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Learning the language of joy from whales

  • Author: John Straley
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 6, 2014

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

Last weekend was the 18th annual Whalefest here in Sitka, which my wife Jan helps organize. There are art shows, film festivals and an entire weekend of scientific lectures about the marine world of the North Pacific right outside our front door. There are two whale watching cruises, too. It is a fun time usually, and this year it was particularly good because a storm held off and the Sunday cruise was perfect for seeing 25 to 30 humpback whales feeding and a few sea otters lazing around in the kelp beds.

As the festival goes on, there are more and more visitors from out of town, 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 first trip on the water.

I'm struck again and again by how most teaching includes a little bit of subversion. Grab them with the megafauna and teach them the lesson of interconnectedness. 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 seeing humpbacks in healthy numbers, I think, partly because it gives them hope for their own species. That is part of the narrative. "Look, they're not extinct, we did save the whales -- maybe we can save the planet." My tone should not be read as sarcastic. I'm all in favor of hope.

But (there's always 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, they all rush back. Some may crowd others out. Jan thinks, from her reading of the old whaling data, that there were a lot more fin whales in Southeast Alaska than humpbacks in the old days. Killer whales 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 -- 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 but fewer kelp forests. And maybe less habitat for the little fish that whales like. Who knows?

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

We know from our experiences with such animals as horses, dogs and cats that animals experience pain. And from that, they experience something parallel to our experience of fear and memory. Take a dog to a vet after a painful procedure. They recall and react. We know from watching animals in the wild that they have social interactions. Watch whales feeding, whales singing. And when you have been whale watching long enough, you know whales can leave when boats arrive in the area or they can stay. We know from the observation of propeller scars on their backs that whales have been hit by boats plenty of times, yet they stay around boats. They can, if they want, 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 graceful movement and gentleness from their actions than from anything I've ever read about them. By being in a 13-foot inflatable skiff and having a 40-foot female swim three feet underneath my feet, I've learned more about forbearance and delicacy than I have from anything published by Greenpeace. Sitting with Jan one late fall day, recording a male's song, I think I understood more about music and trying to make a connection than any musicology tract ever taught me. And I've learned that because the animals consciously allowed me to learn that.

All I'm saying is don't be ashamed of going to the source, but don't try to own too much of it. Do the whales know you? 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 them. "Ah," I said. "You are so lucky..." Then he went on to say that it started out as "telepathic, binary communications of 'yes' and 'no' clicks, but now 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.

Since then, 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 that creates the space to communicate. Being so close to whales would not be nearly so wondrous if you were in a Vulcan mind link with them. The fact that you are different and separate makes them worthy of awe.

Sitka author John Straley was the 2006 Alaska writer laureate and the Shamus Award-winning author of "The Curious Eat Themselves" and "The Woman Who Married a Bear." His wife Jan is a marine biologist.

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