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Protect the gray whale

The California Gray Whale Coalition has petitioned the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to list the species as depleted, to spur a conservation plan

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  I encountered and touched my first juvenile gray whale when I visited San Ignacio Lagoon several years ago. I affectionately named the juvenile whale Skippy. Though I haven’t a clue as to Skippy’s sex, I will refer to Skippy as a male.

That was in 2008. If Skippy survived the obstacle course he must traverse twice a year, then maybe when Skippy makes his way south again, sometime this month, he’ll flash a fluke past my window. As the Arctic ices up, that’s Skippy’s cue to migrate south from his feeding grounds in the Beaufort, Chukchi, or Bering Seas. He begins a 6,000 to 7,000 mile swim to the warm waters of Baja California lagoons and the Gulf of California.

Because Skippy hasn’t reached his full size of about 52 feet, I hope whalers gave Skippy a pass in their legal hunt for 140 of the estimated 16,000 to 17,000 gray whale population. Or, if Skippy is a “stinky whale,” hunters will pass shooting a harpoon through his heart. If  Skippy stinks, this means either his food source is so depleted that a necropsy would show an abundance of seaweed in his belly, or it could be that volatile compounds—including hydrocarbons, sulfur, and nitrogen compounds—and various odorants have found their toxic way into Skippy’s tissues. Such conditions bode badly for longevity.

 It’s possible Skippy won’t ever reach his full size because Arctic waters grow warmer and more acidic from the burning of our fossil fuels. You see, gray whales feed on amphipod macrocephala—a shrimp-like crustacean that needs icy water to grow and survive. This worries me, because NOAA recently released its Arctic Report Card for 2010. Failing grades abound. NOAA made this comment: “Return to previous Arctic conditions is unlikely.”

 Maybe Skippy hasn’t missed a good meal, or missed becoming a food source, so he’s directed his nose toward the western Pacific continental shelf and is on course for Destination Mexico Retreat—that is, if Skippy isn’t disoriented by military sonar tests  and his coastline migration path remains true and he avoids shipping lanes where a ship’s strike might cause his untimely end.

The day in 2008 when I climbed into an 18-foot panga dory in hopes of encountering a 30-foot or longer gray whale, I ignored the tiny size of the boat and the wind-driven swells of San Ignacio Lagoon as the crew speedily motored out to the World Heritage Site. Our morning attempt took us near whale activity, but not touchable visits. A 12-foot plume expelled by a mature female about 10 feet from our boat sent chills of excitement through my body. The power, the smell, the sound, and the essence of this passing cetacean remain fervently in my psyche. It was as though she were just cruising past, checking us out, and letting us know she knew we were there. But I won’t hurt you, her respectful distance hinted. In camera range, another gray whale spy hopped. I got the photo. My heart pounded so loud, I’m sure the whale was curious about the noise and took a look about. Its eyes suggested no threat, only curiosity.

I romanticized that, because the gray whale is an ancient species with a large brain and apparent intelligence, they sensed us and maybe had something to say. What that could be, I’ve only imagined.

After lunch, the wind tossed white caps hard against our panga. Even if we didn’t have a very close meeting with these whales, I was satisfied with the morning excursion. But our captain knew his waters and he knew the whales. Suddenly several whales surrounded us. The captain shut off the motor, scooped water into a carved out milk carton, and tossed the water back into the sea. “There she is!” screamed another voyager as a 40-foot cow circled, expelled a plume, and grunted. She swam under our boat, lifted it ever so gently, circled us once more, and then Skippy appeared. The 15-foot youngster swam to the side of the boat, lifted his head, and looked inside. You can touch me, he let us know. We complied.

Almost three years since that mystic moment, emotion continues overriding my wits. And as I recollect that sunny, wet, remarkable moment in Baja, California, Skippy may soon swim past my Central California living room windows.

The California Gray Whale Coalition has petitioned the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to list the Eastern North Pacific Gray Whale—also known as the California Gray Whale—as depleted, which would prompt the agency to develop a conservation plan. The petition is on file now at regulations.justia.com/view/205804

Cambria resident Charmaine Coimbra is a former newspaper and magazine writer who now writes for vibrantnation.com and yourlifeisatrip.com, as well as an environmental blog. Send comments via the opinion editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

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