Devil Fish

In frigid waters north of Japan, in the Sea of Okhotsk, fewer than 100 Western Pacific gray whales, until recently thought vanished from the planet, feed each summer. Imagine scientists' excitement at discovering this lost tribe -- and their dismay that their research is intertwined with massive oil and gas drilling that could wipe out the whales once and for all.

Across the Pacific, in the birthing lagoons of the Mexican Baja, the immutable laws of nature are succumbing to, we think, curiosity. Cows from the largest population of gray whale, the Eastern Pacific, nudge their calves forward to be touched by humans. Nowhere else in the world does such cross-species mingling occur. People are journeying to the remote desert salt pans that ring the lagoons and pushing off in fishermen's skiffs simply to look into the eyes of the leviathans and rub their glistening dark flesh.

On top of the world, Siberian Eskimos survive brutal Arctic winters by eating the meat and blubber of the Eastern Pacific grays. The summer hunt, as life-threatening as the winter cold, has recently uncovered a disturbing problem. Some of the whales have flesh so putrid -- possibly contaminated -- even sled dogs refuse to eat it.

The peoples of the Pacific Rim hold numerous views of the great gray whale. In the Sea of Okhotsk, the views clash in a classic industrial development battle between the needs of man and mammal. Along the Eastern grays' migration path, indigenous cultures contend with environmentalists, each side energized by the certitude that their knowledge is not just scientifically but morally superior. The dilemma for the worried few with a global -- not parochial -- view is how to reconcile the varied many.

The quandary is not merely academic.

Gray whales are dying, in unusual numbers, and we don't know why. Their birth rates are down. Survivors appear undernourished.

In 1970, the organizers of the first Earth Day announced the arrival of the next big thing: the environmental movement.

Today, if nature's advocates are not always triumphant, no one questions their right to a place at the political table. It is guaranteed by popular insistence and legislative mandate, enforced by courts of law, chanted by our schoolchildren who fear for the rain forest and endangered creatures.

Perhaps no environmental battle cry has resonated more fully than "Save the Whales."

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale population is the single greatest turnaround in history of a marine mammal, according to the people who make such startling declarations. Known as devil fish in the 19th century because of its fierce attacks on whaling boats, the Eastern grays have twice been hunted to the brink of extinction in the last 150 years by industrialized fisheries. They were removed from the endangered species count in 1994, one of the first creatures to be downlisted. When mechanized hunting was largely banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1946, the grays began their recovery and today, even with the recent decline, stand at a historic density of close to 27,000.

After feeding all summer in the Arctic waters that separate Russia from North America, the whales swim along the shore from Alaska to Canada, down the U.S. Pacific coastline and into the calving grounds of Baja, Mexico. The gray whale's annual migration, as much as 12,000 miles round trip, is the longest trek by any mammal on Earth.

The distance traveled, however, is not the most astonishing detail of the journey. More than the geography spanned, the migration is riveting because the creature is transformed repeatedly by human needs along the route.

Until two generations ago, gray whales were the life source for the coastal Siberian tribes who hunted them. Then the Soviet Union moved the natives inland to raise foxes for their pelts and feed them whale meat collected by a Soviet commercial ship. Today the fox farms have all but disappeared, a casualty of the breakup of the Soviet Union. And the tribes, largely abandoned by the government, are slowly relearning the hunting skills they lost to communism. Without the gray whale, these people will die. Many already have.

By the time the whales begin their migration south and reach Vancouver, they are the focus of an emerging industry, eco-tourism. Nonexistent just a few years ago, the viewing of the living, breathing symbol of the environmental movement has turned into a multimillion dollar business in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Just a few miles south of Vancouver, across the international boundary, the whale morphs again, becoming a spiritual link to an ancient hunting tradition for Native Americans. The Makah Indians of Washington see their newly licensed hunt -- the tribe is permitted to take up to five whales annually -- as the key to establishing a direct link with their heritage. They do not need the meat to survive, but this "spiritual subsistence" is in mortal conflict with the environmental vision. Canadian and American activists have disrupted the hunt by using their Zodiac boats -- normally full of tourists in awe of frolicking whales -- to block the Makah from killing grays.

In northern California, the whale's identity changes again as park rangers shut down the lighthouse at Point Reyes every year so that busloads of visitors can view the passing parade of grays from the shoreline.

From the bluffs of Palos Verdes in Southern California, environmentalists conduct an annual census of the gray whale migration. One volunteer has logged 11,000 hours over 15 seasons with her binoculars, counting, counting.

In Orange County, the whale becomes an educational tool; 35,000 schoolchildren went out on boats last year to watch the whale and absorb its environmental lessons.

And in Mexico, the gray whales are venerated by the poet Homero Aridjis, who led the fight in that country to protect a whale nursery from industrial development. Co-founder of the Grupo de los Cien, an organization of artists and intellectuals devoted to nature, Aridjis offers a judgment on the whale. For him, the gray is a rallying point for his country's quest for more political freedom. Aridjis calls the gray whale "an icon for democracy."

From fox food to democratic icon, the gray whale's symbolic metamorphosis merely spans the conversation of human need and desire.

The whale, after all, remains but a whale.

With all of these competing cultural interests stridently asserting their stakes in the gray, science might well have served as the lingua franca. In a calmly reasoned world, researchers could have shouldered the responsibility of translation: These facts we know are true.

Such is not the case.

Science has frequently been ignored and compromised. Environmentalists are as careless with the data as bureaucrats and business leaders.

Indigenous peoples, consumer societies, industrialists, environmentalists, scientists -- all are locked in ongoing struggles.

These are the stories we will tell you, the stories overheard, witnessed and researched on the gray whale, its resurrection and the threats to its continued survival.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey