Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Whale of a Tale ... And Its All True

The author posing on a rock above Bean Hollow Cove, on the Pacific Coast. That big brown thing behind me is the carcass of a rare blue whale.

I wanted to see the whale. It had washed ashore just south of Half Moon Bay, California, earlier in the week and as the tides rise the carcass will eventually wash back out into the sea from whence it came. So the time was limited.

I downloaded ShralpTide, a tidal chart app on my iPhone and headed over the Santa Cruz mountains to reach the beach at low tide.

The blue whale washing in the tide at Bean Hollow State Beach.

There was a small crowd of onlookers on the cliffs and the nearby beach. The autumn sun sparkled off the sea and caught the iridescence of what remained of the whale's gray-colored hide. From that side she still looked like a whale. The southward wind took the scent of decaying whale blubber away from us.

But I couldn't see well, so I hiked around to the windward side, wearing the blue rubber gardening shoes I bought my mother and she never wore. They were good beach shoes, though they have a ladybug print on them that is seriously dorky. Fortunately, looking dorky at the beach is de trop, so I fit right in.

The walk was worth it as the view from the south side was much better, even though it now smelled like a fish market on a warm day.

Blue whales are long and thin and in spite of the decay you can see that in this picture, looking from the tail fluke towards the head, though the whale is upside down so you can't see its head.

This being California, it was a spectacular day and there was a docent on hand to brief the tourists. The docent told us this blue whale had weighed about eighty tons and explained that the State Parks Department had put up what looked like red crime scene tape to keep the gawkers a dignified distance away from the deceased mammal. He pointed out that her calf was washing in the nearby surf and that the calf had not been born, but was emitted after the mother's death.

Looking down from the cliff, it was easier to tell this was a whale when you saw her gray tale fluke which had not yet begun to visibly decompose.

Scientists had finished their tests by the time I got there and determined the eighty-foot female had a fatal collision with a ship. She was on her way to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico to birth her young and enjoy the warmth of the Mexican coast away from the chillier winter up North.

The accident prevented her winter vacation, but provided scientists with new information about her life and untimely death. She was young: eighty feet long is smallish for a blue whale, so she probably had years of growth ahead. She had some fractured vertebrae, hence the deduction she had died in a collision. Plankton have been rich this year, so feeding has been good which likely attracted her to the region as she stopped on her route south.

You can see the red crime scene ribbon in this photo. It kept people from souvenir hunting.

This species was almost hunted to extinction in the 18th and19th centuries and is now protected. There are only a few thousand of blue whales remaining in all of earth's oceans and scientists are now studying ways to prevent collisions like the one that killed her. That may be the good that comes out of this.

I'm glad I took the time to see her. She was magnificent, even in her death. I meant no disrespect in posing with her. I did not do so as if she were a trophy, but to remind myself in years to come that I was there. It was a remarkable sight on a stunning day: nature brought ashore a rare creature for us to see as close as ever we might, to wonder at God's handiwork and to ponder our own ability to undo it.

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Lena said...

How interesting to see and sad too.

Robin Chapman said...

It was really fascinating to see. And it was really big. And when I got home, I was the one who smelled like a fish market!

Skywolf said...

I saw a CNN news piece on her yesterday. Even on video, she looked like a magnificent creature. I envy you for having seen the blue whale in person. I just hope she did not collide with a Sea Shepherd vessel. ;-)

Robin Chapman said...

It could have been any ship, most likely a pretty large one. I suspect they (the ships) will eventually be equipped with some kind of electronic sound device that will alert whales to stay away.