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Gray Whales, Once Almost Extinct, Make Dramatic Comeback - 2001-10-17


American whalers had a name for the ominous gray whales they killed along the Pacific Coasts of North America. They called them "Devil-Fish" and hunted them to near extinction twice, once in the 19th century and again in the 20th.

These whales made a remarkable recovery and today's "friendly whale" is the species that inspired the multi-million dollar whale watching industry. A new book on the history and survival of the gray whale is also the story of contemporary environmental issues.

Twice a year 26,000 California gray whales make an 8,000 kilometer trip. Unlike other whales that meander between coastal and deep-ocean waters, gray whales stay near the Pacific coast traveling from nursery lagoons in southern California and Mexico to feeding grounds in the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia. It's this journey that Dick Russell writes about in his new book, Eye of the Whale.

Dick Russell has put his hand in the mouth of a young whale and rubbed its rubbery gums. He has watched people pet and kiss newborn whales. He says gray whales are seen by more people, in more places than any other whale species, in part because of the many organized whale-watching expeditions.

"When the whales are coming by, which is in the winter when they are going South, in late December, and coming back north in the spring, you have thousands of people coming out to these points to watch them pass. ... There is really no way to describe in language the feeling when you are out there with these whales who are suddenly presenting themselves to you. The mothers are bringing the babies up and introducing them, and you are looking into an eye that is like a fusion of two worlds. It's like a soul connection between yourself and this huge animal that could easily overturn you in two seconds. It weighs 40 tons and is [15 meters] long. And, yet you sense that we share this common ocean planet and maybe in some mysterious way the whales are trying to tell us that we have to do what we can with a human consciousness to preserve their habitat."

The gray whale was the first whale designated for protection under an international agreement in 1937. It was also the first whale taken off the U.S. endangered species list in 1995.

Dick Russell says despite this dramatic recovery, whales continue to face new threats. Last year a coalition of groups in Mexico and the United States defeated an attempt to built a massive salt factory within the gray whale's last pristine nursery area. And, he says, warmer northern waters are affecting the food supply for the species.

"We've been seeing more and more gray whales emaciated. Six hundred of them washed ashore dead in 1999 and 2000. The reproductive rate apparently going down. The scientists aren't seeing as many calves coming north with the mothers," he said.

Mr. Russell says whales are also suffering from expanded use of low frequency sonar that was first put in place by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War to detect silent diesel submarines. "It's an extremely intense sound with decibel levels very high which have been shown to impact whales of all kinds, very strongly. Seventeen stranded in the Bahamas in 2000. Whales, including gray whales, have been seen to change their migratory patterns and disoriented by this sound which is going to be deployed across about 80 percent of the world's oceans."

From the stories of 19th century whalers to recent 21st controversies over the renewal of an American Indian whaling tradition, and the Japanese effort to lift a commercial ban on whaling, Dick Russell wants readers to learn something from the plight of the whale. In Eye of the Whale, he says what is hurting the whale from loss of habitat to pollution is also hurting us. Perhaps, he says, whales are reaching out to communicate that message.

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