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War of the Whales, Chapter 1

War of the Whales, Chapter 1

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Published by wamu885
From WAR OF THE WHALES: A True Story by Joshua Horwitz. Copyright (c ) 2014 by Joshua Horwitz. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.. All rights reserved.
From WAR OF THE WHALES: A True Story by Joshua Horwitz. Copyright (c ) 2014 by Joshua Horwitz. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.. All rights reserved.

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Published by: wamu885 on Jul 08, 2014
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved

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11/04/2014

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The Day the Whales Came Ashore
 
Day 1: March 15, 2000, 7:45 a.m.
 
 Sandy Point, Abaco Island, the Bahamas
 Powered by his second cup of coffee, Ken Balcomb was motoring through
 
his orientation speech for the Earthwatch Institute volunteers who had flown
 
in the night before. The workday started early at Sandy Point, and Balcomb
 
was eager to finish his spiel and head out onto the water before the sun got
 
high and hot. “Take as many pictures as you like,” he told them, “but leave the marine life in the ocean. Conches in the Bahamas are listed as a threatened species, so you can’t take their shells home as souvenirs.” 
After a breakfast of sliced papaya and peanut butter sandwiches, a dozen
 
volunteers sprawled across the worn couches of the modest beachfront house
 
that Balcomb rented with his wife and research partner, Diane Claridge. Here,
 
on the underpopulated southwestern tip of Abaco, far from the posh resorts
 
on the tiny Out Islands elsewhere in the Bahamas, the only tourist activity
 
was bonefishing in the clear, bright shallows of the continental shelf. What
the tourists rarely glimpsed, and what the volunteers had come to see, were
 
the reclusive Cuvier’s and Blainville’s beaked whales of the Great Bahama
 
Canyon. For the past 15 years, the Earthwatch volunteer program had provided
 
the sole financial support for the decadelong photo-identification survey
 
of the beaked whales here in the Bahamas and of the killer whales in the
 
Pacific Northwest. The Earthlings, as Ken and Diane called them, traveled
 
from across the United States and around the world to assist their survey
 
and to catch a fleeting glance of the deepest-diving creatures in the ocean:
 
the beaked whales that lived inside the underwater canyon offshore from
 
Sandy Point. For the most part, they were altruistic tourists, from teenagers
 
to golden-agers, looking for a useful vacation from the winter doldrums up
 
north. At Sandy Point, they could learn a little about whales, lend a hand in a
 
righteous eco-science project, and enjoy the Bahamian sunshine. Occasionally, one of the volunteers got hooked on the research and never 
 
went home. While still a teenager in landlocked Missouri, Dave Ellifrit had
 
seen Balcomb’s photos of killer whales in a magazine. That summer, he
 
showed up at Smugglers Cove on San Juan island, off the coast of Washington, to help with the annual survey. Ellifrit was immediately at home with the
 
open-boat work, despite the pale complexion that came with his
 
 
 bright red
 
hair. Fifteen years later, he was still working for room and board as a year-round researcher—at Smugglers Cove in the summer and at Sandy Point in
 
the winter. Balcomb and Claridge had more or less adopted the young man,
 
mentoring him in whale research and helping pay his way through an environmental science program at Evergreen State College in Washington. While Balcomb finished briefing the Earthlings on the details of photo
 
identification and log entries, Ellifrit was on the beach readying the motorboats for the day’s survey. “Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any  beaked
 
whales your first day out,” Balcomb explained to the volunteers. “They range
 
all over the canyon and surface only about once an hour, rarely in the same
 
 place twice. So unless you get lucky, you wont be grabbing any photos at first.”
 
Balcomb explained the differences between the Cuvier’s and Blainville’s
 
 beaked whales that he and Claridge had catalogued over the past decade.
 
Some of the more studious Earthlings took notes. Others were busy applying an extra layer of sunblock, which was fine with Balcomb. He didn’t want to
 
spend his evening nursing sunburned volunteers. Balcomb had the weather-beaten look of someone who’d spent most of 
 
his six decades on the water, and about ten minutes focused on his wardrobe. Every morning, he pulled on whatever free promotional t-shirt he’d
 
fished out of the pile in his closet and stepped into a nondescript pair of 
 
sun-bleached shorts and the flip-flops he’d stepped out of the night before.
 
He wore his hair shaggy or cropped short, depending on how recently Diane
 
had taken the shears to him, topped off by whatever baseball cap the last
 
group of Earthlings had left behind. Balcomb’s face was mostly covered by a
 
thick salt-and-pepper beard, and his bright, constantly watchful eyes had the
 
reverse-raccoon look that comes from wearing sunglasses 12 months a year. Even standing in the living room, he kept his legs planted in the wide
 
stance of a man accustomed to life on boats, flexed just enough to absorb any
 
unexpected pitch or roll. “There are only a few dozen whales in the whole
 
canyon, and some weeks we only see a handful of them,” he continued. “But there’s lots of other marine life out there if you keep your eyes peeled.
 
A college-aged young woman raised her hand. “What do we do about the
 
sharks?” “The sharks are nothing to worry about unless there’s blood in the water,
 
Balcomb said with a smile. “So any of you women . . .” Claridge winced in
 
anticipation of an off-color punch line shed heard too many times. Balcomb
 
liked to tease his beautiful Bahamian wife about her British reserve, and he
 
couldn’t resist trying to bring a blush to her pale, almost Nordic face. “. . . if it’s
 
your time of month, you might want to stay in the boat, because—” The screen door banged open. Everyone looked up to see Dave Ellifrit,
 
 
 
out of breath and wide eyed. When his eyes found Balcomb’s, he said, almost
 
matter-of-factly, “There’s a whale on the beach.Claridge grabbed the camcorder off the kitchen counter and raced out the
 
door. Balcomb jogged down the beach behind her, slowing to a walk as he
 
reached the water’s edge. The whale lay helpless in three feet of water, its spindle-shaped body
 
lodged in the sand, while its tail fluke splashed listlessly in the shallows. Balcomb couldn’t believe how close to the house the animal had stranded: less than 100 feet up the beach. It was a Cuvier’s—and it was alive. A live Cuvier’s beaked whale! How was that possible? His mind raced to fix on a reference point. The last beaked whale to strand alive in these waters had come
 
ashore decades ago, back in the early 1950s, on the north side of the island. Balcomb had been chasing after various species of beaked whales for most
 
of his life.* As a teenaged beachcomber in California, hed thought of beaked
 
whales as emissaries from the distant past: modern dinosaurs that jealously
 
guarded the secrets of their evolutionary journey from the Eocene Age. He’d
 
walked countless miles of coastline in search of bone fragments, hoping to
 
 piece together small skeletal sections, waded knee-deep through piles of 
 
discarded organs outside whaling stations on four continents, searching for 
 
some anatomical prize tucked away inside—a tusk or a vertebra or, the rarest
 
of treasures, a skull. In his twenties, he’d begun photographing beaked whales
 
during whale survey expeditions in the Pacific. For a dozen winters, he’d
 
sailed a tall ship along the Atlantic Seaboard, charting whale migrations and
 
searching for beaked whales from Newfoundland to the Dominican Republic. For the past ten seasons, he and Claridge had staked out a “species hot
 
spot” in the Great Bahama Canyon, waiting with loaded cameras in small
 
 boats to photograph and videotape, classify and catalogue the resident community of Cuvier’s and Blainville’s beaked whales. But until the morning of 
 
March 15, 2000, he had never touched a live beaked whale. And now, right
 
at his feet, lay a living, breathing specimen. For a hardcore bone-hunting
 
 beachcomber like Balcomb, this was an embarrassment of riches. An intact
 
 beaked whale that could provide a window into its functional anatomy, and
 
a complete skeleton! Balcomb was a realist. He knew that most whales that strand alive don’t
 
survive. By the time a whale comes ashore, too much has already gone wrong.
 
Stranding is simply too severe a trauma for most whales to sustain. If he
 
 pushed this one back out to sea in such shaky condition, the sharks would
 
likely tear it to pieces before it traversed the two-mile gauntlet of shallows
 
* more than 25 percent of the 78 whale species are beaked whales, though only a few species of beaked
 
whales have been well studied. 

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