Thar She Blows!

Whale watching, La Entrada, Bahia Magdalena, Baja California Sur

by Scott Sadil

It doesn’t take a lot in the way of imagination to understand why many anglers are fascinated by stories about whaling.  All of us learned at a young age the difference between fish and mammals, that cetaceans, although creatures of the sea, share with us the familiar attributes of our land-based kin, be they dogs, horses, or our well-documented cousins, the apes and chimpanzees.

Insights into our warm-blooded lineage did little to stop anyone from engaging in fantasies about what it might be like to attempt to hunt, hook, and restrain a whale, bringing it to boat and hand by means of a taut line.  We had some idea, of course.  We knew the gist, if not the actual pages, of Moby Dick, and the diminutive breadth of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea gave us courage enough to start his slender novella, although come some point in the memory-laden battle we were many of us wishing we could revert to the movie, if only to relive the spectacular footage of the leaping marlin as Spencer Tracy held on for dear life.

Thar she blows: California Gray Whale

But we grew up, in this case grew wiser, and realized that the business of whaling, like hunting sea turtles or chopping down old growth forests or colonizing so-called foreign cultures and lands, has no legitimate place in our presumably modern world.  Fortunately, this insight became shared knowledge, worldwide, before whales went the way of the dodo, Moa, passenger pigeon, Tasmanian tiger, and woolly mammoth.

It could have happened. Whales, like Homo sapiens, are generally gregarious, community-minded creatures, many species gathering annually in specific locations for rites of reproduction, calving and rearing of their young, plus any number of other forms of socialization that we can still only guess at. 

In other words, as with other herding animals or tribal peoples, whales are vulnerable to wholesale slaughter.

The California gray whale is a case in point.  When breeding grounds were first discovered in the bays and esteros along the Baja California peninsula, nineteenth-century whalers had a field day.  Within a decade, commercial whaling at this handful of sites was no longer economically viable, although this didn’t stop the killing of gray whales along the North American coast of the eastern Pacific until their protection, in 1936, in U.S. waters.

Tamalita, Paul Gartside Design #166, Six Meter Lugger

Today, some 20,000 gray whales migrate annually, in some cases over 5,000 miles each way, from their Baja breeding grounds to sites of summer feeding in the northern Bering and Chukchi seas. Hunting now takes the shape of whale-watching tours all along the eastern Pacific coastline, but mostly in those same bays and esteros along the Baja peninsula where these huge graceful creatures were first killed, then slaughtered in such startling numbers. 

Alone on my small sailing lugger, Tamalita, I still fantasize sometimes about what it would be like to attach myself, by harpoon and handline, to one of these magnificent creatures, feeling the power of so much life trying to escape my no doubt feeble attempts to subdue it.  

Tamalita, moored off of Magdalena Whale Camp

Such are the childish fantasies of many of us who spend so much of our own lives trying our luck against the unfathomable mysteries of life underwater, but especially beneath the vast blue seas.  We are absolutely certain there is something there worth knowing—and we gladly waste our precious time here trying to wrench one more iota of meaning out of the chaos we sense all around us.

Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil is happy to report he’s finally managing to tease some pretty shape out of Tamalita’s potent mainsail.