Spiritual insights from a frustrated whale watcher

On the cliffs of the Palos Verdes peninsula, near the southern tip of Los Angeles County, a group of men and women sit in directors’ chairs, staring out at the ocean through binoculars (some that look like not-that-miniature versions of the Hubble Space Telescope). They sit under umbrellas and wear floppy hats, drinking water and chatting as they pass the day, waiting for something to happen.

This is the American Cetacean Society, L.A. chapter. From Dec. 1 to late May every year they gather here every day to count and document the number and kinds of Pacific gray whales that swim past here on their way north from Baja to Alaska for their summer feeding and mating. Since 1979 the society has been here every winter and spring, collecting this data.

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On a small white board on an easel to one side of their group, the chapter keeps track of the day’s and year’s current numbers—2,077 headed north so far this year, and 22 already today alone, all before noon. There’s something about the board’s placement, sort of standing by itself and yet quite close, that gives it a kind of swagger. Like in catching sight of each new whale this group, which looks like a church social group out for Sunday brunch, has accomplished something not-to-brag-about-but-kind-of-awesome.

But when I show up there’s not much in the way of awesome to be #notbraggingbutstillkinda about. It’s been over an hour since the last sighting. A slight woman in big sunglasses keeps kidding how as soon as she shows up all the whales go away. Each subsequent time she says it her tone has a little less humor to it.

An older man tries to keep everyone loose. “Did I ever tell you I’ve got a personal corporation,” he asks to the group. They shrug no. “It’s called the San Andreas Corporation. The motto is ‘It’s not my fault.’” 

It falls flat (though he scores major points with me). But it leads to a tall, stately woman, something about her posture or her tone making quite clear that she is the leader of this group, asking one of the other women whether they remember Betty Rubble from the Flintstones, remember her laugh. When the other woman says yes, she remembers Betty, but not her laugh, elegant boss lady points to the quiet woman who sits on the end with two sets of binoculars, binoculars and a walkie-talkie. “That’s her laugh,” the lady says, happily. “She laughs just like her.”

It doesn’t seem like the comment was intended as an insult, but Betty shows no reaction, so maybe she doesn’t like it. But she’s also totally focused on the water. It turns out she’s just been given the task of keeping tally of the whales as others call them out. It seems like it’s the first time she’s been asked, and she’s all in. Now if only the whales would show up.

As I sit there beside them, getting somewhat impatient for something to happen—SOMEONE BRING ME WHALE—I suddenly have one of those moments where you see yourself almost from the outside: You’re aware of your context in a richer way. And I realize, I’m sitting here, staring at something truly extraordinary, the Pacific Ocean on a gorgeous day, and yet rather than appreciating it or enjoying it I’m demanding that it be more. Entertain me. It’s like when you go to a museum or another country and spend all your time rushing around taking pictures of things that you never actually take a moment to experience, to put in online photo albums that you may never look at.

But that’s the challenge of being a member of the American Cetacean Society, I decide after I try to snap out of it and almost immediately begin to wonder again what I’m doing here. If you wanted a simile for the immensity and beauty of God, you really couldn’t do much better than the Pacific Ocean. And yet right now it is just an object of our frustration, the disobedient child who refuses to perform the song we taught her last night.

Suddenly, the hand-held radio crackles. It’s Steve from up the coast. There’s a whole bunch coming, like 10 or 11. He’s watching one breach right now.

Just like that, the American Cetacean Society, L.A. chapter, comes to life. Everyone sitting up straight, Head Hancha consulting with Betty about the clipboard. Steve said it would be 10 minutes, but everyone wants to be ready.

Twenty minutes later, still no whales. People begin to wonder if Steve, who is 10 minutes away, was kidding them. Debates are held about whether Steve, who is apparently new, knows them well enough yet to prank them like that. The consensus is that he doesn’t and that he’s also not really that kind of guy.

As we settle back into the lethargy of mid-afternoon whale wishing, Betty goes to the restroom. Someone says that they’re going to kill Steve if he is kidding. It’s said totally in jest, but seriously Steve, what is your problem?

And then suddenly Stately Lady points out to two outcroppings of rock near the point a hundred meters away. “There we go,” she says. Everyone’s binoculars fly up. “Oohs” and “Ahhs” ensue. “Wow, look at the baby swimming over her mom’s tail.”

I would like to tell you what that looked like. But though we were not terribly far, all I could see was a little bit of something eely sliding between the rocks and occasionally a slightly thicker ripple of water. As I sat there, wondering if the group knew me well enough yet to prank me—probably not, I decided, as I hadn’t even really said more than few questions—the Cetaceans went on and on, describing the mothers and calves which started to come in packs of two or three, offering colors, shapes, sizes and other figures that were unexpectedly technical. When it came to northbound Pacific gray whales, it turned out the American Cetacean Society, L.A. chapter, was no idle group of Sunday brunchers but the real deal.

From their 2015 report (boldface theirs):

For the fourth consecutive season, the southbound migration started early, with more whales: we had record high December counts of 393 southbound (364 southbound, 4 northbound last season). The peak southbound count was 62 whales on 7 February; our previous peak counts ranged from 15-98. We spotted 259 southbound whales during the peak southbound week of 24-30 January (190 last season). Instead of the typical gap, we had a rare extended overlap between migration phases. The official turn-around date (when daily northbound whales exceed southbound whales) was on 22 February—a bit later than usual. We spotted 81 northbound whales during the "southbound migration," and 95 southbound whales during the "northbound migration."

There are a lot of other paragraphs like that, too, which I read to try and distract myself from the fact that all around me people were having visions while all I saw was the occasional very shy baby sea snake.

Getting frustrated, I walked away from the group to a lower platform where I couldn’t hear the play by play. And as people there took pictures of I don’t know what, waves? I considered how whales, the world’s biggest mammals, the kind of creature you would think would absolutely have to be spectacular if any creature on the face of the earth was ever going to be spectacular, had just let me down. And not not for the first time.

In 2008 I went on a whale watching expedition with 10 other young Jesuits off the coast of Sydney, Australia. Most of us spent the three hours vomiting. (The company had a whole cabin which the crew explained before we took off was “for when you get sick.”) And though our own version of Steve radioed in from time to time about whales leaping in the air, we didn’t see a damn thing. (Thanks a lot, Steve.) (Thanks a lot, whales.)

Once the 11 supposedly non-fictional whales had made their way past us and off to whatever make-believe place invisible whales swim to, I ventured back among the Cetaceans. Betty no longer had the clipboard or the radio; apparently she had missed her chance. But otherwise the group was in great spirits, like they had witnessed something exhilarating and extraordinary.

For a moment I tried to find a spiritual insight for myself in all of this. I thought of those whales, making their incredible journey. Whether we “saw them” or not, we were in a sense witnesses to that fact. Maybe “watching” them brought us closer to a realization of our individual journeys. Our journeys might seem more filled with long, hot, empty periods of waiting alongside others who told bad jokes and made weird pop cultural connections (seriously, who remembers Betty Rubble’s laugh?) than we would hope, but still when you step back and take a look at the bigger picture, they are pretty extraordinary journeys. A source for real awe.

Then, interrupting my search for meaning, one of the Cetaceans called out, “There’s more coming!” We all turned. They gasped with joy at something.

I couldn’t tell you what. I only saw water.

Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Corine Sutherland
1 year 6 months ago
Pretty good detail, but if the author of this article did not see any whales from where he was standing, apparently right next to me, I'm "Betty," then neither did we. Where Jim McDermott was standing is one of the premier whale watch areas in Los Angeles, and I, "Betty" have volunteered for this gray whale census program for 30 years. I invite Mr. McDermott to join us again, next year, and write yet a different article, an article about the thousands of people who come from all over the world to a place, the Palos Verdes Interpretive Center, where they will see absolutely nothing. And if Mr. McDermott does come, brunch is on Betty!

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