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Right Time for the Right Whale?

Carl Safina
Holiday 2010

A mile down the shoreline I see what looks like a trawler wrecked on the beach.

But it’s not a boat; it’s a whale.

And up close, its massive contours seem surreal. Under the wide sky and with the backdrop of the sea whence it has come, it is both in and out of its element, natural and unnatural; its black skin is blotched with pink abrasions from getting pushed aground, the huge pleats of its distensible throat looking like the planks of a wooden vessel. Its mouth bites a bulldozer’s wedge of beach sandwich. In life, this Jonah-gulping throat ballooned like a pelican’s pouch, engulfing a swimming pool of ocean and the tiny food therein. Then that balloon would contract while its mother tongue strained water through the mouth-rimming brush of baleen, concentrating entrapped hordes of plankton into a satisfying swallow.

Its blowholes are slammed shut like deck hatches. The sun paints a lifelike highlight onto its open eye. Blood and fluid ooze from a wound near the base of its pectoral fin, as though the percolating corpse is just another leaking tanker. Whales were once civilization’s chief source of oil, the world’s living wells, and we pumped the sea nearly dry of them. We’ve learned little of whales and nothing of oil. The U.S. burns over 20 million barrels of oil a day, about the same as the industrial behemoths Japan, Germany, Russia, China and India – combined. The resulting climate change has consequences for plankton and, therefore, for whales that – unlike this one – must face an uncertain future.

About the Author
Carl Safina brought ocean conservation into the environmental mainstream. Audubon magazine named him among the leading 100 conservationists of the 20th century, and he’s been profiled by the New York Times, Nightline and Bill Moyers. His books include Song for the Blue Ocean, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, the children’s book Nina Delmar – The Great Whale Rescue and, upcoming in late 2010, The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. His awards include a Pew Fellowship, Lannan Literary Award, John Burroughs Medal, Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Prize, among others. He is the founding president of Blue Ocean Institute.