If you’re currently in northwestern California, hie thy hiney out to Bodega Head (in Sonoma County, northwest of San Francisco), because the grey whales are feeding there. Five of them been hanging around very close to shore for nearly 3 weeks now. I’ve gone out to see them twice, and it’s truly a lifetime experience.
Standing on the cliff with several dozen other awestruck people who remain silent enough to hear the whales’ breathing, you wait. But not long. Soon a spout is seen and heard; then another. They seem to breathe twice in a row, so if you notice one and turn your eyes or raise your binoculars in that direction, you have a chance at seeing part of a magnificently long back, or even a tail.
A couple of times, a whale jumped up a bit into the air, eliciting a great whoop from the humans on shore. Someone asked, “Do you suppose the whales know we’re here watching their show?”
Seals are there too, bobbing around in the kelp, and cormorants drying their wings on the cliff sides, and obviously loads of krill, which is what drew the greys in the first place.
Many people try to get photos of them. I can certainly understand why. But I think that unless you have very specialized fancy lenses, it’s an exercise in futility.
I remember being a research slave –er, that is, assistant, on a project studying orcas in British Columbia. One time, our little rubber boat was absolutely surrounded by orcas. I’m a desert kid who had never been near these magnificent marine mammals in the wild, and of course I wanted to photograph them. But I had only a cheapo instamatic (remember film?) & I couldn’t get a good picture. By the time I turned the camera in the right direction where I’d heard one blow, the orcas had descended.
I came awake after awhile and realized that even while I was living one of the most moving animal encounters of my life, I found myself actually feeling frustration because of my inability to capture it on film. When I realized this, I nearly threw the camera overboard. Instead, I quietly packed it away and just began to witness. Watch, listen, feel. No documentation, only pure experience. In the moment. Wow. I realized that the use of this technology, while very fun indeed to make art with to share with friends later, actually was doing violence to my encounter with these great beings. I was thinking about the future; about the capture, instead of the relationship now. It was a hunter’s mentality, not a communer’s.
So on Bodega Head this week, I just stood there in the wind. And the gray whales swam and ate. And we likeminded strangers all watched, nobody jostling for position; just being and hoping and enjoying the seconds of witnessing when that grace of the whales’ ascent was granted us.
These are good moments.
The grays’ western North America tour plan is pictured on the right. Come on out & see them too if you can.
Windbreaker: mandatory. Camera: optional.