Features: When an endangered blue whale's life is ended by a ship

Wherein I bid farewell to the only blue whale i'll ever know

May 27th, 2016

"Don't tell a ton of people, please," read the text on my phone, accompanied by a photo of a dead whale washed up on a beach. That's how things are in Marin County, but especially in Bolinas, the town that routinely takes down signs identifying how to get there. A blue whale appearing on one of Bolinas's small beaches would absolutely be considered local news, with hordes of curious onlookers arriving being just about the last thing anybody wanted. 

But because I'm from Marin, and am a professional wildlife person, I had the opportunity to be in the know before the news broke. 

There was no question as to whether or not I would go to witness the whale. I checked when the sun would set versus how long it would take me to get out to that remote part of the Pacific coast. There would be a 20 minute window of sunlight if I hurried.

I've never seen a beached whale in person before. Humpbacks have frolicked and spouted in the water nearby, dolphins have played in the wake of boats I've been on, and one time I even saw an orca while kayaking in Vancouver. A dead whale was new. So was a blue whale.

On the drive over I considered the species: they're the largest animal to have ever existed on Earth. In my head I compared them to dinosaurs, to elephants, to Donald Trump's ego, but still the blue whale outsized them all (barely, for that last one). I remember learning about them as a kid, fascinated by the thought that I could swim through their aorta. The migration zone of blue whales is literally the entire planet's sea waters. They're so big a whole planet can only just contain them. 

I considered the fact that they're endangered. How they've peacefully roamed the oceans for centuries until being disrupted by hunters and the loud propellers of ships carrying plastic goods from one country to another. I admire the blue whale for its ability to survive in an increasingly harsh environment, swimming along with those big, intentional strokes of their flukes. The fact that their babies look like mini-versions of themselves has always amused me, too.

Blue whales were one of the earliest species to capture my curiosity, and now for the first time, I would experience their grandeur in person.

The sight from the entrance to the beach was...well, there was no way I could have predicted it. Plenty of Marinites had heard the news from their Bolinas-dwelling friends, though no more than 50 people were walking to and from the site. A large lump was visible along the beach, maybe a 10 minute walk away through the sand. 

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Adults, children, dogs, and many others had gathered. They were taking photographs, chatting with one another, and every so often someone would reach out to gently touch a fluke or flipper. Awe was ubiquitous. 

The sheer size of the whale was overwhelming. Conceptually it's easy to call something big, but imagine if you had never seen a skyscraper and then all of a sudden you pop out of the subway and there's a monolith stretched out above you. The blue whale was like that, a once living, breathing creature that dwarfed everything around it. 

The carcass ebbed with the rising tide, gas and blood escaping from cuts in the body when harder waves hit. Something, probably a bird, had eaten its eye. That's how the circle of life functions. 

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Despite the gore, the scene was peaceful. People spoke quietly about the magnitude of what they were witnessing. A woman wandered from person to person with a handful of shells, asking them to direct their positive energy into them in order to balance out the negativity brought about by such a grand death. Most obliged. 

We as humans try really hard to put a wall between ourselves and the other creatures of Earth, but it's generally a futile effort. I don't know why we're so invested in proving our superiority over other life. When a 79-foot whale washes up it's impossible not to come to terms with the natural world. It's impossible to not bear witness to our true insignificance. It's impossible to not face death head on. And none of these things are bad. We're the only species obsessed with mortality, so terrified of the end that we deliver it to each other sooner than is necessary. 

But for everyone standing on the cold sand in Bolinas, we couldn't avoid the reality of our own existence, and how the fact that we're alive affects the world around us. Alexander von Humboldt was a famous naturalist largely for his recognition of the interlinking of natural components, and his theorems have only become more important to acknowledge. This whale probably died because of people. Maybe not, but probably. Maybe from being struck by a container ship, maybe from eating too much plastic. Maybe it couldn't handle our current political climate. 

When you're standing next to the giant carcass of a creature that has only existed in your mind as a mystical being, it's humbling. And it was meaningful to share that moment with other people who were experiencing that same sensation all in concert. It was a good reminder to not only connect with the natural world, but to care for it. To treat it like the precious entity that it is. And to remember that we're just supposed to be a part of it, not in control of it, or else we'll lose it. 

 

Over and out,

Ali Wunderman

 

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