Eric Wagner | Orion | July / August 2015 | 18 minutes (4,486 words)

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The Southern California Bight is a patch of the Pacific Ocean that runs roughly from Point Conception, near Santa Barbara, to Cabo Colnett in Baja California, Mexico. As an oceanographic feature, a bight is a long, gentle curve of coastline that forms a large bay, one so big and subtle that, on a map, it does not draw the eye. But to overlook the Southern California Bight is to miss its lively geography — its offshore islands and deep canyons and wide basins that lead to the plunging edge of the continental shelf. The California Current sweeps past it from the north, and the winds rush over it from the east, and these passing flows haul up deep, nutrient-rich water, which supports billions of plankton, which attract larger things. Fish. Birds. Whales.

It was the whales that brought me one morning in September. The fog was thick but the water calm as the R/V Truth chugged out of the Santa Barbara Channel. The Truth was a handsome vessel — sixty-nine feet long, clean-lined, white with green trim. Brandon Southall, a marine biologist and environmental consultant, gazed out from the boat’s wheelhouse.

Southall had organized the expedition at the behest of the U.S. Navy. He and a dozen other scientists would sail around the bight for two weeks looking for whales, and beaked whales in particular. His assembled team, I was often told, usually by the team members themselves, was the cream of the whale crop. Regardless of the exceptional personnel, Brandon tried to temper my expectations. The weather might not cooperate, or the whales might not be where he thought they were. In the face of uncertainty, though, he was relaxed, even elated. “Beaked whales are some of the most elusive animals anywhere,” he said. “They are so incredible, just so mysterious.”

Something elusive, something incredible, something mysterious. Something pure. The other researchers said the same things, even as they acknowledged that, with beaked whales, such language is clichéd. (On a whiteboard in the boat’s galley, one wag had drawn a beaked whale clapping its flippers and squeaking, “I’m elusive!”) But the creature overwhelmed the team’s professional reserve.

I thought I understood why. As the British poet and novelist John Berger has observed, humans and animals always consider each other from across a narrow abyss of noncomprehension. “The animal has secrets,” he wrote, “which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.” I liked the idea of humans and animals questing in spirit to reach one another, but on the decks of the Truth I wondered if Berger’s formulation was incomplete. He was writing of animals with which we already have a degree of intimacy: zoo animals, farm animals, hunted animals. What of those animals with which we do not share secrets, but are themselves secret? With them, the abyss of noncomprehension is not so narrow. Instead, it gapes. Living beyond our ken, those animals have an entirely different allure. They are entangled in our larger responses to the unknown — whether we notice it, are drawn to it, tremble before it, or try to destroy it.

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Beaked whales are one of the last large mammals about which little is known. Their history is rife with erroneous or fanciful assumption. When, for instance, the French biologist Georges Cuvier described in 1823 the species that now bears his name, he thought it was already extinct. Five decades would pass before scientists confirmed that the Cuvier’s beaked whale still existed, and was in fact quite common.

The rest of the beaked whale episteme can be summarized fairly quickly. They are the most diverse family of whales; to date, 21 species have been identified (or, after some haggling over genetics, it might be 22). They range from 12 to over 40 feet long as adults, although most species are between 15 to 25 feet. They belong to the suborder Odontoceti — the toothed whales — but usually only the males have visible teeth, and then just a pair. These erupt out of the lower jaw and can be elaborately structured. In one species, the strap-toothed beaked whale, the two teeth curve over its upper jaw, preventing the whale from fully opening its mouth. Scientists think it might use its snout like a vacuum hose to inhale its food.

Most beaked whales eat squid or octopus. To hunt them, the whales dive to fantastic depths and search with echolocating clicks, which they emit from their bulbous foreheads. Their dive patterns are astonishing. A Cuvier’s beaked whale might spend more than an hour one mile underwater on a foraging dive, come up to breathe for 5 minutes, and then perform a series of shallower dives, called bounce dives: descend to 1,200 feet for 20 minutes, return to breathe for 2 minutes, dive for 20, breathe for 2, do this a few more times, and then dive to forage for another hour and a half.

Most comfortable in the crushing dark, beaked whales can seem alien. Mammals, yes, but reluctantly, abstaining from breath and light. (“They barely need eyes,” Brandon told me.) Likewise sound: other than when they click to hunt, they are silent. Even when they surface to breathe, their blowholes are so large they make no noise. “Their very presence in the ocean seems to pass unnoticed and unsuspected by voyagers,” wrote the British zoologist William Henry Flower in 1872, “even by those whose special occupation is the pursuit and capture of various better known and abundant cetaceans . . .”

As with most animals that try to avoid the human gaze, you can guess how that has worked out.

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Cuvier’s beaked whale. Image via Whaleopedia

On May 12, 1996, twelve Cuvier’s beaked whales were stranded along twenty-five miles of the Grecian coastline. Why they were stranded was a mystery, but while searching for the cause, Alexandros Frantzis, a biologist at the University of Athens, saw a notice that a NATO warship was performing a sonar exercise in the Kyparissiakos Gulf. The sonar could produce sounds in excess of an unimaginable 230 decibels. (A jet taking off reaches 130 decibels.) For Frantzis, the coincidence of sonar and dead whales was no coincidence at all. The report he would publish two years later was the first to suggest a link between naval sonar and beaked whales stranding. The event would repeat itself: in Greece in 1997, in the Bahamas and Madeira Islands in 2000, and in the Canary Islands in 2002 and 2004. The most recent stranding potentially attributed to naval sonar happened last year, when five Cuvier’s beaked whales died on the coast of Crete following a joint naval exercise between Greece, Israel, and the U.S.

Biologists suspect whales have been affected since the 1960s if not before, when, in secret, the U.S. Navy started testing its powerful “mid-frequency active” (MFA) and “low-frequency active” (LFA) sonars. Sonar has always been a means of revelation, but whereas the old passive sonars merely listened, active sonar demanded, blasting sound into the undersea environment to roust what was there. For beaked whales, the problem likely became more pronounced at the end of the Cold War, when the U.S. Navy’s overarching mission changed from containing the Soviet fleet to becoming, as they say now, a global force for good. Warships ranged over vastly larger territories to find whatever might lurk in the ocean’s many nooks and crannies — the same nooks and crannies beaked whales preferred. As the most widespread species, the Cuvier’s beaked whale was by far the most affected.

That our sounds should drive the quiet whale to its death is fitting: this is the way we almost always react when confronted with the implacable silence of animals. “It is not the ecological problem of [the animals’] survival that is important, but still and always that of their silence,” the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has written. “In a world bent on doing nothing but making one speak . . . their silence weighs more and more heavily on our organization of meaning.”

Then there was the manner of their deaths. Stranded beaked whales often bled from their eyes and mouths. Necropsies showed bubbles in the blood, embolisms in the fat — symptoms of decompression sickness, more commonly called “the bends.” A scenario emerged. Beaked whales, bombarded with weaponized noise, panicked, and then dashed about in frightened confusion. They surfaced blindly, too rapidly, disoriented and in terrible pain. Desperate for escape, they flung themselves on the beaches to die.

“Against the industrial organization of death,” Baudrillard wrote, “animals have no other recourse, no other possible defiance, except suicide.”

When the plight of beaked whales came to wider attention, naval officials were reluctant to concede that sonar might be responsible. Nowhere, they said, was there any proof that sonar directly led to dead whales on the beach. (This seems akin to chasing a person into the street, and then absolving yourself of blame when that person gets hit by a bus.) But as evidence mounted, the navy pledged to study the problem.

Such was the genesis of Brandon’s project, the Southern California Behavioral Response Study. Three years into the work, Brandon saw it as his job to add nuance to the debate over sonar, whales, and the balance between national security and animal welfare. His team had made news a few weeks before when, for the first time, they had showed Cuvier’s beaked whales respond negatively to playbacks that simulated MFA sonar. But the results were not straightforward. The whales’ responses had varied, and appeared to be contextual. When the sonar started, the whales first stopped what they were doing to listen to it. When they ascended to the surface, they did so slowly, cautiously. When they left the area they did so quickly, but they were purposeful rather than wild.

For Brandon, this showed that, after years of exposure, beaked whales might be habituated to sonar. The Southern California Bight hosts one of the largest concentrations of naval vessels in the world. With its deep canyons and squid, it also hosts one of the largest concentrations of beaked whales. Despite this, there are no records of mass strandings in the area. Brandon thought these long-lived, intelligent animals might be conducting a cost-benefit analysis: the bounty of squid was worth the occasional aural assault. When the fleets arrived to do sonar exercises, the whales slipped away for a few days. After the ships left, the whales returned. “They don’t just hear MFA and bolt,” he said. But he felt he had to be careful claiming this. The issue was so politically fraught, with the military on one side and environmentalists on the other, each clamoring to fit whatever tidbits he discovered into an ideological framework. Everyone wanted more certainty than he could offer.

Living beyond our ken, those animals have an entirely different allure. They are entangled in our larger responses to the unknown — whether we notice it, are drawn to it, tremble before it, or try to destroy it.

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So it was that the Truth set out. On the back deck, a biologist named Jay Barlow unspooled a giant acoustics cable in the boat’s wake, where it would listen for the sounds that might mean whale. Disappearing into the distance to spearhead the  search were Ari Friedlaender and John Calambokidis in John’s Zodiac, the Ziphid. (The Cuvier’s beaked whale’s scientific name is Ziphius cavirostris.) On the Truth, other observers took up station on the flying bridge. They would spend hours scanning the water with giant binoculars called Big Eyes. My contribution was to retreat to my bunk. Once the Truth cleared the channel the waves had picked up. As much as I wanted to sit on the flying bridge, it was gastrically unfeasible.

A few hours later, when we were out of sight of the mainland, I heard frantic movement overhead. Someone called down, “Beaked whales! A mom and calf !” I staggered up to the flying bridge, unable to believe my luck (our luck). Per Brandon’s advice, I had steeled myself for a week of anxious futility, but here we were, among beaked whales, after less than a day at sea.

The only thing was that they were about half a mile away. Dimly, I could see the speck of John’s boat wavering in the marine heat. A few hundred yards from it I could make out one or two gray splotches, but what were they? Whales? Dust on the lens of my own puny binoculars?

“Okay, they’re up now,” one of the observers said. She handed me a pair of Big Eyes, and I squinted through. There: two dorsal fins. They were small and triangular, which is diagnostic of Cuvier’s beaked whales. One was smaller than the other—the calf, I assumed. Their backs were pewter, scored with white. They were swimming slowly, through diaphanous clouds of their dispersing breath. But they were so far away and the Big Eyes so powerful that the minutest tremor in my hands sent the field of view skittering. When I finally wrangled the binoculars back to where the whales had been, they were gone. I had seen them for maybe ten seconds.

John called in over the radio. “Looks like they dove,” he said.

Brandon was leaning out of the wheelhouse. “Where does it seem like they’re going?” he asked.

“They were oriented east-west when we first spotted them,” John answered. “Not that that means anything.”

“Okay,” Brandon said. He took off his omnipresent ball cap and ran his hand through his hair, sucked air through his teeth. “Just keep looking.”

The minutes passed — first the twenty that would mean the whales were on a bounce dive, and then an hour and a half that would mean a foraging dive. No one saw anything. We waited a little longer, and then Brandon called off the search. The beaked whales had slipped away.

The Truth motored on, and I was left to ponder the metaphysics of the glimpse. I was weighing the ecstasy of the encounter against its brevity and working up a good head of existential steam when Jay called out, “Did you see them?”

A good question — precisely what I was mulling: Had I seen beaked whales? I mean, I had seen beaked whales, but was there contact? Had we shared secrets? Had I seen the beaked whale?

I figured Jay wanted me to answer literally, so I said yes. “And those were your first beaked whales?”

Jay, I was finding, had a real talent for the philosophical riddle. I had seen a dead beaked whale years before rotting on a beach in New Zealand. Did that count? Most people would probably say no, but, again, if, as with question one, we were being literal —

“Well, were they, or not?” Jay pressed.

“Yes,” I said, with growing confidence. “Yes, they were.”

“Ha! First round of beer is on you!” he crowed, and everyone laughed.

The next day brought strong wind and big waves offshore, and Brandon decided to head for the sheltered, shallower waters around Palos Verdes. This meant, much to my dismay, that we were done with beaked whales. “It’s not just about them,” Brandon said while I tried not to sulk. He and the team had recently shown, also for the first time, that large baleen whales responded to sonar, and it was equally important to get data on them.

The cruise took on a different cast. Lost was any conventional sense of remoteness or mystery. Sailing within sight of shore, I watched the sun glitter off the enormous homes regimented across the Palos Verdes hills like so many barracks of opulence. The baleen whales, too, were much more accessible. Before, John might spend the entire day in his Zodiac searching for beaked whales at the edge of reason. Here, it wasn’t long before the chase boats found three fin whales: a mother and calf, and one adult on its own.

The full measure of the team’s eliteness was now brought to bear, for tagging a whale was a dexterous procedure. In the Ziphid, John had to anticipate where the whale would surface to avoid running it over. Ari, perched on a bow platform while hefting a twelve-foot-pole with a digital acoustic tag attached to the end, shouted instruction: “Left! Ahead, ten meters! Coming up on your right now! Go go go!” When a whale surfaced to breathe, the Ziphid surged forward, and Ari leaned far out, thrusting the pole at the whale like a harpoon, aiming for a spot near the dorsal fin. Tag and whale met — pock! — and if all went well the tag’s suction cups held. Called a DTag, it would record the fine details of a whale’s movements, as well as the sounds it both made and heard. (Baudrillard again: “Beasts of demand, they are summoned to respond to the interrogation of science . . .” )

Once tags were affixed to all three fin whales, the chase boats dropped back, and Brandon began his test, deploying a facsimile of the navy’s MFA sonar. In the water, it emitted an ascending squeal every 25 seconds for 30 minutes, ramping up in volume each time until it reached 210 decibels. It was so loud that we could hear it up on the flying bridge. I could only guess how a whale felt when the squeal filled all space, drilling into its skull. Brandon pointed out that these whales were lucky. “We’re the only sound source, and we only run it for half an hour,” he said. “Imagine several sources, coming from multiple directions, and going for hours.”

Once the test finished, the whales were left to their business. The Truth turned for Long Beach, where she would moor for the night. (The chase boats stayed behind to retrieve the DTags once, as programmed, they detached from the whale a few hours later.) The mother and calf were soon out of sight, but the third fin whale suddenly surfaced close by, in the midst of a patch of krill. The water was a reddish smear, alive with small movement. The fin whale rampaged through the patch, its mouth agape, its throat radically distended—an act called lunge feeding. It swept over on its side and clapped its great jaws shut, ejecting thousands of gallons of water. The roiled sea slopped over its body. It righted itself and breathed explosively; and I understood then why one biologist called lunge feeding “the greatest biomechanical action in the animal kingdom.”

The crew gathered along the railings to watch the fin whale feed in the warm light of late afternoon. Later, data from the DTag would suggest it had been calling the deep, sonorous thrum peculiar to its species. When scientists first heard the call, they thought it was an underwater earthquake. They still use seismic monitors to track fin whales across ocean basins, so powerful are their voices. But on the Truth, those calls were beyond our hearing. The scene was quiet, save for a few gentle sounds: The low grumble of the engines. The wind. The waves slapping against the hull. The heavy pfffwuhh! of whale breath.

Photo via mikepmiller, Flickr

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The offshore winds stayed strong. Brandon continued working with fin whales in the nearshore for the next few days. It was fascinating to watch, but fin whales were not what I wanted to see. I asked Brandon how he felt shifting from ciphers to this more available species. They seemed opposites: one shy and secret, the other big and obvious; one furtive in the dark, the other spectacular at the surface. Had we lost some sensation only the pursuit of the beaked whale could satisfy? His answer left me feeling superficial and a little ridiculous. Until recently, he said, biologists hadn’t known much about the fin whale, either. Second in size to the blue whale, having nowhere near the humpback’s vocal charisma, or the sperm whale’s cultural heft, it was almost an incidental whale. That modesty was its own allure for Brandon. Fin whales were just fin whales: sleek and strong and fast.

There were unities, too, between beaked whales and fins. In the same way the former’s affinity for deep water hid it from our sight, so had swiftness spared the latter for a time. Greyhounds of the sea, fin whales can swim at speeds of up to twenty knots — so quick that early whalers didn’t bother chasing them. “Of a retiring nature, he eludes both hunters and philosophers,” Melville wrote of the finback, also called the finner, Tall Spout, and Long John. “Though no coward, he has never yet shown any part of him but his back, which rises in a long sharp ridge. Let him go. I know little more of him, nor does anybody else.”

Would that had stayed true. While watching the fin whales I thought of Berger and the secrets that humans and animals share, or rather once shared. He goes on to write that we no longer know what those secrets are. Some time ago, we lost the language of exchange. All we know is that the secrets still exist, as barely audible murmurs heard across an otherwise silent space. In this, animals become one of the last redoubts of the unknowable. But people are never good at letting things go, as Melville wished we could. It was in part to catch fin whales that Scandinavian whalers augmented their sailing ships with steam engines, to help them run down the speedier rorquals. It was to kill fin whales that Svend Foyn, a Norwegian sealer, perfected the exploding harpoon, which not only killed a struck whale almost instantly, but was also fired on a heavier line to prevent the carcass from sinking. (Fin whales are less buoyant than other species.) It was the need to process those carcasses at sea before they sank that ushered in the massive factory ships, which in turn led to the whaling fleets that laid waste throughout the Northern Hemisphere and, when those populations were destroyed, the southern oceans.

Whalers killed nearly 1 million fin whales before widespread hunting of them stopped in 1987. Brandon’s work for the navy, done in theory to benefit beaked whales, fin whales, other whales, dealt almost exclusively in the thresholds of how much pain they could take. This is what happens when we shine the terrible spotlight of our attention on a creature. Even when we mean it no harm. Even when we want to help it.

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By my last day, it was clear the offshore winds were never going to abate. There was nothing Brandon could have done, obviously, but he was not unsympathetic. He offered that I should spend an afternoon on the Zodiac, a reward usually reserved for volunteers who’d spent hours staring into the horizon through binoculars. When the time came, I joined John Calambokidis aboard the Ziphid, and we peeled away from the Truth. Ostensibly, our mission was to retrieve a DTag that was bobbing in the water somewhere near Catalina, but really we were out just to be out, because where would anyone rather be, other than among whales?

We bounced along, and John talked about his early days working on sonar, back in the 1970s. He recalled slapping crude time-depth recorders made from kitchen timers on fin whales. “We were trying to infer the effects of sonar from the dive patterns of a single whale,” he said. “And we weren’t even sure that the whale could hear the sonar.” It was a crazy, almost desperate time. Everyone was groping in the dark.

We had been running fast for a while when John slowed the boat. “Oh, look at that,” he said. “Company.” By then, my glasses were so spattered I could barely see, but I could hear: the plosive breathing of what sounded like several large whales.

“Looks like a blue and four or five fins,” John said as I scrambled up to the heaving bow platform. The lone blue whale was a few hundred yards away, but the fin whales were clustered very near, feeding. I followed their progress by watching for the oil-slick-like impressions, called fluke prints, left behind whenever they pumped their tails. A whale would breathe and dive, and calm patches of water would bloom in its wake, as if the whale were somehow soothing the sea.

Then a juvenile fin whale broke away and swam toward us with mysterious intent. It circled the boat slowly and deliberately, and then turned and made straight for us. I worried it might ram us, but when it was thirty feet away it evacuated its lungs in a geyser of spray and slid into the water.

“It’s going under us now,” John said mildly, and I leaned as far out as I could over the bow platform, frantic to see the young whale, a “mere” fifty feet long, swimming beneath the bow, perhaps six or eight feet away. As it passed — it seemed to pass forever — it was so close that I could make out every detail of its radiant body: the tapered head, the blowholes clamped shut, the dark-light flesh of its flippers, the flex of its back, its sharp dorsal fin, the power of its tail. If I had fallen overboard, which I was dangerously close to doing — which in a secret way I wanted to do, what an “accident” that would have been—I might have landed on its back. That the sea could hold such things, at once so near and so far away.

Once past us, the whale surfaced and swam off to rejoin its group. John noted the sinking sun. If we were to get back to Long Beach before dark, we had to get moving. As the Ziphid bounded toward the coast, I asked what the behavior meant. “I’m not sure,” John said. “Juveniles just do that sometimes.” He didn’t know whether it was out of curiosity, or youthful piss and vinegar, but whatever it was, such impulses would be drummed out of the young whale by the time it reached adulthood.

The sun was almost level with the horizon. Nary a beaked whale to be seen. John pressed the throttle forward as far as it would go. The Ziphid flew, and I closed my eyes against the stinging spray and warm whip of wind. Against the roar of the engine, I thought of that space peculiar to natural history, where what is formally known about an animal blurs with what is informally felt, and knowledge can become something like grace. Left to their private lives, John had said earlier, even the most common animals can still surprise us. Probably I already knew that. But it was nice to be reminded.

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Eric Wagner lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Scientific American, Smithsonian, Audubon, Slate and elsewhere.

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Originally published in Orion magazine, July/August 2015. Subscribe or sign up for a free trial issue.