Grey whales are once again making their great migration north to their summer feeding grounds in Alaskan waters. Bodega Head, about 1.5 hours north of San Francisco, is one of the most awesome whale watching sites on the continent. The rugged scenery, where coastal scrub is lashed by the wild sea, is unmatched.
Whales have appeared in mythology for centuries, ranging from tales of the whale-island, through the Christian bible and tales of Sinbad the sailor. In one Icelandic legend, a man threw a stone at a whale, killing it. He was punished, not to return to sea for twenty years. After nineteen, he could no longer resist its pull, and went fishing – and a whale came and killed him. It’s said that whales can only forgive a crime if it’s atoned for.
There’s something deeply intrinsic about interactions with wildlife, especially whales. Staring into the infinite depths of their eyes, are we facing our past crimes? They even bring us their young – seemingly out of sheer curiosity and openness – in their Mexican birthing lagoons. How many species would forgive near-genocide from whaling, as Melville depicted in Moby-Dick? Although high numbers have been observed this season, as reported by the California Gray Whale Coalition, the whale is always threatened: more offspring brings increased beachings and predation by orcas. A number of nations – including Russia – are granted annual “takes” of whales by the International Whaling Commission, and Washington State’s Makah tribe and possibly other indigenous peoples around the world may seek similar rights. Melting sea ice in the Arctic and the insatiable quest for oil exploration further jeopardize these gentle giants – our distant relatives. An old friend once explained why we’re so fascinated by the sea: “It’s where we came from.”
Beached elephant seals bellow nearby, harbor seals pup and bask on shore, Canada geese forage among the native Indian paintbrush, lupine, Douglas Iris; nature is all around here. Leaving the din of other whale-watchers by the trailhead, I venture up the cliffside trail on my own. I could watch the ocean for days, each wave and play of light against the sea a new and shimmering thing. But now, near shore: a dark shadow under the water, a form I first mistake for kelp or plankton. Then, as if responding to my wish, the magic begins: the rise of wet, black back above the foam as the whale breaches, breathes, then a small spout as it once again dives, as if – despite everything I know to be true – it came just for me.