This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
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
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
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 won’t be grabbing any photos at
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
“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 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—”
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
Balcomb had been chasing after 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 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.
and reached the safety of the canyon depths. He considered the possibility of
ushering the whale alongside a boat to the nearby lagoon. If it died, he could
harvest the organs, fix 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 whiff of his
breath. It smelled fine, not putrid like a sick whale’s would be. And he wasn’t
wasted away by ear parasites, a common affliction of stranded whales.
The 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
concussion or brain damage. The 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 soft and smooth as an inner
tube. It still felt cool to the touch, not overheated or dehydrated. That would
change in a hurry if they couldn’t get him off 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.
That’s when he saw the rake marks across the whale’s flank and the
cookie-cutter scars on his dorsal fin. 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. The distinctive scar pat-
tern on the dorsal fins 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.
Ellifrit crouched down next to Balcomb. “Zc-34, right?” he said. “We ID’d
him off of South Point. Last month.”
“That’s what I think. Yeah, definitely.” Balcomb and Claridge assigned
their research subjects alphanumeric identifiers, according to their species
and social rank in the pod. Zc stood for the Cuvier’s scientific name: Ziphius
cavirostris. They weren’t interested in giving them cute and cuddly names, as if
they were house pets. Balcomb and Claridge were serious scientists, not
But now that Balcomb had recognized the animal and remembered the
afternoon when they’d patiently tracked him through three dives and ascents
before finally 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. The Earthlings stood around in a loose semicircle on the beach, looking
as disoriented as the whale. Ten minutes earlier they’d been sipping coffee
and wondering if they’d applied enough sunscreen for the day’s outing. They
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
Ellifrit. “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 everything of documentary significance in their survey, stood
just outside the water’s edge and kept recording.
After 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
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
direction of the canyon.
The Earthlings cheered from the shore. The whale fluked once or twice
toward the open water—only to make a wide left turn and head back to shore.
The 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
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, often trolling in the water
behind their survey boat to videotape the whales underwater. Now, with
Balcomb 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.
They were still watching to make sure he didn’t circle back to the beach
when a local fisherman motored by in a small skiff. “Ken!” he shouted.
“There’s a whale stranded down at rocky Point!”
That 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
adolescent male. He’d probably beached there an hour or so earlier and
stranded as the tide receded. This one was bleeding badly from the jagged
coral cuts, and sharks were already circling offshore from the reef. Two tiger
sharks, at first glance, plus a bull shark, and a few smaller nurse sharks. The
seven-foot tigers and the bull could be fierce when there was blood in the
water. The smaller nurse sharks would hang back till the big guys were done,
and then swoop in to pick at whatever was left.
Balcomb figured he could manage the sharks, at least while the whale was
on dry land. The 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 float him out to deeper water. Even on a cloudy day, a stranded
whale quickly becomes overheated and sunburned, and then dies of
dehydration. 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
circulatory 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
biological 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
temperature 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 find from the brightly colored houses scattered
along the beach. Ten minutes later, they had the Cuvier’s wrapped from fluke
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 left Ellifrit in charge of the
Earthlings contingent and climbed into the pickup.
“Something is going on,” Balcomb thought as he barreled back toward
Sandy Point. “Something big.”
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 identification. 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 figured 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
The 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. They 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, trying to
soothe him with gentle strokes and murmurs. Another one, a middle-aged
woman from Cincinnati, swatted flies away from an angry scrape on his tail
fluke. She was sobbing quietly to herself but wiped away her tears when
Claridge approached with the tarp. The sight of dorsal fins circling in the
water just offshore 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
collected a skin-scrape sample and peeled back a towel to study the
scarring on his flank. “Zc-12,” she said as Balcomb photographed the dorsal
fin from both sides.
The kayaks arrived, and Balcomb motioned to them to stop offshore on
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. The rest of you gather some pieces
of driftwood 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. Then she unrolled the large blue tarp. She and
Balcomb 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 driftwood clubs to three of the bravest-looking souls
and hefted 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
semicircle. The 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,
alongside four more Earthlings, grabbed hold of the blue tarp.
“Now lift and drag,” Claridge commanded. “Just a few feet at a time.” The
tarp made a nasty tearing sound against the coral. “I said lift!”
In a moment, they were off the ledge and half hauling, half floating the
whale through the shallows. The kayakers beat their paddles in the water to
disrupt the sharks, which scattered, then quickly regrouped. The sharks
maintained 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. The kayaks fell in beside the tarp bearers, creating a floating barrier
between the sharks and the whale.
When they pulled the tarp out from under the whale, he listed slowly to
the left. Balcomb and Claridge propped him up on opposite sides, as if he
were a drunken sailor.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“Seems kind of wobbly,” he said. “But he’s not bleeding. Anyway, we’re out
“Right. Let’s give him a go, then.”
They eased him ahead into open water. The whale hung in the water, not
moving forward, but not listing to the side, either. Ellifrit ran over and gave
him a final shove from behind. “Get outahere!”
The whale moved his fluke weakly up and down, ducked his head, and
dove. Balcomb held his breath as he watched him fluking away in the
direction 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 fluking 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.
They didn’t talk on the short drive back to the house. It was past 1:00 p.m.,
and Claridge was fielding 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. The calf was already dead. It
was unprecedented—and unexplainable.
Balcomb knew it was time to make a call.
© Josh Horwitz, Simon & Schuster 2014
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.