Charismatic Megafauna

Clear, cold fall day: there is frost on the ground.  The docks are slick.  Hunters are out this Veterans day looking for deer, though the snow has not driven them down to the beaches yet. The sky today is a hazy blue and the humpback whales are diving in Sitka Sitka Sound feeding on the krill and herring fattening up before their trip to the warm waters to breed.  

Last weekend was the 18th annual Whalefest held here in Sitka, which Jan helps to organize.  It is a celebration of the marine environment that includes a week of Scientists in the Schools, and a Sea Chantyman for the little kids who combines art, music and science.  There are art classes and art shows and film festivals, plus a talent show, and an entire weekend of scientific lectures about the marine world and ecology of the North Pacific right out our front door.  There are two whale watching cruises, one on Saturday and another on Sunday.  It is a fun time usually and this year it was particularly good because the storm held off and the Sunday cruise was perfect conditions for seeing some 25 to thirty humpback whales feeding, and a few sea otters lazing around at their ease in the kelp beds, all while the white peaks reflected down on the calm green seas.  

As the festival goes on there are more and more visitors come from out of town to participate, and because it happens mostly on the weekend lots of locals still make it every year. Older people who have given up their skiffs come out on the whale watching excursions to see the big animals again, and young couples with their babies bundled up often bring them out for their fist safe trip on the water before they begin their lifetime at sea.

I'm struck again and again how most teaching, how almost everything thing in the public sphere has a little bit of subversion in it.  Grab them with the Megafauna and teach them the lesson of interconnectedness. And the big animals do draw us in.  People come from all over the world to stand at the rail, and when the whales rise, their faces never fail to change, no matter their age, to that childlike, trance-like state of wonder.

Has it always been that way?  I'm not sure.  Certainly we have a narrative that goes along with whales now.  Whales represent a story.... a "saved from the brink of extinction by the cruel exploitation of man"  narrative that is both true and compelling.  People like to see the humpbacks in healthy numbers, I think, partly because it gives them hope for their own species.  That is part of the narrative of the whale,  "look... they are not extinct, we did save the whales... maybe we can save the planet."   My tone should not read as sarcastic here.  I am all in favor of evidence of hope.  

But... (there always is a "but" isn't there)  there may be some evidence that there never was as healthy a population of humpbacks in Sitka Sound in the past.  When you artificially knock down all the whales in a system then they all rush back, some may rush in for whatever reason and crowd the others out.  Jan thinks, from her reading of the old whaling data that there were a lot more fin whales in southeastern Alaska than humpbacks in the old days.   Killer whale were always here.  Part of the reason she thinks that is the relative absence of humpbacks compared to killer whales in the Tlingit lore.  But this is speculation and not published anywhere.  It's mostly just dinner conversation between her and me.  

The point is we don't really know what is "natural" and "pure" even in the wild ocean.  When the Russians knocked out the sea otters they changed the ecology of the coastline drastically and created a "new normal" that had lots more crab and abalone and less kelp forests.  Maybe less habitat, for little fish that the whales like.  Who knows?  

What I'm trying to say is this:  we think we learned the narrative surrounding these whales from each other.  We think we learned it from the captain of the Sea Shepard, or from other environmental activists, Judy Collins or Jimmy Buffet.  But what if we learned it very directly and specifically in a non woo-woo way from the animals themselves? 

We know from our own experience with animals: horses and dogs and cats, that animals experience pain.. and from that that they experience something very parallel to our experience of fear and memory.  Taking a dog to a vet after a painful procedure)  We know they recall and react.  We know from watching animals in the wild that they have social interaction,  whales and feeding, whales and singing.   And when you have been whale watching enough you know.. that whales can leave when boats come in the area or they can stay.  We know from observation of propeller scars on their backs that whales have been hit by boats plenty of times, but yet they stay around boats,  They can, if they want to, disappear.  But sometimes they don't.  

Now, I don't know what goes on in their heads, but I do know what goes on in mine.  I've learned more about these animals from looking at them.  I've learned more about graceful movement, and gentleness from their actions than anything I've ever read about them.  By being in a thirteen foot inflatable skiff and having a forty foot female swim three feet underneath my feet I've learned more about forbearance and delicacy than anything published by Greenpeace, and sitting with Jan one late fall day recording male song I think I felt more about music and trying to make connection than any musicology tract, and I've learned that because the animals consciously allowed me to learn that.  Just as they consciously allowed the whale watchers on the cruises to experience their moments of wonder.   

All I'm saying is don't be ashamed of going to the source but just don't try to own too much of it.  Like, do the whales know you,  and are they aware of their gift to you.  Forget that, just love the gift. Life is essentially a mystery, that's what makes it beautiful.  

I met a man at a whale conference who told me that he was swimming with the whales and he was able to communicate with whales.  "Ah..."  I said..."You are so lucky..."  then he went on to say that it started out as "telepathic, binary communications of 'yes'  'no'  clicks but now", he said,  "it has blossomed into full blown transmission of dreams and desires."   

"Wow!" I stammered... "You are really, really, lucky" was all I could think of saying.  He had some hand drawn notes and charts and obviously wanted to talk with me for a long time but I told him that I had an appointment and I gave him my address and phone number, which he never used.  Maybe he the telephone too cumbersome.  

But I've thought of the poor guy often and I feel bad for him.  He has jumped over an important step in his relationship with animals.  In his delusional state he's violated the barrier between our species and it's that barrier which creates the space to make the communication... what?  So mannerly,  and exciting I suppose.  Being so close to a whale would not be nearly so wondrous if you where in a Vulcan mind link with them.  The fact that you are different and separate, makes them worthy of your awe. 

Not understanding them completely puts the "Mega" in the megafauna. 


Now I know

everything about you

but the problem is

I can neither vote

nor abstain.