By Paul Lask
Paul Lask teaches writing at Oregon Coast Community College, and is a faculty fellow with Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. His writing can be found at prlask.com.
I pulled my kayak down to the beach, where a woman stood pointing toward the ocean. A fin rose from the water about a hundred yards offshore.
“It’s an orca,” she said.
“Naw,” the man beside her said. “That’s a gray.”
I recalled a documentary scene of a group of orcas spy-hopping near a seal marooned on an ice chunk. After their pogoing taunts, they left it alone. Another clip showed the orcas band together and charge forward, pushing a big wave over the ice and knocking the seal in.
I brought myself back to the beach. I wanted it to be a gray. It was one of my first solo ocean paddles, and I stood in my dry suit, PFD and helmet, having checked my weather and swell apps, having spent many hours in pools and bays learning rolls and rescues, and many dollars on courses, gear and guidebooks, now arguing a dubious fin into goodness.
It had to be a gray.
I dragged my boat to the water. Small dumping waves sucked back dark gravelly sand. The fin flopped over.
Aspiring rough water sea kayakers are trained in safety and rescue. We learn about dealing with battering surf, longshore currents, T-rescues and re-entry rolls. We don’t learn about sea life. I grew up in northern Illinois, where the nearest sea animal was a river dragon fashioned out of a downed tree that got painted annually, and TV specials on Loch Ness.
I stuffed myself into my boat, suddenly remembering the shark story an instructor told me: They were out near Pacific City when the bad fin emerged. My instructor had a Go Pro on his helmet. His buddy dared him to roll to get a shot of their follower. My instructor declined.
Sealing my spray skirt over the cockpit, I focused on launch prep. I checked my radio. Made sure my extra paddle was secure. Confirmed I hadn’t sealed the skirt over my skeg rope. Here at North Fogarty Creek beach there was a gap between where the fin had been and a rock the size of a two story house. I waited for a set of waves to pass, then pushed off.
I saw the gray whale’s back split the water, heard the great sigh. A misty rainbow evaporated. I darted past the whale into the open sea. Other puffs dotted the horizon.
In time I would learn the kelp forest I had just paddled through hosted galaxies of tiny shrimp-like zooplankton. The gray was “sharking,” a foraging behavior in shallow water wherein it lays on its side with half its tail sticking out. Of the 20,000 gray whales that annually migrate from Mexico to Alaska, about 200 mysteriously break away and feed nearshore in Oregon. Scientists don’t know[i] for sure why this occurs, but the abundance of those shrimp-like animals is one theory.
The mavericks are good for the tourism industry. From late spring through summer Depoe Bay is a frenzy of camera clicks and selfie sticks. A gauntlet of vehicles cram both sides of Hwy 101. Whale watching boats enter and exit the “world’s smallest harbor” through a bottleneck I’ve heard can be sketchy for kayakers.
As I paddled I toyed with wishful thinking—because I was a non-motorized vessel, the whales might better appreciate my presence. I was not there to photograph them. I just liked being in the sway of the water. “No cradle is so comfortable,” Rudyard Kipling wrote, “as the long, rocking swell of the Pacific.”[ii] Especially on an uncharacteristically calm day like this.
I have met paddlers who are indifferent to our resident grays. One referred to them as squirrels. Another claimed he got too near a spout, and was covered in the slime geyser, which he’d found disgusting. Others want to get close. A friend is interested in bringing snorkeling gear out next season, and a non-paddling acquaintance wants to get a kayak so he can sneak up and swim with one.
Dr. Roger Payne, the biologist famous for discovering that humpbacks sing, discusses Baja’s “‘friendly gray whale phenomenon’, wherein gray whales come so close to whale-watching boats that the tourists can reach out and pat them.”[iii] Grays weren’t always treated like housecats. When whaling was in full swing, Dr. Payne continues, they were referred to as “devil fish” by whalers in Scammon’s Lagoon in Baja. The whales were being routinely harpooned, so they fought back, earning a fierce reputation. Their numbers plummeted. Federal protections helped them recover, and in 1994 eastern Pacific gray whales were removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List.
U.S. federal law requires people keep a hundred yards away from whales. Natural law supports this precaution. Once paddling through my shark and orca anxiety, I developed an ambivalence about my proximity to the grays. It was not fear of aggression, but indifference. I was sneaking around the living room of 35-ton animals. Despite their boxcar bulk, they moved with quick snaky grace; regardless of my attempts at putting a football field between us, what was to keep one from accidentally rolling over me or smashing me with its tail?
With shipwrecks in mind, Herman Melville pondered the power of a whale fluke: “But as if this vast local power in the tendinous tail were not enough, the whole bulk of the leviathan is knit over with a warp and woof of muscular fibers and filaments, which passing on either side of the loins and running down into the flukes, insensibly blend with them, and largely contribute to their might; so that in the tail the confluent measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point. Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it.”[iv]
Whale-caused shipwrecks didn’t end in the nineteenth century. Contemplating how his sloop went down, Steven Callahan, a sailor lost at sea for 76 days, recalls how his nineteen-ton, forty-three-foot schooner and a heavy cruiser were both sunk by whales in the 1970s.[v] Dr. Payne also has boat breaching stories. “There’s a woman who works in my laboratory who had a whale breach directly on top of her boat. Not a glancing blow, but a direct hit across the bow. The boat was totaled…”
In 2015, a 33-ton humpback breached onto a tandem kayak in Monterey Bay, California. Reanalyzing video footage, Tom Mustill, one of the struck kayakers, believes he can see the whale “sticking its eyes out and taking a look at us while he’s in the air.” He speculates that the whale may have calculated its landing so as to avoid full body impact. Mustill is currently making a BBC2 documentary about the incident titled “Humpback Whales: A Detective Story.”
How whales behave around vessels is still an open scientific question. OSU whale mammologist Dr. Leigh Torres asks: “Are there behavior differences based on boat traffic and composition? Whales might react to some boats, but perhaps not others based on speed, approach, motor type, etc.”[vi] The ocean is also getting noisier. One study shows that over the last sixty years ambient noise in the ocean has increased about three to five decibels per decade.[vii] To what extent is this noise stressing out whales, and what kind of reactions will we begin to see?
Dr. Torres told me whales were like a gateway drug for getting people hooked on marine ecology. Since that tricky fin at Fogarty Creek I’ve given them a good amount of thought. It’s partially their size that inspires awe and reflection. Writer Julia Whitty gets at their enormity by thinking about their deaths, comparing whales to old growth trees. She describes whalefall beautifully:
“…the downward journey takes place in the slow motion of the underwater world, as the processes of decomposition produce buoyant gases that duel with the force of gravity in such a way that the carcass rides a gentle elevator up and down on its way down” (178). Once the body hits the ocean floor it provides a “nutritional bonanza of a magnitude that might otherwise take thousands of years to accumulate from the background flow of small detritus from the surface.” A gray takes a year and a half to be “stripped to the bone by the scalpels and stomachs of the deep.” A blue whale can take as long as eleven years. [viii]
But I don’t think it’s just their size that hooks us. They’re mammals, nurse their young, sing to one another. “Flowing like breathing planets,” Gary Snyder writes,[ix] we can only wonder what a whale might know.
As I continue exploring our coast by kayak, I occasionally talk to whales. It no longer seems strange to want to hug one. I attempt to maintain the lawful distance, though now and then one rises close enough to see the individual barnacles studded among old scratches and scribbles. This wordless poetry is like a map into deep time. I realize I want to keep being humbled and a little afraid. I realize I’m hooked.
[i] Oregon State University. (2015, August 4). Researchers studying Oregon’s “resident population” of gray whales. Retrieved from https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2015/aug/researchers-studying-oregon’s-“resident-population”-gray-whales
[ii] Kipling, R. (1914). The Jungle Book (p. 145). New York, NY: Double Day. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=LO88AQAAIAAJ&rdid=book-LO88AQAAIAAJ&rdot=1
[iii] White, J. (2016). Talking on the Water (pp. 25-26). San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press.
[iv] Friends of the Earth. (1970). Wake of the Whale (p. 71). San Francisco, CA: Friends of the Earth, Inc.
[v] Steven, C. (2002). Adrift (p. 37). New York, NY: First Mariner Books.
[vi]Oregon State University. (2015, August 4). Researchers studying Oregon’s “resident population” of gray whales. Retrieved from
[vii] Lemos, L. (2016, April 6). Does ocean noise stress-out whales?. In Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Laboratory. Retrieved from http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gemmlab/2016/04/06/does-ocean-noise-stress-out-whales/
[viii] Whitty, J. (2010). Deep Blue Home (pp. 178-181). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
[ix] Snyder, G. (1974). Turtle Island. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Group. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/mother-earth-her-whales-0