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Vigil

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time
and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion
is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection
for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison
by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures
and the whole of nature in its beauty.
— Albert Einstein, Letter of 1950, as quoted in The New York Times

All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact:
in suffering the animals are our equals.
— Peter Singer, Animal Liberation

Two humpback whales have ventured into the Sacramento Delta[i] and we humans don’t know what to do.  Wounded with lacerations from a boat propeller, the mother and her calf have wandered eighty miles from the salt water they need in order to survive.  They could be in trouble: Already taxed from their long migration up the Pacific from the Southern Baja, the humpbacks won’t be able to find their preferred food in the waters of the Delta.  In addition, over time the freshwater will damage their skin and hinder the healing of their wounds.

Being human, we want to help.  We feel for the plight of these great creatures.  Federal, state, and local agencies mobilize a rescue effort, including the California Department of Fish & Game, The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, U.S. Coast Guard, California Highway Patrol, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.  Still, for all the officialdom, the rescue efforts are clumsy and ham-fisted.

The first approach attempted is to herd the whales by broadcasting underwater a series of recorded vocalizations of humpback whales, including sounds made while feeding.  The hope is these sounds might induce the pair to travel back downstream toward the ocean.  This idea makes sense on paper but is thwarted by technical problems: The sound system needed for broadcasting drains the batteries aboard the small Coast Guard vessel that carries it.  Also, the busy port throws up a lot of competing noise—ships unloading cargo, traffic into and out of the port, the whir of media helicopters overhead—which seems to prevent the whales from hearing the sounds being played for their benefit.

***

Animal communicator and author Carol Gurney believes that when working with animals it is more important to listen than to speak.  In her book, The Language of Animals: 7 Steps to Communicating with Animals, she advises that one begin by coming to a point of stillness within the self, a place of calmness and centeredness that allows one to be open to receive.  Whether the message comes in pictures or words or sensation, the animal will let you know what’s going on with it.

***

The human appetite for spectacle is insatiable.  And so is our human hunger to connect with nature, with wildness, the mystery from which contemporary life has caused us to feel estranged.  Since the whales were first spotted, thousands of gawkers have trekked to the river, hauling their cameras, their lawn chairs, their coolers, their children.  Although local sheriff have asked the public to stay away to avoid placing further stress upon the whales, authorities are sending a mixed message by also clearing brush to make a parking lot and installing Port-a-Potties to accommodate the needs of the spectators.

The Lieutenant Governor of California has christened the whales “Delta” and “Dawn,” superceding contests run by several media outlets to name the humpbacks.  One enterprising woman by the river is selling baseball caps embroidered with the words, “Save Delta and Dawn.”

***

The process of communicating with animals, continues Ms. Gurney, involves the ability to open one’s heart, to access a deep compassion, the ability to feel and care for another without an expectation of receiving anything in return.

***

Humans assume the whales have entered the Delta by mistake, but in truth, we don’t know their intention.  We haven’t bothered to ask.  After a week of unsuccessful human interventions, the creatures suddenly reverse their course, turn back in the direction of the ocean.  Their action, taken during a pause in the rescue operations, appears to have been made independent of any human effort.  The mother and her calf travel about sixteen miles toward the Pacific, but then stall near the bridge at Rio Vista.  Some speculate the traffic on the bridge is making the whales reluctant to move beyond it.

Fearing that the passage of time is only weakening the creatures, and perhaps concerned about the increasing cost of the rescue operation, marine scientists decide to convene a flotilla of boats to hasten the whales’ southward progress.  Aboard these boats are humans banging on metal pipes; their goal is to create such a ruckus that the whales will be driven to leave the area.

When this fails to break the stalemate, the rescuers’ next move is to broadcast sounds of a killer whale attacking a gray whale and her calf, a tactic likened by one of my students to screening a “cetacean snuff film.”  For good measure, scientists also transmit some random computer-generated sounds at various frequencies.  One expert admits, “No one yet knows how the whales will react.”

I think: “Well, how would you react?  You’re a parent with your child on a long journey.  You make a wrong turn and get lost.  You find yourself surrounding by creatures who first harass you with their vehicles, bang on pipes in an attempt to drive you out of the area, and then play the sounds of a woman and child being violently murdered.  There, doesn’t that help you figure out what to do next?”

***

Gurney underscores the importance of empathy in communicating with animals.  She advocates practicing a kind of gestalt exercise, wherein you take on the other’s identity in order to imagine what the animal is feeling.

***

When these measures once more fail to expel the whales from the river, the experts try aiming fire hoses in the direction of the whales, reasoning that the false current caused by the pressure hoses will get them moving.  Who can fail to be reminded of the 1960s civil rights movement, when police and fire fighters turned fire hoses on peaceful African American demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama?  While the whales do register what the scientists describe as “aversion” by turning away from the blasts of water, they do not change their location.

***

It is suggested that, when approaching an animal with which one wishes to communicate, one should ask respectfully if the animal is open to communicating at this time.

***

Concerned that the wounds of the whales are becoming infected in the fresh water—which carries bacteria and contamination not found in salt water—marine biologists decide to shoot darts full of antibiotics into the two mammals.  Wildlife officials say it’s the first time antibiotics have ever been administered to whales in the wild.

***

One can connect to an animal who is ailing or injured, says Gurney.  Through careful listening, you can determine where the animal is feeling pain and the degree of discomfort, as well as what the animal needs in order to feel better.

***

A hotline is set up for the public to offer suggestions about how to persuade the whales to return to the ocean.  This is not a media stunt, but a government website. Rose sends an email suggestion to bring Buddhist monks to chant to the whales while visualizing their safe passage back to the Pacific.  A Connecticut woman recommends bringing in a “whale whisperer” to telepathically communicate with the animals.  Ideas like these are dismissed out of hand by the scientists in charge, even though there is ample evidence to suggest that whales do communicate telepathically.

***

Telepathy, says Gurney, is not a special or rarefied ability, but one that we experience all the time.  We are always receiving signals and messages from those around us and, whether consciously or unconsciously, we are always reading and responding to them.

***

Then, on the fourteenth night since they were first spotted in the river, the whales begin to move downstream, once more unprompted by human efforts.  They travel twenty-four miles in twenty-four hours before coming to rest near the Carquinez Bridge, about 45 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.

It takes three more days of watching the whales inch closer to the Pacific before the animals slip out of sight, presumably returning to their habitat.  Their departure is as mysterious as their arrival and does not appear to have resulted from the frenzied activity of the humans who spent seventeen days and about a quarter of a million dollars to intervene on their behalf.

The Lieutenant Governor convenes a meeting of all the responding agencies to assess the results of their efforts.  The rescue is deemed “a tremendous success.”

***

We have to love Nature before we can protect it.
—Rachel Carson

***

It seems that human intervention in the lives of animals is most successful when it is accompanied by a respect for other creatures as sentient, when we exhibit empathy for their experience and are receptive to their needs.  What prevents these qualities from being expressed is the separation too many humans feel from other living beings.  We forget that we, too, are animals and that their fate is also ours.

Compassion without empathy is merely pity, or worse, serves as justification for unhelpful intervention.  Scientific research indicates that whales entered the water 50 million years ago.  Humans have only been around for about 4 million years. Why do we assume we have nothing to learn from these ancient and powerful beings?

New research has shown that humpbacks contain specialized brain cells thought to process emotions, memories and insight—until now only seen in the brains of primates, including humans. Many experts believe that these cells signify capacity for intelligence and also suffering.

Current threats to whales from human behavior include the practice of hunting whales for their meat or blubber, collisions with ocean-going vessels, toxic contamination, entanglement in fishing lines, oil and gas drilling in coastal feeding grounds, climate change and underwater noise that disrupts the communications of the whales.

***

“Humpback whales in the North Pacific all sing the same song and
it is the most complex song on Earth. Their song is constantly changing
in the same way in whales separated by thousands of miles of ocean.
Scientists cannot explain how this happens.”

— Marsha L. Green, PhD, “Our Healing Relationship with Nature”

***

According to an article by Peter Fimrite in the December 14, 2005 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, a migrating humpback got tangled in crab trap lines off the Farallon Islands.  The 45- to 50-foot-long female was so badly caught in the snarl of lines that experts from the Marine Mammal Center determined that the only thing to do was to send a team of divers to cut her free.  This was a treacherous proposition because a single slap of her enormous tail could easily kill a diver.

The first diver, James Moskito, noted that approximately twenty crab-pot ropes were twisted around the humpback’s tail, her flippers, even in her mouth.  The lines were cinched tight and cutting into her blubber.  In addition, twelve crab traps, each weighing ninety pounds, were pulling the whale downward; she was struggling to keep her blowhole above water.

Four divers spent more than an hour painstakingly cutting the ropes while the whale floated quietly and, according to the divers, gave off “a strange kind of vibration.”  Moskito reported that the whale’s eye watched him the whole time he was cutting the line in her mouth.

Once freed, the whale began to swim in circles around the humans. Then she approached each diver, nuzzling him or her gently before moving to the next one.  Divers recounted that they felt the whale was thanking them, acknowledging their help.  Moskito seems to speak for all of them when he says, “It was an epic moment of my life.”


[i] Factual information on the two whales in the Sacramental Delta was provided by ongoing coverage in the Contra Costa Times, May 15-June 7, 2007.

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