Author who saved rockfish explores human, whale link

ON THE BAY

`Devilfish': A book tells how the West Coast gray whale, once hunted almost to extinction, cozied up to its former nemesis and now thrives.

October 12, 2001|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT WILL never make lists of the biggest news stories of the 20th century, but I'd still vote for a piece in the San Diego Union from the mid-1970s that began:

"Is the California gray whale reaching detente with humans? There is increasing evidence that it is."

Melville's Moby-Dick (a sperm whale) notwithstanding, it was the gray that for centuries was known as the "devilfish," the most dangerous quarry among marine mammals, with the wrecked ships to prove it.

Of course, during most of that time, commercial whalers relentlessly hunted the gray whale almost to oblivion.

Uniquely vulnerable because they hugged the coasts and fed in the shallows, including the Chesapeake Bay, the 30-ton grays were gone from the Atlantic coast by 1750 -- the first and the only whale we've eliminated.

The West Coast grays were reduced to a few dozen by the early 1900s. As commercial whaling wound down, and legal protections in the United States and Mexico took effect, the population rebounded to more than 20,000 whales in recent decades.

And something else remarkable happened: The "devilfish" began deliberately approaching their former destroyers.

During the 1970s, in the remote Baja California lagoons where the gray whales return each year to calve, whales began approaching fishermen, scientists and tourists to be rubbed and stroked.

Mother whales pushed their newborns to the surface around boatloads of humans, as if presenting them. In the lagoons where whalers once slaughtered the whales, a thriving tourism industry has grown up around loving them.

Whether the whales are consciously trying to tell us something or just finally losing their fear is unknowable. But those who have experienced the interspecies contact say it can be life-altering.

All of this, and its implications for humans' relating to the natural world, is richly explored in author Dick Russell's Eye of the Whale, published last month by Simon and Schuster.

Russell -- who spent three years following the whales on their 12,000-mile annual wanderings between Baja California and Siberia -- came of age as an advocate for nature two decades ago when he joined the epic fight to save striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay.

Russell is one of those fishermen who gets hooked by his catch in the fullest sense. Long before he gazed into the eye of a gray whale, he spoke of being "captivated" by the beauty of the big stripers he caught in New England during the 1970s.

"But our stripers were disappearing, and we didn't know why," he recalled at a recent signing at the National Zoo.

As he spoke to biologists around the Chesapeake Bay, where the preponderance of the East Coast's striped bass are spawned, he learned they were being fished toward extinction.

To counter the reluctance of Maryland and other coastal states to take action, Russell dedicated three years of his life in the 1980s to speaking, writing and organizing conferences on behalf of the rockfish, as stripers are called here.

At one point, he created a stir by essentially calling a top Maryland natural resources official a liar at a fisheries meeting.

His tactics were not gentle, but he was right. And he can take a lot of credit for the moratorium in 1984 that led to today's abundance of rockfish.

He went on to apply his writing and advocacy skills to ocean waste dumping and to fights to conserve marlin and bluefin tuna.

In 1998, he traveled to San Ignacio Lagoon, birthing place of the gray whales, to cover the Mitsubishi Corp.'s plans (since thwarted) to expand commercial salt works in the remote and pristine region.

As Russell talks about how meeting the whales affected him, he is signing a book for a woman who wears a whale ring on her wedding band finger. She has been to Baja and touched the whales.

"If I ever get married," she says, "the wedding ring will have to go on the other hand, because my heart's gone to that whale."

After she leaves, Russell says he, too, "fell in love with the whales, but not in a New Agey way." Indeed, as he did with the rockfish, Russell embraced not only a creature, but also the social and natural systems in which it exists.

This is what real love for nature is about. And this is what makes Eye of the Whale so worth reading. He takes us from movie stars kissing the whales in Baja to native villages in Alaska and Russia that depend on killing them to stave off starvation -- also to a tribe, the Makah, who got U.S. permission, wrongly, Russell thinks, to kill whales to revive their culture.

He weaves in accounts of Charles Melville Scammon, who practically invented the gray whale slaughters in Baja during the 1800s, only to leave whaling abruptly and produce the definitive natural history of the species, including a remarkable drawing of the whale's baseball-sized eye.

The grays, despite their successful comeback, are threatened today, Russell writes. Warming of the Arctic seas appears to be diminishing their food.

And he ponders the question posed by Mexican poet and nature advocate Homero Aridjis, who begins one poem: "Gray whale, show us the way to another future ..."

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