Save the Whale: An Existential Tangle
This blog post is coming from Paul at Triplefin's helm. He has a breathtaking story to tell about something that just happened. You may recall that last epic dive I had in the Revillagigedos where I got to dance with a whale. The only sad part about that for me was that Paul didn't get to experience it. Indeed, in the following days he was feeling pretty down and edgy. Not so much because he missed the whale dance but because he was afraid he may not have been able to feel the level of pure joy that we did. It was a tough week and I was so hoping something would come along to pull him out of the pit he seemed to be falling into. As they say (who are THEY anyway?) blessings often come in disturbing disguise.
If you want 15 minutes of edge-of-your-seat video suspense before reading Paul's in-the-water account below, go here for the video footage I managed to get. Enough of me . . . Here's Paul:
I was at the helm. I don’t know why I spend so much time at the helm of Triplefin, our sailing trimaran. Granted, our autopilot does go on the fritz now and then, but when we’re dozens—or even hundreds—of nautical miles from shore, I could step away and we could go off track for a little while and be none the worse, or perhaps a little late to our destination. I could also let others take the helm more often. But on that May day, as another hundred hours ticked by, I wasn’t brooding about being at the helm, but about what else I could do with my life that could be of consequence.
I live a privileged life. My wife Jo and I live on the freaking ocean, after all. The landscapes are gorgeous, sunsets spectacular, we can hike, snorkel and dive whenever we want. Sure, it’s humongous amounts of work to keep up a sailboat, with that same freaking ocean doing everything it can to tear our abode apart at any moment, and I’m happy to do the work to keep our boat intact. Keeping our boat moving and floating are indeed worthy pursuits, but not my life’s work, which has been stagnant for years now. I’d like to think that the same privilege that allows us this lifestyle comes with responsibilities beyond ourselves, but I still don’t know my role.
I’ve spent my life so far in academia, as a biologist, teaching everything from university to elementary school, being a civil servant, being a conservation photographer, and founding and then running a nonprofit conservation organization for 18 years.
Worthwhile work, it would seem. But the chronic depression I’ve carried with me since high school, along with lingering pessimism about my fellow humans—and especially about my fellow Americans, myself included—has always gotten in the way of any sense of satisfaction. What’s the purpose of calling the alarm to a biodiversity crisis when so many people out there will not even ‘believe’ science? What’s the point of putting another photo out there to be one of hundreds an Instagram user sees in a day? To get likes? I could go on. There is always a cynical flip side, always an argument why doing something seemingly good doesn’t really matter.
On that day, we were migrating northward, fleeing the heat of southern Baja California, island hopping from anchorage to anchorage. To my grumbling dissatisfaction, we had the diesel motor cranking, the wind being utterly indifferent to the fact that we were trying to get somewhere sans petroleum. With a suspicious eye on the capricious autopilot, we motored on. I was staring at the sea, looking for hazards and perhaps a glimpse of jumping Mobula rays or a pod of dolphins for my selfish delight. Then, perhaps a mile ahead, I spotted something floating on the surface. It looked like plastic jugs that fishermen here use for floats on traps and nets. Through the binoculars, something was different about them, though. Something was wrong. They were clustered together instead of spread out. They seemed to have other debris tangled around them. And were they . . . . . moving?
I alerted Jo and she immediately recognized what was going on, and I heard the dread in her voice. “A whale, a humpback, it’s tangled in a net!” Tangled badly. We both knew, without thinking, what we needed to do.
Perhaps calmer heads would have radioed in coordinates of the ‘incident’ to a daisy chain of others who could alert a government agency, an agency that might eventually send someone who could possibly have experience with this sort of thing, someone who could possibly come out and help, creating a spectacle for tourist boats and mega yachts to interfere with. Perhaps calmer heads weren’t called for in a case like this. .
I grabbed the diving sheers that I keep specifically for “ghost net” removal from our dive locker and scrambled back out on deck, ready to jump in. Jo reminded me that I should also have snorkel gear on. Good call, that. Geared up on the Triplefin’s bow, I actually thought about how cold the water was going to be before jumping in. The water was fine.
I approached with caution. The whale was hardly budging, only with a slight undulation of her tail creeping her forward, so she was easy to see. My first impression was of a nightmare. Fuck. She was completely smothered in net. The biggest parts of her that I could see, snout to fluke, that were not enveloped with high test monofilament and 3/8th inch rope were the three-inch trapezoidal openings in the net itself. And most of those openings were doubled or tripled over with net and rope. I had no way of knowing if she could be saved or not. From this point on, I wasn’t thinking much, just observing and acting as if my brain stem had this very scenario coded from years of practice. So I cut.
Starting at the front, I cut the net away from where I thought her left eye might be. I cut line after line of monofilament, and one cord of nylon rope after another, but could not find her eye. I tried “singing” to her in my best humpback whale gibberish, hoping that whatever I was saying would be more comforting than not. I realized that I actually could not discern any of her anatomy. There should be a mouth somewhere up here, there should be a flipper down there. But every last bit was wrapped up like a mummy, the only anatomy showing through not making sense to me. Wherever her mouth was, she couldn’t open it. Wherever her flippers were, she couldn’t budge them. So I cut.
Eventually I found an eye, or at least an eyelid. Her eyes were closed. I guess she didn’t know what kind of creature was crawling all over her, but perhaps she did realize at this point that this thing was helping, or trying to anyway. Eventually, her tranquil deep black eye opened. We exchanged a glance — perhaps sensing a common purpose — and then I cut.
Cut after cut. A thousand cuts. Finally I recognized the line of her mouth. I saw taught net and rope digging in from one mouth corner to the other and then wrapped above and below her head and to the tip of her snout. She was gagged and bound like in some sick human game. With her obliging, I climbed over her head, little by little lifting plastic off her snout. I dove beneath her, under what should be the flexible skin used to gulp thousands of krill at a time, and as gently as I could, cut and removed more line until it seemed like I had it all. Then she tried again to open her mouth and couldn’t—I missed some line. Even a single piece of monofilament—this petrochemical miracle of human technology—could starve a giant like this by keeping her from even opening her mouth. But I got the last of the line and she at last flexed her jaw for the first time in who knows how long. She only opened it a little, though, since she was still gagged with rope and net all the way to the back of her mouth.
I gave the line a tug forward from the corner of her mouth and she opened her mouth wide and lightly shook her head side to side. I swam backwards to get clear of her head and the sprawling net that could tangle and drown me. It was about then that it really hit me how easily she could hurt or kill me, just by freaking out or being careless—I could fit in her mouth.
I looked in her mouth, raised my head out of the water and shouted to Jo who was keeping Triplefin nearby and shouted: “It’s caught in her baleen!” And then I went back to working with the humpback to extricate the alien plastic substance from her broomlike feeding sieve as gently as possible. She gagged, I tugged. She wiggled side to side, I pulled. Little by little, the whale and I worked it forward until finally we got it all the way out. “We got it!!” I shouted. A victory and a realization that perhaps there was a chance to help save her after all.
Then I started in on her pectoral flippers which were still plastered against her body as if in a straitjacket. I dove down several times to get strands that were tangled in her barnacles until I got one flipper free, and then another. She stretched each out to the side. I wonder if they were numb?
As I cut the line further down her gradually exposed body, she seemed to know the job was not done. She waited patiently while I unwrapped line that dug a gash into her dorsal fin, leaving a notch that would likely be there for the rest of her life. I kept going until I got to the tail fluke. I’ve seen humpbacks do tail slaps on the surface of the water that would squish a human like a bug, so I again appreciated her calmness. I imagined the psychology of many other trapped animals—humans included—would have them thrashing about and unable to be helped. Fortunately for both of us, humpbacks are gentle creatures and have even demonstrated inter-species altruism, so perhaps she knew that—contrary to much evidence—that a human could help a whale.
The tail was easier. This routine was old hat for her and me by now. She waited while I snipped lines and then wiggled a little to free herself just a bit more. I cut, she wiggled. I cut, she wiggled. At last there was just a single line left, a single cut and a single wiggle, and she was free at last. Free.
“We did it!!” I shouted, as she was already swimming off. She sidled right up to the side of Triplefin, right to Jo, perhaps knowing that our whale-sized vessel and our captain had something to do with her salvation. She gave a few more spouts and then dove.
Jo and I got to work with the net removal. Sprawling and putrid, it was carrying the barely-recognizable rotting carcass of a shark—the whale’s albatross for a sin that humans committed. We cut the bloated shark parts out and hauled the gillnet up on deck, all 369 feet of it, where it sits as I write this, waiting for a proper place for disposal.
After the ordeal, Jo and I sat on the now stinking deck, floating with the motor off, contemplating. We recalled the events of the rescue together as if to reassure each other that yes, that just happened. Really.
Then in the distance, we saw something else on the horizon. A splash or something, not nefarious at all. A peek in the binoculars showed a breaching humpback. Could it be her? Really?
We cruised in the humpback’s direction and a full two nautical miles away we caught up. It was her indeed, we could tell by the raw notch in her dorsal fin. Energetically breaching for whatever reason. Communicating with her lost pod? Scratching the itches of her many wounds? We like to think it was the sheer joy of being liberated. Let’s go with that.
When we last saw her, she was booking it south. She would have been behind schedule for getting out of the Gulf, rounding the cape, and migrating up the Pacific coast to her summer feeding grounds. She had a job to do: being a whale.
So there I had been—sitting at the helm like some self-important, chain-smoking, beret-wearing nihilist, full of ennui, cursing a god he doesn’t believe in, and tangled up in his own existential crisis, waiting for something to do that would be worthwhile. Well, this time there’s no doubt that what I was doing was worth it.
What’s next? I can’t very well sit at the helm waiting for the privilege of doing something unambiguously good again. I’m going to have to make it happen. Maybe telling you about it here is a start. Maybe I’ll go fix that autopilot now.
See a shortened video of the event from a compilation of Jo's footage: