There is a moving, terrible, strange, sublime cover story by Charles Siebert in the New York Times Magazine today. The headline, “Watching Whales Watching Us,” doesn’t quite get to the heart of it.
The main point of the article is startling: Despite all that humans have done to whales in the last two centuries — hunted, destroyed and decimated entire species — whales have learned to trust us again.
What grabs you by the throat and forces you to pay attention, first and foremost, is the prose:
Eighteen feet of boat on open seas is in almost any circumstance a tenuous alignment. But to suddenly find yourself in that same small vessel above a fleet, 40-foot-long midsea mastodon — one whose fluke alone could, with a cursory flip, send you and your boat soaring skyward — is to know the pure, wonderfully edgeless fear of complete acquiescence. I watched, wide-eyed, the soundless slide of that “moving land,” as Milton once described whales, everywhere beneath our boat, and suddenly felt the whole of myself wanting to go away with her; to hop on for a long ride downward toward some dimly remembered, primordial home.
Siebert is a contributing writer for the magazine. According to the blog animalinventory.net, which tracks animals in popular culture, Siebert is known for his “searing analysis of human-animal relationships.” He’s written about chimpanzees, animal shelters and elephant culture. His book Angus: A Novel, is written from the perspective of a Jack Russell terrier. He’s on familiar terrain.
For this article, he set out for the open waters of Baja California Sur, in Mexico, in search of gray whales. He surveys some of the violent, bloody history of our relationship with whales (“By the middle of the 20th century, worldwide stocks of nearly all the earth’s whale species had been … depleted”), then poses the question: “Why [would] present-day gray-whale mothers, some of whom still bear harpoon scars … take to seeking us out and gently shepherding their young into our arms?”
If an article like this can have a nut, here it comes:
A combination of anecdotal evidence and recent scientific research into whale biology and behavior suggests that there may something far more compelling going on in the lagoons of Baja each winter and spring. Something, let’s say, along the lines of that time-worn plot conceit behind many a film, in which the peaceable greetings of alien visitors are tragically rebuffed by human fear and ignorance. Except that in this particular rendition, the aliens keep coming back, trying, perhaps, to give us another chance. To let us, of all species, off the hook.
To put a fine point on it: the whales – creatures known to mourn their own dead, teach, learn, scheme, cooperate, grieve, dream, and recognize their friends – are trying to let us know they forgive us.
Toni Frohoff, a marine mammal behavioralist, tells Siebert: “There are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility … There’s something very potent occurring here from a behavioral and biological perspective.”
What Siebert doesn’t answer, directly, is why this matters. And not just matters. Why the soaring prose? Why the artwork, accompanying the piece, instead of photos? Why remind readers of the floating factories used by whalers in the early 1900s, that allowed for “immediate on-board flensing and refinement of the carcass”?
There’s a clue in his final anecdote, I think, about a female humpback whale that, in 2005, became hopelessly entangled in a vast crab-trap net off the coast of San Francisco. A rescue team arrived, and, with the whale near death, divers risked their lives to cut the net.
When the whale was finally freed, the divers said, she swam around them for a time in what appeared to be joyous circles. She then came back and visited with each one of them, nudging them all gently, as if in thanks. The divers said it was the most beautiful experience they ever had. As for the diver who cut free the rope that was entangled in the whale’s mouth, her huge eye was following him the entire time, and he said that he will never be the same.
We live in a culture, in a political moment, when anti-environmentalism is not only alive, it’s celebrated. Remember, Sarah Palin fought tooth and nail against putting not just polar bears, but beluga whales, on the endangered species list (so as not to restrict off-shore oil and gas development), and, if Frank Rich is to believed, she is still the standard-bearer for a huge swath of the Republican party. And don’t think it’s just the fringes. When the Supreme Court recently overturned two lower court rulings that restricted the Navy’s use of sonar devices having a murderous effect on whales, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, sniffed: “For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of marine animals that they study and observe.”
The whales are trying to let us know they forgive us, but we have navies to run, shipping lanes to fill, crabs to trap. Which may explain why we’re too busy to notice.
How do those alien movies end, again?