Monday, August 22, 2005
The Whales of October.
In 1983, I was an unemployed seasonal park ranger working as a house painter with my brother's little company. He too was a college grad without a job and had started a business while he found himself. Together with his partner Rich, and coworker Fred, the entire company of painters were college grads who had not found their niche. Collectively, we were probably the best educated house painters in the state. I know....you're thinking what does this have to do with whales. Patience.
Painter Fred lived over at Vilano beach and had to cross the A1A bridge each day to get to painting HQ, a small house my brother and Rich shared. On this particular October morning, Fred arrived at the house breathlessly exclaiming that there were whales in the bay. Whales. In the bay. Uh huh...
This was met with some doubt by the rest of us. We hit Fred with dubious looks and comments like, " Party kind'a hard last night Freddie boy.?" Fred was undeterred and adamant. He insisted we drop work that day, load the boat, and proceed to the Vilano Beach boat ramp.
We agreed to check it out, but warned Fred that if this turned out to be some leftover hallucination from the night before...he would become chief paintbrush washer (which at the time was my job). Fred stood his ground.So we grabbed the dogs, the boat, and I of course grabbed my camera...just in case.
As soon as we got to the boat ramp, it was obvious that Fred was right. There were whales in the bay and they weren't just any whales. These were Sperm Whales...as in Moby Dick...as in HUGE.
We launched the boat as quickly as possible and cruised out to the whales. It was early in the morning and the tide was still up, but even with water in the bay, these huge animals had run aground. At the time, a long sandbar ran in front of the Castillo de San Marcos and these whales had slammed into it and were stuck.
As the morning went on, we frantically worked with other volunteers, the Florida Marine Patrol, and experts from Marineland to free the whales, but they were too big and too mired in the mud. To complicate matters, they were on an oyster bar covered in razor sharp shells...and the tide was falling.
It was easy to get caught up in the rescue effort and forget to watch for sweeping flukes and rolling whale bodies. You really had to look out for each other.
One female (cow) had an eleven foot long calf at her side. Even when lassoed and towed into deeper water the calf returned to it's mother's side each time...what else could it do? That was the most painful part of the day.
By noon, the tide was out and it was obvious we had failed. All the whales were dead. The combination of stress, their own suffocating weight, and blood loss from myriad oyster cuts was too much.
Later, we learned that another group from this pod had ran aground on Vilano beach. They too expired. In fact, in all I think about 15 whales died that day. It's been a while, so I may be off by a whale or two.
Life is all about the experiences we share, I would have traded this one gladly for a bunch of live whales swimming happily away, but that's not the way this tale turns out.
I am glad I was able to be there.
...I just wish Fred had been mistaken.
Posted by R.Powers at 4:54 PM