Editor’s note: Among other accomplishments, Lauri deGaris is a marine biologist. As the right whale visiting season approached, her thoughts turned to whales, and she thought she should write something. The more she wrote, the more she wanted to keep writing. Right whale calving season season starts Dec. 1 here, but here is a story to get you started. There will be nine more during the season, and I promise they will be memorable.
By Lauri deGaris
Some years back, I taught science and history to high school kids with unique abilities. I quickly discovered the best way to keep their attention and remember a lesson was to put it in story form. If they could relate to the story, then the lesson would stick.
When the time came to discuss cetaceans – whales and dolphins – with the class, I was so excited. I am a product of “The Undersea World of Jaques Cousteau.” He inspired many in my generation to become marine biologists, including myself. I have been fortunate to study, observe, teach, reside by, and write about the ocean. I am very grateful for these gifts.
There are so many stories about cetaceans I wanted to share with students. I finally settled on a series of tales illustrating the long and diverse connection we share with our relations under the sea. These tales highlight our natural, cultural, mythological, and spiritual connection with cetaceans.
The most important lesson I wanted everyone to remember is that all who live on Mother Earth are connected. And, that we as humans share many characteristics with whales and dolphins. Also, I wanted everyone to understand that what happens to cetaceans happens to us.
To grab the attention of these fertile minds in an impactful way, I shared the story of Daniel Kish first.
Daniel was born with retinal cancer. To save his life, both of his eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. To his parents’ bewilderment, Daniel began to make clicking noises with his tongue when moving around. The clicking sounds were similar to those used by bats, whales and others who can see with sound, in the mind’s eye. Daniel was using echolocation or “flash sonar” as he calls it, to visualize his surroundings. Flash sonar allows Daniel to do many things like avoid walking into furniture and ride a bicycle down the street.
Daniel Kish grew up to become a world leader and run the non-profit organization World Access for the Blind. He has taught thousands of people to see through their blindness. He is passionate about “helping all living things find liberation and growth.” Daniel Kish’s TED Talk is fantastic and well worth 15 minutes of your time.
After sharing Daniel’s story with the class, students were immediately interested to see if they too could see with their mind’s eye using flash sonar. Outside, in a safe and quiet area, I asked students to put on a blindfold and follow simple instructions designed to uncover their buried ability to echolocate. Once they understood how to hear subtle changes in sound, they got the hang of echolocation fast. I know all the students who participated in this demonstration remember this powerful experience to this very day. I know I do.
The ability to echolocate is latent within us all. Early man would have used this evolutionary gift before artificial lighting. Daniel reminds us that vision is not through the eyes, it is through the mind. And, we can all rediscover our capacity to use our minds to see through the darkness.
Also, Daniel taught us that “Blind people can learn to see and sighted people can learn to see better. The most debilitating disability is blindness to our own blindness. When we can recognize our personal form of blindness, whether it’s social, psychological, or spiritual, then we can see better through the dark unknown of any challenge, and navigate through that challenge to new discoveries.” If we can recall our echolocation ability, what other untapped potential lies within each of us?
After this lesson, the students were eager to learn about other connections we share with cetaceans. And I was eager to share more stories with them. Sharing time with these students remains one of the highlights of my career as a marine biologist.
The first weekend in November, the annual Right Whale Festival will take place at Main Beach on Amelia Island. The festival will mark the return of North Atlantic right whale “mothers to be” and others to our warm, shallow waters. From Dec. 1 to April 30, right whales will be gathering along the coast, from the Carolinas south to Florida giving birth to a new generation.
This season, I plan to reveal stories and poetry about cetaceans, many which have been lost to time. These tales will explore the natural, cultural, mythological, and spiritual connections we share with all cetaceans. I will also share stories describing contemporary cetacean research and other topics influencing the state of our oceans. This is not just an idle exercise in writing stories about whales from the literary ocean just for fun. This is my way of helping us remember the sacred connections that exist between all living species on Mother Earth. And, it is my way of honoring the right whale “mothers to be” along with the next generation of whales who will call this region home. Welcome back to all whales!