphin. "The length of the adult males may
average twenty feet, and the females fifteen feet," Scammon informs.
Other than human beings, Orcas are the most cosmopolitan mammals on the
planet in their distribution, being found in every ocean basin. And, with
their distinctive blend of coloration - jet-black above and white below
they are one of the most identifiable. Despite our doting upon Keiko
- the film star of "Free Willy" this particular species possesses
a uniquely predatory appetite for its fellow marine mammals.
This isn't true of all Killer Whales. Scammon had pointed out
that several different species of Orcas could be found in every zone and
hemisphere. Jim Nollman, who's concentrated on analyzing their vocalizations
in recent years, described it like this: "There are two Orca cultures.
One group eats fish and vocalizes all the time. They have a social structure
based on frequency-modulated whistles, in other words a melody. Then there's
this other group which is stealthy and are called transients. And they
eat marine mammals. Recent genetic studies have shown that, even though
they travel the same waters sometimes, these two groups of Orcas have
not reproduced together in at least one hundred thousand years."
It's the "transient pods," as scientists call them, which pursue
gray whales throughout their entire range. Few have ever evoked these
Killer Whales so eloquently as Scammon. He wrote about them at some length,
originally for the Overland Monthly and then in his book. Reading
Scammon's anatomical description, I was struck by how much Orcas seemed
the mirror opposite of Gray Whales. Where the Grays are covered with barnacle-raising
parasites, the Orcas are free of such altogether, the "scarf-skin
being beautifully smooth and glossy." Where the Grays
possess no dorsal fin whatsoever, the Orcas possess a "dagger-shaped"
prominent upper limb. Where the Grays are toothless, the Orca mouth "is
armed with strong, sharp, conical teeth, which interlock."
Where the Grays "speak" in the lowest of tones, the Orcas have
shrill, high-pitched voices. Where the Grays subsist on the smallest of
bottom-dwelling organisms, the Orcas subsist on the largest of surface-swimming
"The Gray Whales," Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum
of Natural History wrote in 1914, "seem to be objects of continual
persecution by the Killers; much more so than any of the other large whales."
Scammon tells us how these "wolves of the ocean" would
grapple with the Gray and other baleen whales of far greater size than
themselves. "And it is surprising to see those leviathans of the
deep so completely paralyzed by the presence of their natural, although
diminutive, enemies....The habits of the Killers exhibit a boldness and
cunning peculiar to their carnivorous propensities. At times they are
seen in schools, undulating over the waves two, three, six, or eight
abreast and, with the long pointed fins above their arched backs, together
with their varied marks and colors, they present a pleasing and somewhat
military aspect. But generally they go in small squads less than a dozen
alternately showing themselves upon the surface of the water, or gliding
just below, when nothing will be visible but their projecting dorsals;
or they disport themselves by rolling, tumbling, and leaping nearly out
of water, or cutting various antics with their flukes. At such times,
they usually move rapidly over the surface of the sea, and soon disappear
in the distance."
Their attacks "may be likened, in some respects, to a pack of
hounds holding the stricken deer at bay. They cluster about the animal's
head, some of their number breaching over it, while others seize it by
the lips and haul the bleeding monster under water; and when captured,
should the mouth be open, they eat out its tongue."
Scammon witnessed one such moment "in a lagoon on the coast of Lower
California, in the spring of 1858." It was an attack by three Killer
Whales upon a Gray Whale and her calf. The battle "lasted for
an hour or more. They made alternate assaults upon the old whale
and her offspring, finally killing the latter, which sunk to the bottom,
where the water was five fathoms deep. During the struggle, the mother
became nearly exhausted, having received several deep wounds about the
throat and lips. As soon as their prize had settled to the bottom, the
three Orcas descended, bringing up large pieces of flesh in their mouths,
which they devoured after coming to the surface."
The predator in Scammon made no attempt to disguise his admiration for
the Orcas, which have rarely been hunted by man. As Scammon put it, "They
are seldom captured by civilized whalemen, as their varied and irregular
movements make the pursuit difficult, and the product of oil is even less
than that of the Blackfish, in proportion to their size." Indeed,
Scammon and other commentators allude to a strange kinship and sometimes
a competition between whalers and Killer Whales. As early as 1763, it
was noted in an English Essay on the Natural History of Whales,
"These Killers are of such invincible Strength, that when several
Boats together have been towing a dead Whale, one of them has come and
fastened his Teeth in her, and carried her away down to the Bottom in
an Instant." They had even been known to wrestle over a whale "till
it draws the Boat under Water." Scammon also cited instances on the
Northwestern coast where a band of Orcas would lay siege to whales being
towed to the whaling ships, "in so determined a manner, that,
although they were frequently lanced and cut with boat-spades, they took
the dead animals from their human captors, and hauled them under water,
out of sight."
An unusual reciprocal relationship is said to have taken place during
the late 1800s and early 1900s among an Orca and some shoreside whalers
in Australia. Old Tom, as the Orca was affectionately known, came to realize
that both he and the whalers liked to go after Humpbacks. Eventually Old
Tom started coming into the bay, lobtailing and slapping the water to
let the men know when there were whales offshore. The whalers would row
out and follow the Killer Whale to where the prey was, harpoon a Humpback,
and allow Old Tom to feed upon his favored portion - the whale's tender
tongue before hauling the rest ashore. It even got to the point, the
legend goes, where once the whalers put a line in the water, the Orca
would pick it up and tow the boat out.
Killer Whales assisted the human hunters in another way. One captain
reported that, shortly after he began to hunt a group of seven Gray Whales,
fifteen Killer Whales had shown up. The Grays became so terrified that
the captain had no difficulty in killing three of them: "When the
Orcas gathered about, the whales turned belly up and lay motionless, with
fins outspread, apparently paralyzed by fright."
Just as the vastly diminished numbers of Gray Whales had learned, in
Scammon's words, to "shun the fatal shore" breaking
their time-honored migratory patterns and traveling well away from the
California coast and their human predators for many years so it seems
did Gray Whales develop means of avoiding Killer Whales. Grays were observed
to "go into such shallow water as to roll in the wash and even try
to hide behind rocks" when sensing Orcas nearby.
The first large-scale whale watching by people also focused around an
interaction between Grays and Orcas. It happened early in 1947, at a time
when many marine experts still believed the Gray Whale to be extinct.
A San Diego newspaper reported: "Trapping two southward-bound whales
inside kelp beds along La Jolla coastline, a vicious pack of six killer
whales yesterday awed more than 3,000 beach residents in an unusual 4
½-hour aquatic life-or-death struggle. One of the toothless Mysticeti
species of whales eluded the desperately flailing killers (conical-toothed
Odontoceti type), but the fate of the second was not determined because
darkness set in."
Then, in October of 1966, humans intervened directly on the whale's behalf.
"3 Gray Whales Fight Off Killers In Ocean Battle," the San
Diego Union headlined in a Page One story. Theodore J. Walker, an
associate oceanographer at Scripps, was leading a whale watching cruise
with nearly a hundred people aboard when he received a radio alert from
some lifeguards about the attack. While hundreds of Sunday strollers packed
the shoreline at La Jolla Cove, Walker instructed his skipper to make
for the scene. The water was a maelstrom as they approached. Walker observed
that the trio of Gray Whales didn't panic, but were staying in close formation.
They lay on their sides and swatted at the Killer Whales with their tail
flukes. As Walker's ship closed in, the Orcas broke off with a dramatic
series of tail slaps and headed north. They'd abandoned the battle, Walker
figured, because the engine noise must have made it difficult for the
Orcas to hear each other. The exhausted Gray Whales kept coming up to
blow every few seconds. As Walker's vessel turned parallel to shore, he
reported "the Grays stayed between us and the land, and I think they
were using us for protection. Normally they wouldn't let us get that close."
This went on for about two miles where, almost to Bird Rock, the three
whales pointed their rostrums toward the kelp beds and the surf. There,
according to Walker, the bubbles in the surf and in the plant's anchors
acted as an "acoustical screen." The Killer Whale's echolocating
sonar wouldn't be able to find them. The sun was going down. The Gray
Whales were safe. The whale watchers departed.
A decade later, Theodore J. Walker would be among the first marine scientists
ever to reach out to and touch a "friendly" Gray Whale at
the San Ignacio Lagoon. Walker was known as a crusty sort. A companion
observed this was the only time he ever saw the man break down and weep.
In Baja, Killer Whales are known to appear in the Pacific waters outside
the breeding lagoons but, with the lone exception of Scammon's account,
never to enter the nursery domains.
Now, above Cannery Row and just down from the Monterey Bay Aquarium,
Alan Baldridge is sitting in a conference room at the Hopkins Marine Station.
Recently retired after almost thirty years as the Hopkins science librarian,
Baldridge probably knows as much about Gray Whales as any layman in California.
He's sailed to their Baja breeding grounds and their Bering Sea feeding
areas. His fascination with the Grays had begun in April 1964, standing
atop a huge cliff along the Oregon coastline, "an unusually calm,
clear day when I could actually see the whales underwater as they traveled
so close to shore." Baldridge was working at the Portland Public
Library at the time, and he searched the shelves to see what else he might
learn about Gray Whales. There he came across an original edition of Scammon's
Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America. "Of
course, there's a legion of material today," Baldridge says. "But
in those days, the Sixties, Scammon was still the only major account about
the Gray Whales' natural history."
Baldridge was equally intrigued by Scammon's description of the Orcas.
In the years since, he has personally witnessed three attacks on Gray
Whales off Monterey, and published the most detailed account since Scammon
in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1972. "The mothers and calves
taking those shortcuts across the bay," Baldridge emphasizes, "are
the most vulnerable. It may be that these are simply inexperienced animals.
The calves make a lot of noise, of course, and there's considerable vocalization
between the pair as they swim along and play around. Presumably the Orcas
hear this from some considerable distance, and can home in on them."
Baldridge expects it's the more seasoned Gray Whales who stick to the
inside of the breakers along the shoreline. For one thing, Killer Whales
seem to fear getting beached if they probe too far into the surf. For
another, as they do scan the near-shore region with their sonar, the round
air sacs in the kelp forests tend to dissipate the echo. So for the Grays,
it's a decent enough place to remain undetected.
They've been known to adopt other strategies as well. In the Bering Sea
in 1981, scientists watched from a small plane as sixteen Killer Whales
in two distinct groups approached twenty-seven feeding Gray Whales. The
Orcas moved in a crescent-shaped formation, synchronizing their breathing
patterns to perhaps give the impression of a smaller pod. The Gray Whales
suddenly ceased feeding and formed compact groupings of between three
and six in each, and began swimming slowly away. It was speculated that
their methodical, tight-knit interactions might provide protection similar
to that of fish schooling. Meantime, the scientists had dropped a sonobuoy
nearby to try to monitor sounds and transmit these to an onboard VHF broadband
receiver. Over a ninety-minute period, not a single waterborne sound was
picked up from either species. Both the Killer Whales and the Gray Whales,
it was believed, were remaining silent to avoid calling attention to themselves.
No attack was witnessed. The Gray Whales were presumed to have escaped.
When an attack has been recorded, as one of Monterey Bay's first
whale watching captains described it to me, "It sounds kind of eerie.
You could hear the Gray Whales talking back and forth," Richard Ternullo
said. "When you put it on a spectogram, you can see the frequency
differences in their calls. Superimposed over that are these Killer Whales
making some of the weirdest sounds you've ever heard."
We were sitting in an outdoor café on Fisherman's Wharf. For the
past dozen years, Ternullo and a naturalist named Nancy Black have also
been conducting a photo-identification project on Orcas. They look to
identify individuals by their markings, and work with others along the
Pacific coast to try to determine where they go. And they've probably
witnessed more attacks on Gray Whales than anyone, about one a year since
the early 1990s, generally in the submarine canyon area of Monterey Bay.
In 1998, Ternullo and Black had a contract with the BBC, which managed
to film a couple of these events from Ternullo's 53-foot Pt. Sur Clipper.
In 1999, they had a similar deal with National Geographic TV.
Ternullo is a short, stocky fellow who wears his long white hair tied
back behind his head. He had on a Sportfishing Sam Monterey cap (the name
of his charterboat operation) and blue jeans. I wanted to know what he'd
been learning about the Gray Orca interactions. Alan Baldridge had told
me that "the observations of Richard and Nancy show that some of
the same individual Orcas are involved in these kills from year to year.
We don't know whether the Orcas have followed the whales up the coast,
or whether they know the Gray Whales will be heading north and are intercepting
them as they migrate."
Ternullo nodded and expanded on the theme. He said there seemed to be
a distinct pattern of hierarchy as well as cooperation among the Orcas.
"Some Killer Whales will hang around the edges, as if they're positioning
to block an escape route, while others try to separate the mother from
the calf." Precisely like Scammon and the other lagoon whalers did,
I thought to myself. "Then one Killer Whale will kind of take the
lead, seem to be putting in more effort than the others during the direct
attack. The next day, the one doing the hard work won't be the same one
as the day before."
The orcas generally attack first from underneath, ambush-style. Ternullo
has seen several adult males take out a Gray Whale calf in a matter of
a couple of hours. He's also seen a female Orca, and what was apparently
her own offspring, take as long as six or seven hours to separate a calf
from its mother and kill it. Ternullo figures there is "probably
some instructional element" transpiring in the latter instance. "At
the end," he continued, "they actually physically get on top
of the calf to hold it down. I mean, right on its back, like riding a
horse. What they're doing, of course, is drowning it."
An examination of Gray Whales taken for research purposes at a California
whaling station in 1971 had shown that eighteen percent exhibited evidence
of having been attacked by a Killer Whale. From what he's observed, Ternullo
thinks the number is most likely higher than that. He recently photographed
a Gray Whale with track marks from the front of its rostrum all the way
down its back along the dorsal ridge. "If you look at the tails of
Gray Whales, which often have chunks taken out, you realize a lot of
them have had experiences with Killer Whales."
What percentage escapes, nobody knows. Killer whales often aren't seen
for months until gray whales begin showing up off California on their
southbound migration. Then, like cheetahs that follow the wildebeest migrations
across the African Serengeti, the orcas close in when their prey is most
vulnerable, either just before or just after a calf has been born.
Ternullo's voice lowered as he began to reflect on the most memorable
encounter he's witnessed. It happened during the spring of 1998, in the
deep, unprotected waters across the canyon. A pack of five Killer Whales
had zeroed in on a mother and her calf. The mother proceeded to innovate
a desperate strategy. Time and again she would roll onto her back and
swim belly-up. The calf would climb on top of her, right between its mother's
flippers and just out of reach. Simultaneously, they would roll over and
breathe, then resume the same position. The Orcas did everything they
could to separate the pair. The calf did get bitten, but was never hamstrung
and maintained its vigor.
"I've never seen anything like it," Ternullo said. "I've
seen one trying to support a calf on her back before, but never holding
the calf to the chest like this. At the same time, the mother took advantage
of a man-made object in the vicinity. A boat. My boat. The Killer Whales
kept circling around us, but she stayed real close and used the hull for
protection. After a couple of hours, the Orcas just gave up."
There followed a perfect spring day in Monterey Bay. Florian Graner,
an underwater photographer from Germany, had arrived and was also staying
with Steph Dutton and Heidi Tiura. He was hoping to get some more footage
here for a documentary, "Wonderworld of the Kelp Forest," that
he was working on for German TV. Heidi would take us out on Sea Dog,
the twenty-six-footer they'd trailered to Neah Bay last year.
The three of us left the harbor around noon. "You can see Cannery
Row over there," Heidi pointed out. "Some of the older buildings
have been dandied up and made into restaurants and hotels. And those boats
on moorings are two of the original sardine fleet, they go back to the
Thirties and Forties." As we approached a Coast Guard vessel, Heidi
went on, "That's the newest class. They're made to self-right if
they capsize, for the most horrendous conditions. Finally, our tax dollars
well spent!" Next we came alongside a colony of sea lions lying in
the water with flippers extended upwards in the air, "doing some
thermal regulation to keep themselves warm," Heidi said.
We cruised past the amber glades of lush kelp forests growing not far
from shore, home to various rockfish and mollusks and crustaceans, and
sanctuary at times for Gray Whales avoiding Orcas. "This is the Orca's
main stage," Heidi said. "They know they can come down here
and find the Grays." Had she ever seen an attack? I wondered. "No,
and I don't want to. I'd probably be out there trying to separate them."
But we were heading for Monterey Canyon, where anything might happen.
Florian readied his camera gear and prepared to don a wetsuit. He was
in his late twenties and built like a welterweight fighter, a good thing
since his two diving tanks weighed eighty pounds apiece. The tanks came
complete with a re-breather, because Gray Whales don't like bubbles. Attached
to a small boat, Florian had done filming in fifty to eighty feet of water
at San Ignacio Lagoon, and stayed down for as long as seven hours in a
single day. He'd swum there amid lobsters and grouper and beautiful soft
corals, and once counted sixteen horn sharks under a single rock. He'd
accidentally awakened a sleeping whale, which lashed its tail-fluke and
came straight for him to give Florian a little wake-up call of his own.
He'd also had a baby Gray gently pick him up and lift him on its nose
straight out of the water! We'd watched some of his footage the night
before, including some mesmerizingly long takes on the eye.
"My idea is, when they're migrating that's business,"
Heidi said as she made a sharply angled turn. "But when they're down
in Baja - 'Okay, let's do a little sunbathing.'"
Some Dall's porpoises, which look like small Orcas, came racing towards
us and began cavorting around the boat. A week earlier, while running
a whale watching trip, Heidi said she'd seen a mysterious interaction
between a group of these porpoises and a very large Gray Whale. "This
whale was swimming very slowly and we were concerned for it," she
recalled. "Usually Dall's move like lightning, but they stayed with
her, encircling her. Perhaps she was just resting, but the spectacle of
her minimal movement, surrounded by the Dall's, was really touching. We
had two little boys onboard. When one of them turned toward us and declared,
'She is the Princess of whales, and they are her knights, escorting the
Princess,' Steph turned to me and said, 'That's the name of our next boat.'"
While they started their company with Sanctuary, a catamaran later
added to their fleet has indeed been christened Princess of Whales.
Now Heidi got on the radio with Richard Ternullo, who reported seeing
a couple of Humpbacks. "What I suggest," Heidi replied,
"is we go north-northwest and see if we can find some Gray Whales
over the canyon." I heard Ternullo agree to follow in our wake.
"These guys don't have much of a fishing industry anymore,"
Heidi said. "Most of them would rather fish, but rockfish have declined
tremendously. Catches keep getting smaller, so they run whale watching
trips. Back when we started doing Gray Whale research, they didn't talk
to us. Then slowly, they started. We've been out here at times when they
were desperate to find a whale. It makes sense to use all of your resources:
if people are out there every day, talk to them. Tinker, on Check Mate,
was the first. One day, he called me on the radio and said, 'Heidi,
I need a whale.'"
She stopped and put Sea Dog into reverse, circling back to retrieve
somebody's floating plastic bag. She explained that leatherback turtles
and other sea creatures ingest plastic bags and balloons, mistaking them
for jellyfish; it's a fatal meal for many. Then, as we started out again,
Heidi wheeled around and brought the binoculars up. "I don't know
what it was, but something very large just breached about a half-mile
off my bow. It looks like it was headed back toward the point, maybe we
can go get a better view of it." She turned and charted a course
Sure enough, within ten minutes, a lone Gray Whale was clearly discernible
at the southern edge of the Monterey Canyon. Heidi alerted a party boat
of our location. Soon the Magnum Force hove into view, its foredeck
crammed with people holding cameras. The whale was moving at a fast clip
along the upper fringe of the swells. I could see an ethereal blue-green
coloration reflecting off its barnacles. Washing along directly ahead
of it, leaving a ripple like a snake, was a reddish-brown cloud. "This
Gray Whale is surface feeding on krill!" Heidi exclaimed. "This
is something you hardly ever see!"
Indeed, Gray Whales are considered to be classic benthic feeders and
they feed almost exclusively in the Arctic. But here, thousands of miles
from their feeding grounds, the ocean was hundreds of feet deep and there's
no way they could be bottom feeding. The whale watchers aboard Magnum
Force hadn't made it in time to see what we did as, throwing up its
flukes, the Gray Whale sounded. "Should stay down about three-and-a-half
minutes," I heard somebody say over the radio. Twelve minutes
went by, however, and we hadn't seen the whale come up again. I watched
the large vessel turn towards port. There was another group of prospective
viewers to pick up. "I'll try to keep track of the Gray for when
you get back," Heidi radioed Leon, the captain, over the radio.
"When the whales are on a mission like this," she explained
to Florian and me, "they'll pop up here one minute and next time
they're a half mile over there. We were tracking one whale with a very
distinctive scar on its back yesterday, but there was no telling where
it was going to be next."
We kept rolling. Nothing happened for another half-hour or so. Then,
as we began retracing our path along the edge of the canyon again, a distinctly
rank odor wafted up from the sea. I remembered the breath of Gray Whales
at the lagoon being inoffensive and even almost fragrant, but this was
something else again. At least we knew we were on the right track.
"Gray Whales still there?" I overheard one captain asking
"Roger, Richard, just about same area, bud."
"You know if it's the same whale?"
"Heidi out here's been on it."
"Look look look look!" Heidi exclaimed again, and reached for
the radio to call one of the other skippers. "Oh wow, Leon, there's
something very interesting going on in front of our bow! This Gray Whale
looks like it's rushing under the water!"
"It's going almost in circles!" Florian cried out. "Whale
going sideways," as if he was talking to some invisible personage
"Whale blew right in front of me! Right on that tide rip!"
Heidi radioed again.
Concentrated in the rip, the whale was trailing a ball of krill that
appeared at the surface as a pink swarm. Krill is a minute form of crustacean.
Each individual is about the size of a human's little fingernail, and
such swarms are known to be the major dietary staple of Blue Whales in
the Antarctic. But Gray Whales? This one's mouth was swinging like a barn
door, ingesting all it could in a pellmell chase that Heidi informed us
is "sometimes called Pac Manning gulping in vast mouthfuls like
in the videogame, Pac Man."
"I think I recognize this guy! I think I've filmed him before!"
Florian shouted again.
"Holy shit! A 180-degree turn, just like that, right next to us!
It looked more like a salmon!" Heidi exulted. "We're in Whale
Central again," she radioed an approaching tourist vessel, Star
I helped Florian adjust his tanks and he jumped over the side holding
his camera. It didn't take more than a few minutes, however, for him to
realize the waters were far too murky to capture anything underwater.
The hungry Gray Whale had disappeared again, but the bay seemed to be
teeming with life. Stormy petrels and small active gray birds called Cassin's
auklets dove for prey. A Humpback Whale breached ahead, briefly displaying
its long, wing-like pectoral fins. Another boat reported seeing a Minke
whale. We cruised a tide rip, finding ourselves surrounded by more than
fifty Pacific whitesided dolphins. Just outside of their perimeter, more
Dall's porpoises circled.
As we adjusted our course for Monterey, I hadn't felt so exhilarated
since my first morning on San Ignacio Lagoon. "So they don't eat
till they get to the Bering, eh?" Heidi said. "Well, we shot
the shit out of that theory!"
The next morning, I went to visit with Alan Baldridge again at the Hopkins
Marine Station. The librarian asked me quite a few questions about what
I'd seen, then shook his head and said: "You know, I've talked to
a number of zoologists here who know a lot about krill. But when I brought
up the subject of these daytime krill swarms, they said, 'Alan, that's
not right.' According to them, when the sun comes up, the krill sink from
the surface down to the edge of the dark zone about three hundred to four
hundred feet, which hides them from predation. Then as the sun goes down,
they rise to the surface again to feed on the phytoplankton. So what you
saw proves the scientists off-base on a couple of points. It's been observed
here before, Gray Whales in association with some of these spring krill
swarms, which I believe are reproductive swarms. But it's not been published
in the literature. You were very lucky to see that."
For the Gray Whales, Baldridge thinks, this represents "opportunistic
snacking." Their traditional feast was still waiting thousands of
miles to the north, beyond the coastlines of California, Oregon, and Washington,
on past Vancouver Island and most of the vast Alaskan shoreline, waiting
along the shallow bottoms of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. More than ever,
that's where I longed to accompany them.