Editor’s note: In celebration of right whale calving season on our shores, we are posting whale stories by Lauri deGaris every other Monday through the season.
By Lauri deGaris
In 1974, “Mind in the Waters” was published as a compendium of information about whales and dolphins. The book weaved together mythology as well as science to celebrate the consciousness of whales and dolphins. Poetry, natural history, photographs, art and statistics supported a call to action to save the spirit of the whales and the spirit of the planet.
Almost 50 years later, the book is just as relevant as it was when written.
Over the years, I have read and re-read passages from it often. The story about a whale who washed up on the beach, waiting to die, really caused me to ruminate. The scientist who was attending to the dying whale was asked if he was going to keep the whale company in its hour of death. The cetologist said no. He could not comprehend that there was a bond connecting us all. He could not imagine that the whale could understand compassion or the need for comfort. He walked away until the whale was dead.
Joan McIntyre, contributing author to “Mind in the Waters” writes:
“Scientists have become the instrumentalities of their own singlemindedness. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist applied for and received permits from the government to kill 316 protected California Gray Whales in order to write The Life History and Ecology of the Gray Whale. In reading the life history, there is no life, just a series of tables of weight of testes and ovaries. There is more to the mating of a whale than the weight of his gonads; there is more to birth than the weight of the fetus; there is more to the feeding of the whale than the weight of the contents of her stomach. There is more that is being left out than including our inability to consider our subjects and us as interacting parts of a whole system.”
Many cultures recognize that an animal can be many things at once. That is, they can be something to eat, something that embodies wisdom, something spiritual, they can be our friend or they can be our enemy. In our rush to advance technology and our civilization, we have forgotten we are not the only creations on earth that have a spirit, possess the ability to feel emotion and share wisdom.
Consider: Worldwide commercial whaling caused the loss of maternal DNA lineages among blue and humpback whales, according to Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute. When maternal lineage is lost, knowledge is lost as well. Evidence of this tragedy was discovered in the bones of slaughtered whales scattered along the island of South George, 800 miles southeast of the Falkland Islands.
From 1900-1960, over 2 million whales were killed throughout the Southern Hemisphere. One hundred seventy-five thousand of those whales were killed near South Georgia Island. The bones were discarded after processing the whale. Scientists identified humpback, blue, and fin whale bones, many 100 years or older.
According to Michelle Klampe of Oregon State University, the South Atlantic whale populations have begun to recover since commercial whaling ended. However, the number of whales observed around the island of South George has not. The local population may be extirpated or locally extinct. For more than 60 years, the whales have been absent, suggesting that cultural memory was lost. These findings were reported Oct. 3, 2023 in the Journal of Heredity.
What did we slay when we killed the whales in such a frenzied conflict? The blue whale is the largest whale to have existed. The sperm whale has the biggest brain on earth. The toothed and baleen whales possess brains like ours. They have well-developed spindle cells, a type of neuron linked to self-awareness, compassion, and linguistic expression.
Oriented to the earth’s magnetic fields by particles of iron oxide in their brains, whales travel vast distances to breeding grounds, they recognize their companions, and they help one another. They also invent tools, play, learn, teach, grieve, and dream.
Indigenous cultures believe that whales are swimming libraries. They have been around millions of years longer than humans. And Indigenous cultures know whales carry the history of Mother Earth in their DNA. In Dreamtime, the call of the whale is the lullaby of the tides. When we gently rock ourselves to the rhythm of the ocean and allow our mind to float into the world of the sea, the spirit of the whale appears to guide us to our soul’s destiny.
The loss of whale wisdom during commercial whaling days is eerily like the loss of wisdom that occurred along the Trail of Tears. Many of my maternal ancestors did not survive forced removal from ancestral lands to reservations in the West. Medicine carriers were elders who held great knowledge. They are the ones who remembered the sacred ways of living in connection with Mother Earth. Many elders had not completed the passing of knowledge to the next generation before vanishing along the walk West. Lots of cultural memory was lost.
For A Coming Extinction
Now that we are sending you to The End
The great god
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing
I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day
The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The Sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Join your word to theirs
That it is we who are important.
Merwin, “For a Coming Extinction” from The Lice. Copyright © 1967 by W. S. Merwin.
Source: The Lice (Atheneum Publishers, 1967)