There are a few images of wildlife on this earth that evoke deep feelings in us all.
Wild horses roaming the American West. Polar bears and blacbears foraging in the Alaskan Wilderness. Eagles nesting on the Eastern shore.
No matter how cynical we become, the thought of such animals surviving in their natural habitat seems to touch an atavistic place in our collective hearts, a reminder that we are, after all, just one species on this planet. Not the first to arrive here -- and maybe not the most important.
Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this was the reaction to a whale in Chesapeake Bay last week.
It was hard for people who saw the whale not to feel thrilled, inspired and humbled by it. Here was a water-going mammal, one that could stretch 50 feet, weigh 50 tons and eat up to a ton and a half of small fish each day to survive. The sight of it evoked sentiments deeply felt and hard to define, like a breeze across your face on a warm spring day. It was a reminder that the natural beauty of this world can be far more breathtaking and moving than any man-made skyscraper, statue, painting or poem.
Listen to Eddie Cantler, a waterman who has spent the last 14 years on the Chesapeake, but was transfixed for two hours Monday by the sight of a dorsal fin and spout: "It was beautiful. . . . Just amazing."
Then there was an excited phone call from Larry Gaigler, a phone company technician who called The Baltimore Sun Tuesday to report that he had spotted the whale while driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge behind a slow moving truck: "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life."
Perhaps that's why this winter, 5,000 people treked to the Virginia Beach Fishing Center to board boats and spend up three hours on a ship in frigid temperatures to get a look at the eight humpbacks that have spent the winter off the Virginia coast.
It's fascinating that no one knows for sure what the Virginia Beach whales are doing there. Whales normally migrate from northern feeding grounds to the warmer waters of the Caribbean for calving and breeding, and tend to hang out at least 45 miles out at sea.
Marine biologists at the Virginia Marine Science Museum, which sponsors the whale-watching trips, theorize that the whales are immature juveniles that have discovered good feeding grounds at the mouth of the Chesapeake. They say the whale that surfaced Monday near the bay bridge may be one of them, a sort of teen-age mutant ninja whale just playing around out there.
Where ever it came from, it put on quite a show Monday, surfacing every two or three minutes and prompting cheers and high-fives as it spouted water from its blow hole.
"People are fascinated by these creatures. They've have been around since the dawn of time, and the idea that they're still out there is somehow . . . refreshing," said Jeri Johnson, a spokeswoman for the science museum.
Such sentiments are understandable when you're dealing with a creature of Biblical and literary myth.
Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Ahab was obsessed with one. Whalers described the experience of harpooning a whale and being dragged in boats by it as a "Nantucket sleigh ride."
But this planet has taken some environmental hits since the days of the Indians and, if anything, the appearance of a whale may highlight the need for environmental redemption.
Michael Hirshfield, a senior science adviser for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that the bay clean-up has a long way to go, but that there are some signs things may be turning around.
A report released last week by the Environmental Protection Agency points out that some types of pollution -- nutrients from sewage treatment plants and industrial wastes -- are on the decline.
Environmentalists say is too early to declare a victory in the bay clean-up program, but that the signs are there. There has been a return of vital bay grasses and certain fish, such as the large mouth bass. Bass are once again being caught in the Potomac River, something unheard of just a few years ago.
They credit a variety of laws and administrative measures, such as the ban on phosphate detergents, enactment of critical areas and wetlands protection legislation and EPA funding of sewage treatment plant improvements.
"I think we've gotten certain kinds of pollution reasonably under control," Mr. Hirshfield says. "It kind of depends on your perspective, like the old analogy of looking at a glass of water that some people see as half full and others see as half empty."
If nothing else, maybe the whale was here to remind us that this planet is worth saving.
It shouldn't take a whale to make us realize that.
` But it sure helps.