Tag Archives: gray whales

Thar she blows!

The whales are back. I saw the boats before I saw the beasts: the harbor cruises all making a quick buck by never even having to venture out to sea to satisfy the looky-lous. I knew by the way the boats were just sitting there, inside the jetty, that the grays were on their migration back north, mothers and calfs and yearlings ducking into the relatively safe harbor of the port of Los Angeles to escape orcas, find some shallow grub, and scrape off a few barnacles. Sure enough, a heart-shaped wisp appeared in between two power boats. Thar she blows.

Pelicans

There were hundreds of birds on the breakwater near the Angels Gate lighthouse.

It’s a thrill to see a whale up close. I’m as guilty of enjoying it as anyone. I was out there Sunday morning, right where the tour boats had been. Only I maintain a respectful distance in my kayak — 100 yards is the law — with no noisy engine or toxic fumes disturbing the environment. You really don’t have to chase them: If you are patient and calm, they will probably, eventually come to you.

That happened Sunday. I got there early and paddled out alone, stopping to photograph birds on buoys, to sip my coffee and pour a ceremonial cetacean offering in the bay. I saw blows pretty much right away, but I also saw the paddleboarders and boats that were already crowding the whales. So I stayed in my lane, aiming toward the lighthouse. Pausing in the middle to see if my friend Laurie was catching up, I heard it: the exhale of a whale surfacing to breathe. It was a few hundred feet to the north, but I could see its white back. Immediately I heard another blow, the same distance south. Their surfacing seemed so timed I assumed they were traveling together, probably a mother and child. They passed on either side, heading inland, and I kept paddling toward  the ocean.

Laurie caught up with me just before the lighthouse, right after a third whale surfaced in front of us. She doesn’t believe in stopping for whales, and I followed her to the open water, where it was suprisingly calm, more so than in San Pedro Bay. Maybe we should have kayaked on the outside, I thought. But ironically, it’s a lot harder to see a whale out here in the wild than in one of the world’s busiest harbors, at least in the spring.

We had just started paddling back when a whale surfaced in front of a nearby fishing boat. We stopped, and I managed to shoot it in slow motion on my iPhone, though we were too far away for a clear image. It dove, and we stayed motionless, drifting slowly in with the current. They can’t go very deep in the shallow bay so they usually don’t stay under long, unless they are running away.

I was sitting with my camera ready when suddenly the water bubbled a few yards in front of me, and I was looking right at a baby gray whale. It was so close that I had to drop the phone in my lap and paddle backwards so as not to drift over it. I brake for whales. It lay on the surface in front of me, a perfect recently born calf, white as a sheet. Then it bowed its head, diving down again, giving me a full body view from baleen to fluke. I was giddy with laughter, stoned on cetacean: it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I feel like it came to me, checked me out, and went on its way — I did not give chase.

It surfaced a couple more times, close but not that close. Laurie had paddled away, surfing the wake of a passing boat in her slender sit-inside kayak. She does not like to get close to the whales and feels like we are intruding on them. I respect her opinion, especially since she is a first-nation American. But I feel differently. These whales choose a busy harbor for their day care center and rest area. They are clearly curious about humans — I’ve had several close encounters in the the three years they’ve been visiting San Pedro Bay — and I think we should treat them as old friends who are returning to waters that were once full of whales, before human hunters wiped them out. I think we should welcome them back, give them their space, and help and protect them. Don’t run toward them, but don’t run from them either.

I have heard different versions of why they have been coming to the harbor the last three years: there has been extensive pollution mitigation there and they may feel like it is safer than it was for decades. They may also be starving and looking for food; they have appeared emaciated, and some were found dead in the unusual mortality event of 2019. But I also know that scientists have observed some of the same whales from previous years returning. So when I see them, I like to think of them as old friends. Sharing the water with these magnificent, gentle creatures, as we must share the planet, never gets old.

 

 

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Gray Days

Photo by Tim Maxeiner

The news of Space X building its big effing rocket in San Pedro has gone national, global even. It, along with some hot property deals, also led to the predictable headlines about an “upturn for San Pedro.” Maybe, maybe not. As “Marina del Pedro,” an info-rich exhibit currently at the Angels Gate Cultural Center, shows, the efforts to develop this community are as old as the port itself. Curator and artist Tim Maxeiner (discloser: he’s a friend) turned to both historical archives and the contemporary local community to tell the tale of the Port of Los Angeles’s push and pull relationship to nature, industry, people, and business. The German-born egalitarian pulls work from both teens he taught at the Boys and Girls Club and such local artists as Phoebe Barnum and Beth Elliott. I even wrote an essay for it, about waterfront adventures in this whale of a town. The exhibit closes Saturday, with festivities from 3 to 6 p.m. Below is my essay, which will also be in the catalog, available this weekend.

Gray Days

By Evelyn McDonnell

I live on the edge of a forest. It’s five acres large, a potential home to 700 species, and it thrives in winter, when its trunks and leaves stretch high to the sky, swaying back and forth in the ocean currents. Animals feed and hide here in the Giant Kelp: mammals as big as you, who will swim up to your kayak and look you straight in the eye or roll in the water underneath, showing off, or maybe even nursing their young. Schools of fish — sardines or Spanish mackerels — flash silver in the sun, and bright orange garibaldi dart nervously around rock outcroppings, having been pushed out of their nests by crustacean bullies: armored lobsters and their sideway cousins, the crabs.

I live next to one of the busiest ports in the world. Ships laden with containers slip in and out of Angels Gate, like multi-colored skyscrapers moving sideways across the sea. Towering cranes await them, a forest of metal redwoods silhouetted against the mountains, ready to pluck the rectangular boxes off the cargo decks like so many toothpicks hundreds of feet in the air, then stack them neatly on the dock, where they’ll continue their voyage via trains, or trucks — the atoms of the neoliberal capitalist organism continuing their global orbit. Refineries belch smoke in the background, processing the crude black oil pumped up from the bottom of the ocean by the rigs that loom like watchtowers on the southern most edge of my view — the rigs are the south poles, the refineries the north. Between them lie the kelp and the commerce, the dolphins and the dock workers, the whales and the freighters — the urban wild landscape of San Pedro, my adopted home.

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