An essay by Cyril Cristo, whose constant pestering of my editor’s assistant was responsible for Vanity Fair assigning “Agony and Ivory.” Cyril lives in Santa Fe and cares deeply about the life on earth. He has produced a number of beautiful coffee table books of his photos of wild animals, notably Walking Thunder about the elephants.
The Sanctity of Whales
Remote and imperturbable, the lives of whales are somehow enough to match any fantasy humanity can create. They are what we have lost, what we yearn for. They are in some ways the last wild voice calling to the consciousness of terminally civilized humanity, our last contact before we submerge forever in our own manufacture and irretrievably lose the last fragments of our wild selves.
Roger Payne Among Whales
It is a rare, silent refuge one arrives at in San Ignacio Bay in the middle of Baja California. One drives as if on pilgrimage to a sanctuary at the edge of the world. It is not so much the long winding beaches, the crystalline salt lakes and the Pacific geography that entrances and beckons so. It is the expectation of the beings that await you, the gray whales who calve their young for the winter months from January to March and who welcome us, the human in a pageant that is unique on earth. That we, their destroyers from years past, would now be encouraged to approach them, that we can touch and be accepted by such leviathans speaks to a cardinal event in the world, for this is one of the great, if not the most remarkable of interspecies exchanges on earth.
One searches for blowholes for signs of life, on the pangas that go out into the bay, a bay that has been a refuge for the calving grounds of the whales for countless millennia. In 1855, a captain from Maine Charles Scammon, first went sealing in California and whaling in Magdalena Bay for the grays. Then he turned his attention to San Ignacio. By 1859-60 the grays they had been eliminated. San Ignacio is a World Heritage site and the desecration that has been visited upon these whales renders the pilgrimage there all the more remarkable. The spouting marvel explodes from the back of blue grey giant, first a mother and then a calf, and then one realizes that the waters are alive with mind, that a depth charge of consciousness has just been summoned in your psyche and that you are not alone, that you are surrounded by others that have entered your sphere of cognizance and heart. Some come to your boat and you reach out, as did our 7 year old Lysander, yearning to retrieve a part of their essentiality. You have been baptized. They allow you, encourage you to reach out because you need to do so. Otherwise, our humanity, our very inhumanity would overwhelm us and we would lose contact with one of the very great truths of existence, that an Indra’s net of sentience connects us with the other and that the others are, in some ineffable way, trying to save us from our too overbearing selves. Just maybe.
It was a local, Pachico Mayoral who nervously extended his hand to touch a grey whale over forty years ago. Nothing happened. It was like a communion from a being who negotiates the longest migration of any mammal on earth. Some scientists believe the whales are just trying to dislodge barnacles from their skin or maybe lice. But the reductionist model is too simple. It is too pragmatic. It does not allow for any crack in the armor of our narcissism or solipsism.
What if this species were actually telling us something beyond what the rational mind is used to. That these whales could have gone extinct makes the case for their outreach all the more extraordinary. At the height of the factory whaling ships just before the mid XX century, their numbers plummeted to only a few hundred. Given a reprieve, they started bouncing back and now the world has over 20,000 of them. But we could have lost them forever. More exactly we could have exterminated them and with their species, perhaps the most rarefied human non- human ritual on the planet. For it is a symphony that is extended to us when the whales breach, come up to a panga, stick their massive heads out of the water and eye the human experiment. Some stay long enough to allow us that extension of the hand that says that deep down in the central core of time and memory, we are the same. They know our kind and unkindness and what we are capable of and still they come. This act of commiseration, or compassion for the havoc we represent to the life force is telling us something critical for our sanity and survival. The whales are telling us, “ we know who you are and what you have been.. you have been forgiven….learn now who we are.”
With the grey whales of Baja, humanity is being given an ongoing reprieve, like a prayer, an act of grace that is trying to heal history and to forge a new destiny. The whales as agents of Creation have never been aggressors to our kind. They are messengers of the only true reason for being, to be coherent with Creation and to honor it. If, as we believe, we are the only species to have been given the gift of reason, our superiority is being challenged in Baja. The whales are consonant with the world and they are telling us to do the same.
The whales have been allowing us to approach them ever since the environmental movement began over forty years ago. They have been trying to tell us something ever since the Russians harpooned their cousins the sperm whales and used their oil to lubricate ICBM’s, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that could evaporate all life on earth. An act of utter madness. Are we really sapient?
Are we sure, in our short evolutionary history, that we are truly sentient? What the whales could be doing is demonstrating the act of exchanging one’s mind for the other. It is one of the central practices of higher adepts in Buddhism. They have seen our lower selves and felt the full depth charge of our madness. They experienced first hand the butchery and savagery of our kind and they are telling us we can change. That we must change.
The ritual of Baja is a covenant unlike any other on earth. If we are willing to meet these spectacular beings half way, a part of our conscience changes and something ineffable in the soul is altered for all time. We are being given a chance to rethink the human equation. Nothing we can construct, no cultural artefact, no mathematical equation, no invention can match the beauty and power of coming together with another mind that evolved tens of millions of years ago. While we seek alien life forms in our solar system or light years away, there is a being, the friendliest species of whale on earth, that is urging us to shed the skin of terror, suspicion and slaughter we have been raised on. To be fully human, means to touch the tactile soul of the other and to exult in an ethic and esthetic of equality. If we meet them half way, their mindful exultation in the world should provide a lesson to our supposed superiority, now more than ever.
The gray whales are a carnal symphony. What humanity has been invited to do in Baja is to celebrate a dance between two disparate species, one that is in evolutionary terms a relative newcomer to earth and which does not yet know how to conduct itself and the other which is functioning as a guide to a higher plane of being on the only planet we know to harbor life. The great writer Loren Eiseley once wrote,” One does not meet oneself until one has seen one’s reflection in an eye other than human.” No where is that more true than in Baja where beholding the eye of the gray whale, we touch a mirror to our psyche, a miniature earth calling back to us. The gray whales, like all whales harbor a mind that is profoundly coherent with the universe. That is something our species is being asked to become.
The US navy’s sonar blasts in the Pacific and the Bahamas have caused irreparable damage to several species of whales, many of which have been found dead on the world’s beaches. In January 2009, 45 sperm whales were marooned in Tasmania. All but seven died. In March 2009, about 90 pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins died in Hamelin bay in Australia. In January 2005, 33 pilot whales beached themselves on Oregon’s coast. The sonar of mayhem whether for military exercises or to find new sources of oil to run an effete civilization, is literally deafening the world. Are we becoming deaf to the song of the earth? Are we becoming existentially autistic? The war of humanity against the other must stop, once and for all, if we are to retain a semblance of sanity.
Native peoples all over the world, perhaps best evinced in such testimonials as Whalerider, have honored the other beings as incarnations, as emanations of the larger psyche of Creation. It is a simple imperative, we have to change the legacy of our technologically overbearing civilization in the next few years if we are to survive. In the sacred texts, we were supposed to be the stewards of life. Today, that is our most urgent task. The whales, the cetaceans run deeper into our subconscious than perhaps any other group of beings. The havoc we have visited upon them has to be transformed into a conscious reverence for the irreplaceable. That is what makes the whales of Baja such a miracle. They are showing us the way.