Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dead Whale Strikes Back

Last night, as we visited the Westport Community Store, the lady told us about the whale. Some time in the last few days a fin whale had died, beached on shore just a couple of miles south of town. So, when we loaded up several weeks worth of laundry for a trip into Fort Bragg (9 washer loads, 6 dryers) we stopped beside the road, and took a 150 foot high view of the whale. There wasn't an instant when people weren't in the view. The whale was quite a draw, and a little bit down the road, at Chadbourne Gulch, where there was beach access, there were at least a dozen cars. After returning with the laundry, Mary Ann loaded up her camera gear for a sunset photo shoot and rather than gamble for a better view, we went to the same place.

It was about 5PM and people were gathered at the gulch. There were couples, many families with children, and a number of young bucks with pickups and beer. Mary Ann headed off with her camera and tripod, while I waited until her extra camera battery was charged. Finally, I came out on the beach to join her. She had already been to see the whale and had come half-way back to get the right angle for her sunset shots of waves crashing on the rocks. I handed over the battery and went to see the whale myself.

The body of the giant was fascinating. Due to the breeze, the odor wasn't unpleasant at the head, but at the tail, the fish odor was strong. I was more concerned about the other people. When I had arrived, a group of about eight or so young people -- late teens or early twenties -- were there, taking camera-phone shots, and throwing rocks at it.

I guess the instinct to poke a stick at the dead monster is pretty strong. Only there weren't any sticks. All they had were rocks and pickups. One of the beer-and-pickup crowd had come down onto the beach and made a run at it. It was gone by the time I walked up, but the tracks showed that it must have gotten close enough to rub the dirt off the side of the pickup. I doubt that the pickup or the rocks affected the whale any. Once the rock throwers left, I braved the surf and got close enough to touch the whale -- not something I'm going to get much chance at.

The skin was tough. The fin felt like it was made of mahogany covered with leather. It didn't feel slimy, but afterwards my hand felt oily. It was a creature of the depths and comfortable moving among rocky shores. It would take a whole lot more than a chunk of rock to make a mark on this thing. I went back to join Mary Ann, with a flashlight in case she needed it.

On the way back, the pickup returned, making another half-mile run from the gulch to the whale. Mary Ann had said they had offered to ferry her back to the car, warning her that the tide was coming in. The sun had gone down, but the clouds and the dusk light were still giving her enough light to work by. She had to move a few times, and the rising tide was pushing her back. I commented that if they weren't careful, they'd get their pickup stuck. I wondered what they were up to, thinking of the rock throwers and the tracks they'd left the first time.

Then one of them came by at a run. They'd gotten the pickup stuck, and he was going for help. I suggested to Mary Ann that we not spend a whole lot of time talking about people making stupid mistakes and pick up our expensive equipment and get back to the car before the rising tide and the fading light got us in trouble too.

We stopped at the overlook on the way back, and down below, we could see that another pickup had come to help.

Mary Ann set up her camera to take 30 second exposures on the tripod and we watched as they struggled.

I tried to make sense of the scene below. Had the pickup tried to drive up onto the whale, or had the waves washed it into that position? Finally, the second vehicle had to give it up. They couldn't get the traction, and it was still two hours until high tide. As I write, the pickup is still there in the dark, being shoved around by the waves.

I'm sure the dead whale has no thoughts on the matter, and probably isn't too concerned with its dignity. But whales are monsters to the human scale, and we risk more than our own dignity when we attempt to knock it down a peg.

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