Unfolding the Map
In Star Trek IV, a thrilling moment comes when Spock sets the transporter controls, and a lot of water containing cepholopods appears in a specially rigged tank in the Klingon vessel the Enterprise crew is using. "There be whales here, Captain!" shouts Scotty! This pair of humpback whales is then taken forward in time from the 20th century to the time of the Federation to save Earth from a space probe. Could this endangered group of sea creatures save us, if we don't hunt them to extinction. It makes good movie fodder. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) relates a story about a beached whale from the past which makes me reflect on my own experiences with whales, all in the context of Haystack Rock. To see where this natural feature lies on the Oregon coast, your map is here.
"The long view south down the coast from the steep headlands near Neahkahnie Mountain seemed to reach the length of Oregon. Northward stood Haystack Rock, a three-hundred-foot domed skerry topped by a mantle of snowy bird stain, looking like a chipped whale's tooth. And in fact, it was near the great monolith that a whale swam ashore in 1806; Lewis and Clark, camped to the north, got word of the sea beast. Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide for the Corps of Discovery - as Jefferson called the expedition - who had never asked the captains anything for herself, insisted on making the hard trek to see the whale. She and the explorers sampled the blubber and found it, in Lewis's words, 'white and not unlike the fat of pork, though the texture was more spongy and somewhat coarser.'....Years later, the story goes, after Sacagewea returned to the Shoshones, of all things she saw in her twenty-three months with the corps, the Bird Woman never tired of telling about the great beached 'fish' that gave milk."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 5
Haystack Rock, Oregon
For years and years, I had never seen a whale. I never even knew that they were a regular sight along my little stretch of Northern California coast. I guess I wasn't really interested or wasn't paying attention. But while my attention was wandering, probably toward play with army men, watching football or hanging out with my friends, I missed the fact that each year, a whole lot of whales swim down the west coast of the United States on their way to warm waters in Mexico.
I remember when I first was clued into this phenomena as a teenager. After that, I would look off the coast each year for the telltale signs of the gray whale migration. These included spouts, flukes and tails. The spouts, if you looked carefully, could often be seen as a small plume of white shooting out of the ocean and then quickly dissipating. If a large pod was traveling past, you might see 10 or more at different times and since the gray whale swims at about 5 miles an hour, it would take them a long time to pass.
I never actually saw a whale up close until I was sixteen. My family took a cruise on the MV Odessa out of the Soviet Union up the coast of Canada. One day, while looking out the window on one of the decks, I saw a large dorsal fin knife up out of the water, and just as quickly knife back in. It was an orca, and the first time I had ever seen anything like that in the wild.
Later on, on my honeymoon, my wife and I traveled up to northern Vancouver Island to a small village called Telegraph Cove. We took a boat with a very surly captain out to see orcas, and did see them up close and personal even though the orcas didn't play nice and went into a preserve where our boat could not go for a long while. That made our captain even more surly. However, we also saw porpoises in the water, swimming fast alongside, ahead and behind our boat. They jumped and frolicked in the wake. That was also a first for me.
I didn't see my first gray whale until a few years ago when my wife and I took a charter whale watching boat out off the coast of my hometown. I fought bouts of seasickness on that trip. It was a dark, gloomy day with some seas and swells, and my inner ear and stomach didn't handle it well. But, I did see the whales, mostly their tails as they flipped up out of the water indicating that they were about to dive.
I love that, at least in LHM's telling of the Lewis and Clark story, that it was Sacagawea who insisted that they make the trip to see the beached whale. In some tellings of the story, the whale was already a skeleton by the time they got there, and the blubber had been carved up by the natives, rather than Lewis carving a piece out of the whale right there. Either way, the story is compelling. I've never seen a beached whale, and such an occurrence usually signals that either the whale died and was washed up on shore or that the whale beached itself because of illness or disorientation. In my hometown, sometime within the past year, a dead giant female blue whale washed up on the rocks. It had apparently been hit by a boat out at sea and died of its injuries.
Lately, you occasionally hear about whole groups of whales beaching themselves in what seems like a mass suicide. Footage often shows volunteers rushing to try to help the whales and, if they are smaller ones, pull them back out to sea. Some attribute the rise in ocean noise caused by shipping and Navy underwater testing as a cause of whale hearing loss and disorientation.
Regardless of the way in which a whale is seen, one cannot help but be awed by the power and majesty of these gentle and highly intelligent creatures. One of the most moving stories I have ever heard was by a man who told the story of how he and his friends were called upon to save a humpback whale captive in crab pots and lines off San Francisco. (If you want to listen to the full story in a first person telling by the divers involved, listen to this episode of Radiolab. The story starts around 4:30 into the program.) The whale had struggled to the point where it was exhausted and about to drown. When he and his fellow divers freed the whale, it swam away, but as he looked, he saw its bulk come up beneath him. He thought the whale might harm him, but then, it paused right near him and looked him in the eye for some seconds, and then swam around to each of the other divers, paused, and looked them in the eye also, before swimming away. He attributed this to the whale somehow trying to communicate its thanks.
As a big fan of whales, I would wish that they could live in the oceans unmolested. Alas, too many nations still hunt them. But I can still be awed by their presence on our planet and the stories about them, and know that in my fascination, I'm connected across 200 years with an Indian woman who counted it among the most meaningful experiences of her life to see just the carcass of one.
You can't imagine how difficult it is to find a decent song about whales. I listened to one by Yes but wasn't too impressed by it. But then I found one by Lou Reed, who speaks the song in his signature Lou Reed way, and why not? So enjoy The Last Great American Whale.
If you want to know more about Haystack Rock
Next up: Seaside, Oregon