Sunday, May 1, 2011

Of Whales and Whoah!

In 1985, as a fourth grader, I was mesmerized with the true-life tale of Humphrey, the Humpback whale who wandered into San Francisco Bay (not a typical Humpback Habitat), got turned around and began to swim up the Sacramento River as though he were some kind of salmon returning to spawn. Humphrey captivated the people of the Bay Area and the world, as would be rescuers fought night and day to get him pointed in the right direction. So inspired were the locals that a restaurant was named after him, a book for children was published, and school teachers like my mother created ornate Halloween costumes to honor him. Humphrey must have enjoyed all of the attention he was getting, because he returned once again in 1990, as lost as ever.

I have always been fascinated with whales, the largest most interesting mammal on earth. It has long been a dream of mine to see a blue whale with my own eyes and, although I have been on several whale watching expeditions have only managed to spot Orca, Grey and Humpback whales on those trips. Like the southwestern Gila Monster, the mighty Blue eludes me (though I did eat at a restaurant called The Blue Whale once).

This poster is in my bedroom.

The seas are alive and teeming with life, quite possibly the last great frontier as many an explorer might claim. One only needs to visit Monterrey Bay in California to witness the incredible number of species working in conjuction so closely together to realize the madness the oceans and their lifeforms inject into the people who appreciate it. Authors like Melville and Hemingway; explorers like Cousteau, Charles Darwin and Steve Irwin; Fictional giants like Steve Zissou- all held the creatures of the sea in high regard.

Whenever the sea is involved the line between fact and fiction is always a little bit blurry. You have to believe this when wading in to the biographical account of Lynne Cox's encounter with a baby gray whale off the coast of California. The whale, whom she named Grayson, has lost its mother and it's up to Cox to help the little guy find her.

Steve Zissou and a cetacean friend.

Grayson, not so coincidentally, is also the title of her book. It's an incredibly fast and interesting read that will satisfy lovers of the sea, both adults and children alike. If you've read Cox's first biography Swimming To Antarctica (read my review of that book here) you know that she has a tendency for the dramatic, almost to the point of unbelievability. In Grayson, the penchant for tall tales that she developed in that work is in full effect. As she conducts her open water swims, like a character from the undersea world of The Little Mermaid, Cox seems to hold dominion over the entire undersea world, and is at various times in the narrative flanked by sting rays, dolphins, sunfish, and sea turtles, all in addition to the baby whale. If this weren't a children's book I would not be at all surprised if Grayson did not at some point swim up to her and begin feeding from her breast.

But absurdities and outlandish tales aside there is a moral lesson to be learned here. If there is a villain present it is industrialized humanity and our reliance on oil. An oil rig is a central landmark in the tale, and having heard that whales who get off course (like Humphrey) may do so because of noises made by humans, one supposes that the rig may have played a part in causing Grayson's separation from his mother.

I won't tell you if Grayson ever finds his mother again or not, or whether or not he is still out there swimming in the pacific siring calves of his own. I don't believe much of what Lynn Cox writes, but it's still fun to read. The people who spend time on (and in) the sea are entitled to certain liberties when they tell their tales. I know I won't be swimming to Antarctica any time in the near future, so I'll just have to take Lynne Cox's word for it.

In the meantime, enjoy this video that was taken around the time that Lynne Cox encountered Grayson:

Could this have been Grayson's Mother?

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