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.

10 comments:

roger said...

well told, cracker. thanks. i too am glad you were there.

nice crew. education isn't all bad.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

I have often wondered about the people who show up on the beach to help rescue whales. It takes a strong hand and a big heart to leap out there and thrash around with such huge struggling animals.
What an amazing experience.

Deb said...

Wow...what an experience! Too bad it ended that way, but just to see those creatures is something.

The painting crew perhaps illustrates the true value of a college education in the "real" world?

thingfish23 said...

Jesus wept, FC. Wow. What an experience!

(I would've wept, too, by the way - but I wouldn't have missed out on it for anything)

Isn't life so bittersweet - that an experience like that can be so sadddening, yet heartening at the same time?

Zanne said...

You wonder what that behavior is about. Is there any research on why whales continue to beach themselves.

Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing the words and the pics.

Zanne said...

You wonder what that behavior is about. Is there any research on why whales continue to beach themselves.

Wonderful story. Thanks for sharing the words and the pics.

Hick said...

This was a hard story for me to read. I'm not sure that I could have done what you did because it would make me so sad. Especially for the calf. Why do whales do that?

Also, why is it unusual for whales to be in the bay? Is it because they are so big or what? (Ignorance of geography unabashedly showing.) Occasionally we get a whale going up the delta from San Francisco Bay. That is never a good situation due to the size of the whale and, of course, the fresh water/salt water issue. A bunch of boats go to the rescue by trying to herd the poor thing back into the Bay. Sometimes it works and sometimes they come right back into the delta. Don't know why they do that.

By the way, I tried to pull up your site yesterday and I couldn't get anything...just blank. What's up with that? Or is it just my stone-age dial-up?

Floridacracker said...

Everyone,
Sorry so late to return comments. I try to be quick, but I seem to be on the autobahn of life lately.

DPR,
Thanks. They are quite a crew and all turned out to be good folks.

RD,
I know what you mean. You feel very small next to a 40 foot long whale.

Deb,
The real world is where your higher education really starts isn't it? It was an emotional rollercoaster of a day.

Zanne,
Each stranding is unique and like most things the reasons vary. Some you'll see are parasites impeding echolocation, sick leader followed by the pod, human sonar equipment, false echos from sediments that mimic deep echos thus fooling the pod, etc. I heard of a dolphin stranding in NC today on the way into work.And so it goes...

Hick,
See above for some possible reasons for stranding. As for the unusualness of whales in the bay, Sperm whales are deepwater cetaceans that generally would never venture into an enclosed, very shallow (15 foot avg. depth) bay like St.Augustine's bay.
It's very common to see their smaller dolphin cousins, but the big boys usually stay way offshore.

As for the weirdness of my site yesterday...not MY usual weirdness, but the blank screen weirdness, I think a post publish got hung up in mid cyberspace. I republished and everything showed up again.

thingfish23 said...

Yeah, FC. I was freaking out. I couldn't get my fix yesterday. What gives?

;)

You were missed. And I guess this is as much an admission as any that I am addicted to this Blog (along with many of the others I have linked to on my site).

Floridacracker said...

Thing,
Thanks, I guess it was just one of those things. Good to be back!