Encounter with a Dead Sperm Whale

(Warning: The photos and descriptions in this post are graphic and may be disturbing. Be advised.)

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.

Whale against cliffDog & Whale blubber

[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.

Whale headWhale Onlookers


But what was grotesquely evident, even before getting close to the whale’s cadaver, were the huge, yard-long, one-to-two-foot-thick chunks of flesh, unceremoniously flung and scattered along the beach. Crows and gulls lighted on them to peck at a bit of blubber. Dogs regarded them gingerly. Apparently, the men of science had no sense of neatness or propriety. 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, now defiled with this carnage.

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.

Things to Do While You’re Alive

 

Detail of a lamp I created for a festival called "Blooming Boxes" at Westmoor High School
Detail of a lamp I created for a festival called “Blooming Boxes” at Westmoor High School ©2014 Anne Campagnet-Reed

“I’m getting old,” I moaned to my 19 year-old daughter, attempting to share my state of self-pity and disillusionment, as part of a larger existential malaise. “Well, you’re not dead yet,” she said, with trenchant insight.

You know, looking at things from the perspective that you’re about to die really gives you clarity about what’s important. And then, when you realize that a lot of people really are close to death, and possibly really depressed about it, you realize that your moping and dejection are really foundationless. You look up at the sky, take in a deep breath, and realize, “Yes! There is so much more I can do!!” There is time to chase my rainbow, to right (at least some of) my wrongs, to move forward into joy and meaning.

I have been looking for my career to be my inspiration and my solace. When I lost my job, it seemed like my life was over. A part of it is. The social interactions I had every day are gone. I am nagged daily by the “need to make money,” that ugly little mosquito that constantly threatens a malarial bite. Its uglier big cousin, the “Need to Define Yourself by Your Job” is lurking even more menacingly, just out of visual range; a true vampire waiting for the nightfall of my self-esteem.

It’s time to turn on the lights, stand up, and tell the Boogey Man to go away. My daughter is right. I’m not dead at all, dammit, and I’m going to continue my quest to be enlightened and to do good. Maybe I’m not sure how, yet, but I have confidence that my path will come apparent.

This thought liberated my mind enough for some global reflection on society for the past 75 years or so:

It’s all about communication. Letterpress newspapers and telegrams have given way to e-magazines, tweets and text messages. Google Glass is showing us that you no longer need a keyboard to look up a person’s data; you just need to literally look up at the person, and a stream of their personal data appears. Other interfaces soon to be invented will allow our thoughts to control devices and communications, making any 3-dimensional media obsolete.

I’ve always been wary of Facebook and its seeming disregard for any shred of privacy we once thought we had as individuals. More insidiously, the web crawlers and cookies that are scattered everywhere we tread (like the breadcrumbs Hansel and Gretel used to find their way home) track our every move, and seemingly even our thought patterns. I don’t have a Facebook account, but I know that every keystroke I make imprints another portion of my identity into the eternal “cloud.”

You know, I need to take a moment to demystify the cloud. Calling is a “cloud” gives it greater cachet and significance than it deserves. The “cloud” is just a collection of remote data servers, basically hard drives, located outside your computer or device. It does not share the heavens with the Almighty, but lives in scattered, sometimes isolated rooms, in buildings here on earth, fed by long, steel and fiber-optic cables buried underground and under the ocean. It is simply a system of remote data storage, and nothing more. Big deal.

Now back to my mistrust of Facebook. Young people don’t seem to share my paranoia.

The hate of the 1940s caused society in many countries to close itself off and compartmentalize, as a means of survival. Hiding from Nazis and other fascists, extreme circumspection, a lack of sharing of any kind of personal information, were frequently the only defenses against annihilation.

If you look at all of humanity as a huge, collective being, maybe World War II can be viewed as a period of disease in our collective body, brought on by self-doubt (the need to blame someone else for economic and other woes), resulting in self-injury (the brutal targeting and massacre of specified groups), and the consequent need to seal off the wound in order to recover (lack of communication and ultimately the Cold War). Sealing off from other people assured survival. Or at least it seemed so to millions of shell-shocked individuals.

Maybe the Millennium is finding out that being closed off to other people is not the answer.

Maybe we’ve learned something from that. Maybe it’s that by reaching out to others as part of ourselves, we are affirming ourselves and assuring our mutual survival. It seems that the most prosperous human beings are socially adept and enjoy working with a range of other individuals; sometimes to achieve a common goal, sometimes just to catch up, empathize, or exchange stories. This is what makes social media—a vehicle for connecting with large groups of individuals—so attractive.

The impulse to continue to fight and “win” (currently exhibited by more than one aggressive group on the planet) is really an inconvenient anomaly, like an illness, or a virus, and the rest of the collective “patient” (humanity) needs to be patient and optimistic while the disease runs its course. Can you imagine if your liver declared war on your stomach? Or if your hands decided that your feet were an inferior race, and rallied the rest of your body to eliminate them? How far along would you be then?

Glad I could put everything into perspective. What do you think?

Calm Chowder

(Meditative Soup for the Happy Soul)

Clam Chowder

You haven’t heard from me for a couple of weeks for a simple, ineluctable reason. It is simply this: despite all the intricate plans my mind was making, my body decided to shut down for a week or so. Chills. 103-degree fever. Chills again. More fever. Extreme lethargy. Extreme fatigue. Headaches. Dizziness on rising. Loss of appetite. When the fourth day of fever began, I called the doctor. I went in and was diagnosed with “walking” pneumonia. I barely coughed at all, but there it was. An x-ray had revealed an infection on my lung. Antibiotics were prescribed. I gobbled them down for a week, drinking insane amounts of water. After many hours of Netflix movies and soreness on both hips from being in bed all day, I gingerly ventured out for a little longer each day, until I finally started to feel, well, “normal.”

I’m really glad I was sick. I wasn’t glad while it was happening to me, but I think illness is a time when your delirious mind has a chance to reorganize itself, put everything into perspective, and make you focus on the essentials in your life. I ate very little, but when I did get my appetite back, it was only for small quantities of healthy foods. The very thought of junk food was repulsive. I lost 10 pounds.

I also cut out the futile luxuries of perfectionism and anxiety, in which my mind had been indulging when it had more energy. All the focus was on resting, being kind to myself, and feeling better. Everything else was on indefinite hold.

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Now Leaving Comfort Zone: Doing What I’ve Always Wanted

Plants & Rocks at OP
The opportunities are always out there, but how many of us reach out to them? I’m talking about things you’ve always dreamed of doing. It’s different for everyone, but for me the list includes a few things that I’ve been wanting to do since childhood. Here are my top four:

1. Scuba diving (ever since I saw my first Jacques Cousteau program).
2. Fying an airplane. I did get an opportunity to do that as a late teen, in a Cessna with dual controls. My cousin was getting her A&P license at the time, and her instructor took me up. It was great. I’d still like to get a pilot’s license and fly wherever I want to.
3. Owning a yacht and sailing around the world. (I’d really better get started on this one)
4. Publishing a book (or several).

I think the main thing that has been holding me back is my inability to see these things as not only possible, but as real. There is a sense that these dreams are extravagant, self-indulgent, and superfluous. The idea that life should be about doing “serious” things and “making money.” Also, I (as I assume is true for many others) look around for approval/permission from others. That is a big mistake. I’m not sure why I haven’t done these things yet, but, as the second half of my life begins, I figure I’d better get off the observation deck and into the water. Literally.

Incidental Inspiration

Yesterday I saw a movie on Netflix called “Maidentrip” about a 14-year-old girl from the Netherlands named Laura Dekker who literally sailed around the world by herself, in a 40-foot ketch named Guppy. It was inspiring, to say the least. Once she decided to undertake the voyage, Dutch child welfare services tried to stop her, and she had to go through harrowing legal battles before getting clearance. She finally won and achieved her ambition, documenting the voyage on video.

First Steps

I’ve signed up for a scuba diving certification class! It starts in about three weeks. I’m excited about it, and also a little apprehensive. I’m not apprehensive about the diving part, or being underwater, or any of that. I’m concerned about passing the prerequisite, which includes swimming 3/4 of the length of the pool underwater on one breath. I can swim the whole length underwater with fins on. But I’m pretty sure it will be fins off for the test. The other two qualifying tests are to surface swim 5 lengths of the pool (piece of cake) and tread water for 10 minutes (could do it in my sleep). But why is it so hard to swim underwater? I have been practicing. So far, all I can do is a little over half a length. The harder I try, the harder it is. Today, I talked with some fellow swimmers, who gave me pointers. Look down, not up. Keep your body horizontal. Stay relaxed. Find the “zone” in which you continuously glide forward with minimal effort from your limbs. It’s tricky, because you have to stay rigid enough to keep the forward momentum, but relaxed enough to conserve energy and oxygen. One of my fellow swimmers even demonstrated for me. He made it look effortless.

Finally, they suggested I look on YouTube for instructional videos on free diving. I’m about to check into those. I know that most of getting past this is psychological, and that persistence will eventually pay off. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Wish me luck!!

Pandora: Catalyst of Conscience

From Under the Pages

IMG_0041

Pandora
was framed;
Zeus should have
manned up
to Prometheus.

No one likes
bones and fat,
when
expecting
meat.

Red with rage toward the titan,
the thunder god
punished us,
like uncomprehending children,
for receiving fire.

Maybe Pandora
is just a metaphor;
not for women, but for childish mankind
toying with the elemental force.

© 2014 Anne Campagnet-Reed

(For the final poem in my NaPoWriMo–National Poetry Writing Month–commitment, I decided to try my hand at the new Gogyoshi form: five lines, no meter or rhyme, concise imagery. In the above series, four Gogyoshi are arranged to tell a story, but each one can be read and understood as a separate unit.)

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Taro Aizu’s Fukushima Gogyoshi

IMG_3727

In honor of the continuing victims of the Japanese national tragedy in Fukushima (3/11/11), and on the occasion of National Poetry Month, here is a moving and sobering poem about those whose lives continue to erode daily from the effects of radioactive pollution.

Videos from Gogyoshi Art Project: My Hometown Fukushima
Read more about the Gogyoshi, a poetic form invented by Taro Aizu.

How to Get the Job You Really Want, part I: The Basic Basics

This is good advice for everyone, whether you’re looking for a job or not!

Skyrocketing Career

We have been meeting a lot of people who are looking for work lately. Many have sought help from career and life coaches, joined career development organizations, and started success teams in order to stay focused and on track in their search for employment. Finding a good job in this economy is no easy business, and results can take several months, or sometimes a year or more.

It is important to stay the course in your job search. It is easy to get demoralized or even depressed, but there are steps that every unemployed or underemployed person really needs to take to remain sane, hopeful, and happy. Being in a good state, both mentally and physically, is really important right now, because we project what we experience in the world. In order to project good experiences, we need to take care of ourselves and remain optimistic. Even if the prospect…

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Addicted to Adulation?

(The What, the Why, and the How of Good Writing)

Translucent Rose

A few days ago I posted a poem entitled “outdoor backstroke” on my blog “From Under the Pages.” For some reason, my blog readership the following two days shot up to almost 300 percent the previous weekly average. I got a “spike in stats” notice from WordPress: my hourly views had reached 50 times the previous average. I kept getting those lovely little orange “like” stars and “follower” symbols on my dashboard. I drank it up. “People really like my writing!” I told myself. It really felt good.

I derived an unexpected feeling of gratification, even pleasure, from this sudden surge of approval. It compelled me to check my dashboard every few minutes to see who else was following, and how many more likes I had gotten. And in the midst of it, I noticed how dependent I seemed to be getting on those little orange stars and plus signs. They signaled approbation, encouragement, even… love? They satisfied some inner desire, some overlooked need, some obscured, ravenous, approval-mongering id.

I even felt the temptation to try to replicate my newfound success by giving my readers more of what they liked–just so I could get more cascading stars and plus signs.

Whoa.

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My Phone Will Never be Smarter Than Me

Little Bubble #2:
Smart Phones

Xmas tree

Did you have a good Christmas? Were your spiritual and material ambitions accomplished? I had a nice couple of weeks off of work. We had a few low-key holiday celebrations with family and close friends. Perhaps the most memorable thing I did was to lobby for, and help plan, a family vacation in the snow. We’ve been up a few times before, but it has been a few years since our last visit. The kids are teenagers now, and it was a good time to get them out of town and doing something different—that they enjoy. We also spent time visiting with some good friends we hadn’t seen in a long time.

As far as presents go, I’ve learned that if you really want something, you need to get it for yourself. I got myself a smart phone, bringing me irreversibly into the 21st Century. I fought it off for a long time; I really did.

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