For the Love of WhalesPosted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on March 24th, 2010
The ocean is calm except for the lazy swell rolling up from the Gulf of Alaska. Our kayaks hug the shore, though the sheer cliffs in these fjords on the south coast of Alaska offer little comfort for terrestrial mammals like us. Barely breathing we sit snugly in our boats, binoculars trained seaward. A half mile or more away, humpback whales rise, blow and slide slowly back into the sea. We smile. We whisper to each other – as if we might scare them away like so many deer in the woods – guessing at their numbers . . . whether we see calves. We excitedly congratulate each other for the experience as if we had conjured the leviathans ourselves – trying desperately to remember every moment. And we smile, and we smile.
Without warning from just behind me an explosion! The adrenaline rush slows time just enough for me to recognize the sound as my body instinctively turns to face the threat. It is the exhalation of a humpback whale – no longer half a mile but just a few yards away.
In seconds I am aware of her size, her smooth skin . . . and her eye! Far more emotionally intense than seeing a humpback is having been seen by one on – perhaps even acknowledged. The hairs rise on the back of my neck. I am suddenly aware that, as she languidly slips back under the water, she is heading straight for me. I feel every cell in my body tuning in to record the experience ready to react. With a wisdom far older than intellect, my body freezes, waits and watches. If she raises her massive tail flukes I will not survive ten minutes in this frigid water even if I survive the blow. In fleeting seconds I know this, and I wait.
But she has done her job. Even as we spied on her family she effortless slipped into our midst and appraised us, evidently satisfied we pose no threat – perhaps even amused. Her body seems to take ages to complete its graceful arc breaking the water and sliding under my kayak. I turn to watch as she moves off back toward her family even as my kayak rolls alarmingly from the wave she generated as she went under.
It is not within my abilities to do justice to the experience. To my own ears, even saying I was humbled, sounds empty and presumptuous. How do you describe an experience that so overwhelms the senses in clumsy words?
But I feel compelled to try by the recent tragedy involving the orca whale, Tilikum, at Sea World. Because to experience whales in their homes is to never again be able to feel anything but horror and dismay at their captivity. These remarkably intelligent, sensitive and unfathomable creatures inhabit a world as rich and wonderful as any we can imagine. They deserve much better than to be penned in glorified swimming pools to perform tricks for our amusement.
My heart goes out to the family and friends of, Dawn Brancheau, the woman killed by Tilikum. By all accounts she loved the whales she worked with. But my heart breaks for Tilikum, and all captive whales, whose confinement is a tragedy that unfolds slowly day after day. It is an incomprehensible injustice that they endure for a lifetime that is, perhaps mercifully, more brief for them than the families they were stolen from in the wild.
There is no way to undo the injustice other than for people to do the right thing and end the capture and captivity of whales forever.