Some things can’t be
… Like beauty,
or the graceful turquoise geometry
and gossamer irridescent wings
of a dragonfly,
emissary of the spirits
sent to remind us
that magic lives within
and amongst us
at every moment.
I had to go see it. It was news. It had happened in one of my favorite hiking/walking spots. And I love whales, anyway. I had never been up close to a real whale before, except last summer when I went up to Newport, Oregon with my family and was lucky enough to be within 100 feet or so of a diving pod of gray whales. But then, all I got to see were a few brief glimpses of them surfacing and then diving again, their graceful flukes displayed for a second or so before re-submerging.
I heard about it from my daughter, whose high school science teacher had told her about it in class: a whale had washed up on Sharp Park Beach in Pacifica. Scientists from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and the California Academy of Sciences had come out to investigate, and to do a necropsy.
They found the whale on April 14, a Tuesday. The brief news blip said the whale was beached at Mori Point—the site of an old inn, turned speakeasy in the 30s, that had since burned down. I wasn’t able to go see it until Sunday, the 19th. I drove over as early in the morning as I could, arriving in the gray mist of 10 a.m. Mori Point is at the end of a several-hundred-foot stretch of beach and embankment running along Sharp Park Golf Course, accessed from a parking lot at the north end. I stepped onto the beach and looked toward the other end to see whether I could make out the whale. There were a handful of walkers in the crisp morning air, dressed in layers as they performed their habitual workout. I peered out toward the large black rock marking the end of the point, where a 200-foot bluff rises up from the beach. I could see no sign of the large black carcass that had bobbed around in the news footage. Maybe I’m too late, I thought; the scientists may have taken the whale back to their labs at the marine center for analysis. Or perhaps the crashing waves of the rising morning tide had already taken it back to sea. No matter. I needed a good walk in the fresh air, and this, after all, was one of my favorite walks. I stepped onto the gravel walking path that parallels the beach. About a quarter of the way down the path, I heard the wheels of a vehicle on the gravel behind me. I turned around to see a U.S. Park Ranger truck slowly making its way to the point. I wonder what business they have here, I thought, as the ranger slowly passed me. It gave me hope that maybe the whale was still there, and they were checking up on it in some way.
[The whale described in the news blogs was a sperm whale—the species chosen as the object of Captain Ahab’s obsessive vendetta in Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. As it turns out, sperm whales have never exhibited any hostility toward mankind, and were severely hunted for their spermaceti oil, considered the finest oil for ointments, creams, pomades, and candles. Interestingly, they were hunted almost as much in the period following World War II as they were in the 19th Century, during both periods of which their populations were cut to approximately 30%. They are now considered a vulnerable species, as their numbers are slowly recovering.]
As I approached the end of the beach, I looked down at the foot of the cliff. I could see what looked like a long, grayish-pinkish rock formation along its bottom. A woman and her dog were walking around it, seeming to linger as they looked at it. As I got closer, and the pair finally went on their way, I could see the formation more clearly. No, it wasn’t rocks; it had the vague shape of a whale or large fish. Was this it? As I stepped down a small path onto the beach and got nearer, I could see that it was indeed what remained of a once majestic sperm whale, caught between an outcropping of rocks and the bottom of the cliff wall. It was laid out with its head pointing to the water, the length of its right side fully visible to beach walkers. I could see the massive fluke semi-buried in the sand at the other end. While its shape was generally whale-like, its skin seemed to be entirely gone, exposing the pink and gray mass of its flesh and inner organs—the work of the scientists and their necropsy.
The small, picturesque beach at Mori Point looked like a battle zone, bespeaking a crude disregard not only for the creature that had been so callously butchered, but also for the people who regularly use and enjoy the beach.
Looking again at the whale, I could see that on the side exposed to the beach, about half of the flesh—not just skin but tissue as well— was ripped away from it, and the grayish-pinkish color was the exposed, raw insides. The entire side of the animal that I could see was decomposing, drooping dejectedly into the elements. The jawline, abutting in a characteristic cetacean point, was pinkish-red and grayish-white, the thin bottom jaw having been removed. It was almost surreal. Grayish shapes that looked like sandbags were stacked in the middle of the creature’s body. Could they have been put there to weigh the animal down so it wouldn’t float away while they were taking tissue samples? As I came closer, I saw them buoyed and rocked by the riplets of tide that began to wash in around the huge corpse: they were massive intestines, reticulated in smooth, grayish folds. The smell was there, but not overpowering in the cool air. I felt a great sadness at the death of this noble, intelligent, social animal, likely caused by human insensitivity. I remembered hearing that the sound waves emitted while searching for offshore oil deposits are devastating to whales’ navigational sonar, and increasingly cause whale beachings and deaths. In fact, in the latest issue of the UK magazine New Scientist, whales fatally beached by human-generated noise pollution have been discovered to have not just ear damage, but brain hemorrhages. How sad a commentary on human insensitivity and destructiveness.
When I looked at the side of the poor beast that faced the rocks, I saw that only half of the skin and flesh had been removed on that side. I was troubled to see a tag spray-painted the length of the remaining skin, from left flipper to tail: “East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club.” What glory could they hope to find in further desecrating this poor creature’s body?
I took a lot of pictures of the poor beast, out of curiosity, scientific enquiry, and a need to understand. The tide was beginning to come in almost immediately after I arrived, so I had to work quickly. I took videos and even photographed a man who wanted his portrait next to the whale. I was so engrossed in my task that a small wave that lapped ashore got my shoes and the bottom of my pant-legs wet, with blood-tinged water.
As I turned to go, I was again confronted by the rectangular cubes of whale flesh scattered across the beach.
Turning away from the whale’s body, I looked at a low cliff dropping down from the embankment. There was a makeshift crucifix there, seemingly a memorial to the whale. But upon closer inspection, it turned out to commemorate a dog. “Best dog in the world,” it said, “We love you.”
The death of a dog, I thought, gets more concern and compassion than the death of our mysterious, maligned, magnificent ocean cousin. And as far as defiling the whale’s body goes, or general insensitivity, I don’t think the scientists behaved with any more class or basic manners than did the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club.
“Whales have been here forever. Their flesh has fed the people and been the occasion for celebration and feasting. Their bones have been made into tools and objects of status and ceremonial importance. The sighting of a whale still thrills all who see it.
May it always be so!”
Cultural Resources Director
Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians
“We made them endangered. Now we must discover their needs and change our behavior to assure their survival.”
OSU Whale Biologist
I took a spontaneous solo trip up the California & Oregon coasts, all the way to the Olympic National Forest in Washington state, making inland ventures to visit friends, family, and natural phenomena. But that was more than 20 years ago. My recollections of Newport were hazy at best. They didn’t include the Oregon Coast Aquarium (which opened one year later), nor the touristy fisherman’s wharf area. I remember natural seascapes with real working towns and real fishermen in little buildings behind mounds of oyster shells. Things have obviously grown up a bit since then. For all of its 10,000 inhabitants, this seaside community really holds its own, maintaining charm, natural beauty, and culture. There is something for everyone here, from family style tourist to hard-core naturalist to artsy bohemian to yuppie culture vulture.
While I used to grab a pair of shoes and a backpack and just go when I wanted to travel, I now have a family where things must be planned in advance. So for this trip to the Oregon coast, we checked the tour books, researched the websites, and booked our hotels and activities. One thing I was glad to have reserved was seats on the Marine Discovery Tours boat in Newport. It’s an educational vessel that goes on tours to see marine life: specifically, hopefully, whales.
A slight nip in the 9 a.m. air sent us off under a gray sky. Our seasoned captain gave facts about the history the Yaquina River and Harbor, as well as the impressive Yaquina Bridge and Bay. Our young naturalist guide (a University of Oregon student) pointed out the NOAA research facility and ships, as well as the Hatfield Marine Science Center, operated by the University of Oregon. We went “over the bar” into the ocean, where the dip and roll of the waves necessitated rail-grasping for those brave enough to ride the bow. The sky was overcast, but the slight chill would soften to a muggy warmth within an hour. Our captain, a retired seafaring policeman named Bob, was kind, about 5 feet tall, with an easy smile and an outgoing manner. He invited all the children on deck to take turns “driving the boat.” Our naturalist student showed the young people how to bait and set out crab pots off the stern of the boat.
I’ve been doing some important research this past week. Here are some things that everyone should know about puffins:
1. There are two types that live in the North Pacific Ocean: horned puffins and tufted puffins.
2. Puffins are auks. They are not penguins. Auks live north of the equator, and penguins live south of the equator. They are not related.
3. Puffins, like all auks, can both fly in the air and swim underwater (cool!)
4. Puffins are damned cute.
5. The ones at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon like to splash-land, showering the spectators in the aviary. They think it is great fun. They are right.
6. The puffins mentioned in #5 also enjoy swimming very close to people and doing crazy, frenetic dances in the water.
7. They like to be watched and photographed.
8. They love life.
9. (Bonus fact) I think I’d like to come back as an auk in my next life.
This is a sequel to “Open Your Eyes, Kitty!”, published on May 25, 2014 on Writewireless. It is basically a true story. Only the names and some of the details have been changed to protect the feral—and the domesticated as well.
When I heard the knock on my door, I thought it was someone else—wandering friends who show up occasionally. When I looked through the peep-hole, it could have been Jehovah’s Witnesses. Two ladies, casually dressed, on the other side of middle age. I opened the door. One had white, somewhat tousled hair, and was holding a long cage with a bowl of food at one end. Her face was soft and malleable and looked forgiving. Her companion was thin, with streaky gray hair pulled back into a severe ponytail.
Her long, drawn face looked dry, with faint, parallel wrinkles along her cheeks. Speaking rapidly in clipped tones, her vowels irritatingly sing-songy, the latter explained the urgency of their task in a rehearsed manner: “We are volunteers who save feral cats. We spay or neuter the adults and give them their shots. Then we release them back where we found them.” Her voice was strident and clung to the high registers like the nervous claws of an excited feline, ready to dart off at any minute. “We try to get the kittens before they get too wild, and we vaccinate and spay or neuter them. If they can be socialized with humans, we put them up for adoption. If not, we return them where we found them. We have to catch them at the right time, before their mother teaches them to hiss at humans. We always clip off the end of their ears after we fix them. We already caught the white mother cat and the little sickly white one. We know there are three more kittens in the litter. Your neighbor told us you have kittens in your backyard. May we put out a trap for them?” Her eyes darted around furtively as she spoke, as if sizing me up in some way.
Just 20 miles south of San Francisco in the town of Moss Beach, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve sits placidly on the fog-dappled coast. Renowned for its rugged beaches, tidepools, sea lions, the occasional sea otter, pelicans and other sea birds, the reserve has been identified by marine biologists as “one of the most biodiverse intertidal zones in California.” It is also a vantage point for whale watchers. Humpback, blue, and gray whales can been seen periodically from a high promontory, and a look downward reveals a beach full of harbor seal moms and their pups, who are protected by the park.
You can descend a long stairway to see them at beach level, but visitors are cautioned to stay 300 feet away so as not to interfere with seal family business. Along the trail at the top of the cliff, you walk through carefully planted rows of aging pines on the grounds of what was once the expansive Smith-Doelger residence in the early 20th century. Farther down, you walk on parts of the foundations, faced by massive palm trees that once graced an elegant entrance.
Walking south from the reserve, the road winds alongside residences perched on the cliff, with beautiful gardens and huge plate-glass windows facing the ocean.
You can walk right up to the Moss Beach Distillery, a historic restaurant where liquor was smuggled in from offshore during Prohibition in the 30s, and where the fabled phantom “Blue Lady” is still seen occasionally by visitors. You can read more about her and the Moss Beach Distillery by clicking here.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, this is one of those “so close, yet so far away” types of day trips. It is well worth the hike to feel that you’re at the end of the earth–in another world and another time. If you’re visiting California, this is an opportunity to experience the best of what the coast has to offer: diverse marine life, natural beauty, and a bit of California history.