A True Story
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Copyright © 2014 by Joshua Horwitz
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ISBN 978-1-4516-4501-9
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Ken Balcomb Beaked whale and killer-whale researcher in the Bahamas and
San Juan Islands, Washington, respectively.
Diane Claridge Dolphin and beaked whale researcher; wife and research partner
of Ken Balcomb.
Darlene Ketten Whale and human hearing expert; forensic pathologist, Harvard
Medical School and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Roger Payne First cetologist to decode and promote humpback whale song and
Chris Clark Director, Bioacoustics Research Program, Cornell University Lab
of Ornithology; protégé of Roger Payne.
Hal Whitehead Beaked whale and sperm whale researcher; professor, Department
of Biology, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Lindy Weilgart Whale researcher; Hal Whitehead’s wife and research partner.
Peter Tyack Dolphin and whale behavioral researcher, Woods Hole Oceano -
graphic Institution.
Jim Mead Curator of marine mammals, Smithsonian Institution, Washington,
John Lilly Neuroscientist who studied and popularized dolphin communica-
* Te job titles and descriptors in the Cast of Characters refer to their positions at the time they were
participants in the narrative.
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Joel Reynolds Senior attorney, director of Los Angeles ofce of Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC); founder and director, Marine Mammal
Protection Project.
Michael Jasny Policy advocate, NRDC. Later, director, Marine Mammal Protec-
tion Project.
Andrew Wetzler Staf attorney, NRDC.
Naomi Rose Director of marine mammal programs, Humane Society of the
United States.
Ben White Animal rights activist, Animal Welfare Institute.
Admiral Richard Pittenger Director of Antisubmarine Warfare for the Chief of
Naval Operations; Oceanographer of the Navy; later
Vice President for Marine Operations, Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution.
Admiral Paul Gafney II Chief of Naval Research, Ofce of Naval Research.
Commander Robin Pirie Former submarine commander; Undersecretary of
Admiral Robert Natter Commander, US Atlantic Fleet.
Admiral William Fallon Commander, US Second Fleet.
Admiral Larry Baucom Head of N-45, Navy Ofce of Environmental Readi-
Admiral Peter Daly Aide to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike
Bob Gisiner Manager, Marine Bioacoustics Program, Ofce of Naval Research,
Washington, DC.
Frank Stone Head civilian at N-45, Navy Ofce of Environmental Readiness.
Sam Ridgway Veterinarian; head of Navy Marine Mammal Research Program,
San Diego.
Richard Danzig Secretary of the Navy during Clinton administration.
Steven Honigman General Counsel of the Navy during Clinton administration.
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Roger Gentry Head of acoustic research; Ofce of Protected Resources
Teri Rowles Director, Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
Program, Washington, DC.
Ruth Ewing Veterinarian at Southeast Fisheries Science Center, a frst re-
sponder to the Bahamas strandings.
Beaked Whales of Great Bahama Canyon
More than 20 species of beaked whales dwell in deep-water canyons and coastal
shelves around the world. Tey are the deepest-diving air-breathing creatures in the
ocean and are rarely seen on the surface.
Pacifc Gray Whales of Baja, Mexico
Tese “friendly” baleen whales (whales that flter feed through brushlike baleen, in
lieu of teeth) migrate farther than any other mammal: 6,000 miles from Baja, where
they give birth in winter, to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, above
the Arctic Circle.
Orcas (also known as Killer Whales) of Puget Sound, Washington
Te largest of the dolphin family, killer whales are the top predator in the ocean, prey-
ing on salmon, sea lions, other whales, and even great white sharks. Te Puget Sound
resident community feeds on Chinook salmon.
Dolphins of California and Florida
Highly social, easily trained, and among the smallest cetaceans, various species of
dolphins were the frst marine mammals to be captured, displayed, studied, and
trained—both in marine parks and in the Navy Marine Mammal Program.
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Perhaps the war of the whales was inevitable. Perhaps the two most successful
hunters on the planet were destined to collide. Humans had dominated life
on land for 150 centuries, while whales had held dominion over the world’s
oceans for 40 million years.
Following the mass extinction of dinosaurs and enormous seafaring rep-
tiles, the cetacean ancestors of whales and dolphins abandoned life on land
and returned to the oceans that frst spawned them. It proved to be a hugely
successful reverse migration. Diversifying into dozens of species, whales
dominated marine habitats throughout the world’s waterways. Hunting alone
or in small family groupings, in pods of a dozen or herds a thousand strong,
whales owed their success to a weapon that set them apart from every other
marine predator: biosonar, using beams of sound to hunt and navigate in the
dark ocean depths.
Small wonder, then, that whales ruled the oceans for tens of millions of
years—until another highly social, intelligent, and adaptive terrestrial mam-
mal dipped its toes into the water.
Homo sapiens arrived at the 11th hour of animal evolution, a mere 160,000
years ago. Compared to cetaceans, humans evolved rapidly, adapting to the
rigors of life on Earth through a def combination of social cooperation,
cunning, and organized aggression. Five thousand years ago, humans began
stalking the largest animals on the planet—frst from canoes, then under sail,
and eventually aboard foating factory ships that slaughtered and processed
whale populations from the South Pacifc to the Arctic Ocean.
As they rose to top predator on land and at sea, humans turned their tech-
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x vi i i PROLOGUE
nological zeal to weapons of war, spurring an arms race without end. In the
twentieth century, submarine weaponry evolved from primitive torpedoes
to intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Like their
cetacean counterparts, submariners lived and died by their ability to navigate
and hunt acoustically in the black depths of the oceans.
In the early hours of March 15, 2000, the paths of the world’s most pow-
erful navy and the ocean’s most mysterious species of whales were about to
converge. Tough on the calm surface of the Great Bahama Canyon, nothing
hinted at anything amiss. It was just another morning in paradise, the day the
whales came ashore.
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I have met with a story which, although authenticated by
undoubted evidence, looks very like a fable.
—Pliny the Younger, Letters (on hearing reports of a boy
riding on the back of a dolphin in the ἀrst century AD)
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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 cofee, Ken Balcomb was motoring through
his orientation speech for the Earthwatch Institute volunteers who had fown
in the night before. Te workday started early at Sandy Point, and Balcomb
was eager to fnish his spiel and 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.”
Afer 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 bonefshing in the clear, bright shallows of the continental shelf. What
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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
For the past 15 years, the Earthwatch volunteer program had provided
the sole fnancial support for the decadelong photo-identifcation survey
of the beaked whales here in the Bahamas and of the killer whales in the
Pacifc Northwest. Te 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 feeting glance of the deepest-diving creatures in the ocean:
the beaked whales that lived inside the underwater canyon ofshore 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. Tat summer, he
showed up at Smugglers Cove on San Juan Island, of the coast of Washing-
ton, 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. Fifeen 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 envi-
ronmental science program at Evergreen State College in Washington.
While Balcomb fnished briefng the Earthlings on the details of photo
identifcation and log entries, Ellifrit was on the beach readying the motor-
boats for the day’s survey. “Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any beaked
whales your frst day out,” Balcomb explained to the volunteers. “Tey range
all over the canyon and surface only about once an hour, rarely in the same
place twice. So unless you get lucky, you won’t be grabbing any photos at frst.”
Balcomb explained the diferences 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
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an extra layer of sunblock, which was fne 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 ward-
robe. Every morning, he pulled on whatever free promotional T-shirt he’ d
fshed out of the pile in his closet and stepped into a nondescript pair of
sun-bleached shorts and the fip-fops 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 of by whatever baseball cap the last
group of Earthlings had lef 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, fexed just enough to absorb any
unexpected pitch or roll. “Tere 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
“Te 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 of-color punch line she’ d 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—”
Te 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, “Tere’s a whale on the beach.”
Claridge grabbed the camcorder of 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.
Te whale lay helpless in three feet of water, its spindle-shaped body
lodged in the sand, while its tail fuke splashed listlessly in shallows.
Balcomb couldn’t believe how close to the house the animal had stranded:
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less than 100 feet up the beach. It was a Cuvier’s—and it was alive. A live Cu-
vier’s beaked whale! How was that possible? His mind raced to fx on a refer-
ence point. Te 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 afer various species of beaked whales for most
of his life.* As a teenaged beachcomber in California, he’ d 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 Pacifc. 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 com-
munity 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
and reached the safety of the canyon depths. He considered the possibility of
* 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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ushering the whale alongside a boat to the nearby lagoon. If it died, he could
harvest the organs, fx them in formaldehyde, and ship the skeleton up to
Jim Mead, the marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian Institution. Even
Mead had never collected a complete Cuvier’s skeleton.
Balcomb crouched down in the water beside the whale. It was about
16 feet long; average for an immature male Cuvier’s. He could tell its sex and
approximate age from the distinctive pair of slightly protruding lower tusks
that are visible only in males. Balcomb leaned in close to get a whif of his
breath. It smelled fne, not putrid like a sick whale’s would be. And he wasn’t
wasted away by ear parasites, a common afiction of stranded whales.
Te whale certainly looked healthy. His eyes weren’t dilated, and he didn’t
show any outward signs of a ship collision that would have caused a con-
cussion or brain damage. Te whale’s right eye gazed steadily back at him,
signaling—what? Confusion? Fear? How the hell could he tell? He was a
whale researcher, not a mind reader. He’ d never made close eye contact with
a beaked whale before. Had anyone?
“What in the world are you doing here?” Balcomb asked aloud. He laid a
hand gently on the whale’s back. Its skin was as sof and smooth as an inner
tube. It still felt cool to the touch, not overheated or dehydrated. Tat would
change in a hurry if they couldn’t get him of the beach. Balcomb noted the
position of the sun, already well above the horizon line and climbing. He
rocked the whale to one side and examined the fresh scratches along its belly,
probably from the nearby coral reef. Just a thin strand of blood hanging in the
water. Nothing life threatening, so long as the sharks didn’t pick up the scent.
Tat’s when he saw the rake marks across the whale’s fank and the
cookie-cutter scars on his dorsal fn. For a decade, their team had been photo-
identifying the local beaked whales by their unique scarring patterns. Torso
scrapes were from the jagged canyon walls or else souvenir tooth rakes from
sparring matches among bulls during mating season. Te distinctive scar pat-
tern on the dorsal fns came from encounters with small cookie-cutter sharks
that feed on their prey by gouging tiny round plugs, as if cut out with a cookie
Balcomb recognized the pattern from a photo he’ d shot two weeks earlier.
“Look at this,” he said to Ellifrit, who stood watch for sharks in the shallows.
32090 War of the Whales.indd 7 4/21/14 2:18 PM
Ellifrit crouched down next to Balcomb. “Zc-34, right?” he said. “We ID’ d
him of of South Point. Last month.”
“Tat’s what I think. Yeah, defnitely.” Balcomb and Claridge assigned
their research subjects alphanumeric identifers, according to their species
and social rank in the pod. Zc stood for the Cuvier’s scientifc name: Ziphius
cavirostris. Tey weren’t interested in giving them cute and cuddly names, as
if they were house pets. Balcomb and Claridge were serious scientists, not
whale huggers.
But now that Balcomb had recognized the animal and remembered the
afernoon when they’ d patiently tracked him through three dives and ascents
before fnally grabbing a clear-enough photo to make a positive ID . . . now
it was impossible to see him as just a skeleton surrounded by organs and
blubber. Balcomb snapped out of his fantasy of collecting a complete beaked
whale specimen and began working to dislodge Zc-34 from the beach.
He scanned the water’s surface for sharks. No problems on that front.
Yet. Te Earthlings stood around in a loose semicircle on the beach, looking
as disoriented as the whale. Ten minutes earlier they’ d been sipping cofee
and wondering if they’ d applied enough sunscreen for the day’s outing. Tey
didn’t understand what was happening, and no one was stopping to explain
it to them. Balcomb couldn’t make sense of it himself. All he knew was that
this whale was in the wrong place, going in the wrong direction, and if he
didn’t get him back to deep water in a hurry, he would die here on the beach.
“Get out of the water, before some shark shows up,” Balcomb said to El-
lifrit. “And keep the Earthwatchers on the beach. I’m going to try to dig this
guy out of here.” He reached underneath the whale’s belly and scooped out
handfuls of wet sand and shells. If he cut his hands on coral or shells, it would
only bring the sharks in faster. So he worked slowly, handful by handful, to
excavate a trench beneath the whale. Claridge, who routinely videotaped
every thing of documentary signifcance in their survey, stood just outside
the water’s edge and kept recording.
Afer ten minutes of digging, Balcomb had created enough space beneath
the whale’s belly to rock him slightly from side to side. It was exhausting
work, like dislodging a car from a deep snowbank. Even at age 60, Balcomb
still had strong legs and muscular arms, but each time he heaved his body
32090 War of the Whales.indd 8 4/21/14 2:18 PM
against the whale, he barely budged. Finally, a small wave washed in, buoying
the whale and allowing Balcomb to pivot his body to face out toward deeper
water. He steadied the whale upright in the water and then slowly withdrew
his arms to make sure the animal could keep himself level. He pushed-walked
the whale into chest-deep water and then gave him a strong shove in the di-
rection of the canyon.
Te Earthlings cheered from the shore. Te whale fuked once or twice
toward the open water—only to make a wide lef turn and head back to shore.
Te Earthlings groaned. Claridge handed the camera to Ellifrit to continue
recording while she joined Balcomb in the water. Together they tried in vain
to block the whale’s path back to the beach as his belly lodged in the sand once
more. Something was desperately wrong with this whale’s compass, Balcomb
concluded. Either that, or something back in the canyon had totally freaked
him out.
For the next half hour, they kept pushing the whale back out to deeper
water, only to watch him circle back to shore and try to strand. Claridge had
always been the strongest swimmer on their team, ofen trolling in the water
behind their survey boat to videotape the whales underwater. Now, with Bal-
comb blocking the path back to the beach, Claridge swam out alongside the
whale until they were 200 feet from shore, in 15 feet of water.

Finally, the
whale dove and disappeared from sight.
Tey were still watching to make sure he didn’t circle back to the beach
when a local fsherman motored by in a small skif. “Ken!” he shouted.
“Tere’s a whale stranded down at Rocky Point!”
Tat was a mile south. Claridge stayed behind to keep an eye out for the
Cuvier’s, while Balcomb and Ellifrit divided the Earthlings between one of
the motorboats and the back of the red pickup. Balcomb jumped into the cab
and sped down the beach.
Balcomb could see the stranded animal as they approached Rocky Point.
It was perched on a coral shelf that was completely exposed in the low tide. As
he approached on foot, he could tell it was another Cuvier’s. Another adoles-
cent male. He’ d probably beached there an hour or so earlier and stranded as
the tide receded. Tis one was bleeding badly from the jagged coral cuts, and
sharks were already circling ofshore from the reef. Two tiger sharks, at frst
32090 War of the Whales.indd 9 4/21/14 2:18 PM
glance, plus a bull shark, and a few smaller nurse sharks. Te seven-foot tigers
and the bull could be ferce when there was blood in the water. Te smaller
nurse sharks would hang back till the big guys were done, and then swoop in
to pick at whatever was lef.
Balcomb fgured he could manage the sharks, at least while the whale was
on dry land. Te bigger problem would be keeping the whale hydrated and
protected from the sun for the next few hours until the tide came back in and
they could foat him out to deeper water. Even on a cloudy day, a stranded
whale quickly becomes overheated and sunburned, and then dies of dehy-
dration. On this spring morning in the Bahamas, there was barely a cloud in
the sky.
As warm-blooded mammals, whales evolved an elegant system of internal
heat regulation to maintain a 98-degree body temperature when swimming
below the Arctic ice pack or hunting in the 40-degree waters of the ocean
depths. Below a thick layer of insulating blubber, their closely packed circu-
latory system allows the warm blood in their arteries to heat the cold blood
in adjacent veins—a biological example of “countercurrent exchange” that
has been mimicked in many industrial systems. But the most pressing bio-
logical challenge for whales isn’t staying warm, it’s how to dump enough heat
through their skin, mouth, and tongue to maintain a constant body tempera-
ture below 100 degrees. When a whale strands in the tropical sun, it overheats
and dies within hours.
Balcomb dispatched the Earthlings to scavenge as many sheets, towels,
and buckets as they could fnd from the brightly colored houses scattered
along the beach. Ten minutes later, they had the Cuvier’s wrapped from fuke
to blowhole, with a bucket brigade keeping the fabric soaked in seawater.
Four of the Earthlings held a sheet overhead as a canopy to shield the whale
from the midmorning sun.
Balcomb heard the radio crackling from the pickup. It was Claridge, re-
porting that yet another beaked whale, a Blainville’s, had stranded back up the
coast, northeast of their house. Balcomb lef Ellifrit in charge of the Earth-
lings contingent and climbed into the pickup.
“Something is going on,” Balcomb thought as he barreled back toward
Sandy Point. “Something big.”
32090 War of the Whales.indd 10 4/21/14 2:18 PM
He called a neighbor on the radio and asked him to paddle two kayaks out
to Sandy Point. By the time he arrived, three of his neighbors had dislodged
the Blainville’s from the beach and were standing beside him in the shallows.
Balcomb and Claridge waded out to photograph the whale and scrape DNA
skin samples for later identifcation. When the kayakers arrived, they helped
guide the animal back out to deep water. Balcomb asked the kayakers to meet
them back at Rocky Point as soon as they could paddle out there. As they
drove past their house, Balcomb and Claridge ran in to grab a blue poly tarp
from the garage.
By the time they returned to Rocky Point, the tide had moved back in—
and so had the sharks. A lemon shark and what looked liked two tigers had
joined the fray. To judge by the position of the sun, Balcomb fgured it was
close to high noon. A cluster of young Bahamian schoolgirls dressed in
starched blue and white uniforms had stopped on their way home for lunch
to watch.
Te whale was still alive, though his breathing seemed to Balcomb to be
heavy and forced. Meanwhile, the Earthwatch volunteers were beginning to
fray around the edges. Tey had come to the Bahamas to photograph whales,
not to stand by helplessly and watch them die of dehydration or be devoured
by sharks. Two college-aged volunteers were kneeling by the whale’s head, try-
ing to soothe him with gentle strokes and murmurs. Another one, a middle-
aged woman from Cincinnati, swatted fies away from an angry scrape on his
tail fuke. She was sobbing quietly to herself but wiped away her tears when
Claridge approached with the tarp. Te sight of dorsal fns circling in the
water just ofshore wasn’t helping morale.
Balcomb threw Claridge a look that she recognized as “You’re the den
mother here. I’m the guy who keeps the boats running.” But she had more
pressing business to tend to. She crouched low to examine the coral cuts on
the whale’s belly, which were starting to congeal and clot. A promising sign,
unless it meant he was dehydrating. At least his eyes were still clear. She col-
lected a skin-scrape sample and peeled back a towel to study the scarring
on his fank. “Zc-12,” she said as Balcomb photographed the dorsal fn from
both sides.
Te kayaks arrived, and Balcomb motioned to them to stop ofshore on
32090 War of the Whales.indd 11 4/21/14 2:18 PM
the far side of the shark swirl. Now Claridge took charge of the Earthlings.
“Who knows how to shoot video?” she called. One of the younger women
raised her hand. “Okay, get the camera from the truck and run tape, with
time-code stamp. And stay out of the water when you’re shooting. You four,
lose that canopy and help me with this tarp. Te rest of you gather some pieces
of drifwood up there,” she said, pointing toward a nearby house. “Something
you can swing like a bat.”
Claridge peeled back the wet towels and sheets with the tenderness of
a mother removing a child’s Band-Aid. She examined the animal for other
wounds, but found none. Ten she unrolled the large blue tarp. She and Bal-
comb and Ellifrit drew the edge of the tarp underneath the whale’s head. As
the Earthlings rocked the whale from side to side, they worked the tarp up
under his trunk.
Ellifrit handed out drifwood clubs to three of the bravest-looking souls
and hefed one himself. “Beat the water in front of the whale as we move him
out,” Balcomb directed them. “Dave will show you how. Fan out in a semi-
circle. Te sharks aren’t interested in you, unless your feet are bleeding, so
check them now for cuts, and watch out for the coral.”
Ellifrit led the three Earthlings out into the water, thrashing the surface as
hard as they could and shouting as they went. Claridge and Balcomb, along-
side four more Earthlings, grabbed hold of the blue tarp.
“Now lif and drag,” Claridge commanded. “Just a few feet at a time.” Te
tarp made a nasty tearing sound against the coral. “I said lif!”
In a moment, they were of the ledge and half hauling, half foating the
whale through the shallows. Te kayakers beat their paddles in the water to
disrupt the sharks, which scattered, then quickly regrouped. Te sharks main-
tained a constant distance, circling and darting in feints toward the whale, but
eventually giving way in front of the V formation of wildly thrashing beaters.
Te kayaks fell in beside the tarp bearers, creating a foating barrier between
the sharks and the whale.
When they pulled the tarp out from under the whale, he listed slowly to
the lef. Balcomb and Claridge propped him up on opposite sides, as if he
were a drunken sailor.
“What do you think?” she asked.
32090 War of the Whales.indd 12 4/21/14 2:18 PM
“Seems kind of wobbly,” he said. “But he’s not bleeding. Anyway, we’re out
of time.”
“Right. Let’s give him a go, then.”
Tey eased him ahead into open water. Te whale hung in the water, not
moving forward, but not listing to the side, either. Ellifrit ran over and gave
him a fnal shove from behind. “Get outahere!”
Te whale moved his fuke weakly up and down, ducked his head, and
dove. Balcomb held his breath as he watched him fuking away in the direc-
tion of the canyon. It occurred to him that he’ d never seen a beaked whale
swim in the shallows, until today. Was that a normal fuking action? Was he
actually heading back to the canyon, or was he simply swimming away from
the commotion of sharks and humans?
He waited and watched. Nothing. Nothing was good.
Claridge tugged at his T-shirt. “Let’s get out of the water,” she said.
Tey didn’t talk on the short drive back to the house. It was past 1:00 p.m.,
and Claridge was felding calls on the truck’s VHF radio. Reports were still
coming in of other strandings on nearby cays. Two whales, probably minkes,
had stranded alive near Royal Island, 25 miles to the southeast. A beaked
whale mother and calf had come ashore two hours ago on a small cay near
Grand Bahama, 60 miles northwest of their house. Te calf was already dead.
It was unprecedented—and unexplainable.
Balcomb knew it was time to make a call.
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