A friend sent me a link to yesterday’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “Watching Whales Watch Us” by Charles Siebert, about the “Friendlies,” the gray whales in Baja Mexico that seek out and seem to enjoy interacting with people.
I’ve read stories of what a profound experience it is to touch the gray whales and have them look you right in the eye. I’ve always wanted to go to Baja and see the gray whales and perhaps someday I will.
As Sibert writes:
I was not prepared for the profound nature of what’s going on down here. These encounters are highly unique and rare. And there’s another word for it: it’s an enigma. Intellectually, it is an enigma as to why gray whales do this, because there’s a continuity and predictability to these interactions. What we have here are highly sophisticated minds in very unique bodies, living in such a different environment, and yet these whales are approaching us with some frequency for what appears to be sociable tactile contact. And with no food involved.
He also discusses how the more we learn about whales, the more they seem like a parallel “us” swimming in the ocean depths. Yet whales are succumbing to our assaults:
Indeed, when that baby gray calf bobbed up out of the sea and held there that first morning, staring at me with his huge, slow-blinking eye, it felt to me as if he were taking one impossibly long and quizzical look in the mirror.
Sibert tells the story of a whale entangled in crab-trap lines that was rescued by divers. After the divers cut her free, the whale seemed to swim in joyous circles around the rescuers, nudging each diver as if in thanks.
Some people will call this anthropomorphizing. But the field of animal cognition and bevahior has gone through a revolution in recent years—it’s no longer taboo to ascribe emotions to these animals.
If you have a chance this summer to go whale watching, I highly recommend it. There is nothing quite like it. Unless you go to Baja, however, you won’t be able to touch the whales or look them in the eye. But you also won’t fail to be moved by seeing these magnificent animals in the wild.
Just yesterday we changed our summer travel itinerary. We were planning to go on a road trip to the Midwest to see some Lincoln stuff because a beach trip on the East Coast seemed too expensive. But the whales are calling us. We decided to go to Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and see the humpback whales instead.
If you need some reading before your whale watch, I highly recommend Among Whales by cetacean scientist Roger Payne, which is inexplicably out of print, but is available used. I’ve read a dozen whale books, but this is my favorite.