Questions I Have for Whales

Gray whale
Do you see the gray whale? This one’s headed north, to eat. Point Loma, California, beyond.

I recently went on a wildlife tour from San Diego to view gray whales. Every year, gray whales swim one of the world’s longest marine mammal migrations: from 5-6,000 miles, each way, between their summer feeding grounds north of the Aleutian Islands and the warm lagoons of Baja California. At this transition time of the season, in waters so close to Baja, the whales we found might be headed in either direction. Yet whenever we spotted a whale, our captain and guides were quick to assess: “Here’s one still making its way south,” or “This pair’s headed north.”

My first question: how did they know with such clean confidence where a given whale was going, which part of the journey it was doing?

The answer: You know by which way the whale is headed. North? North. South? South. The whale goes where it’s facing; the whale faces where it’s going.

Huh! Are we sure it’s not more complicated? This seems too simple. I thought of the many questions I’ve asked about place and direction and orientation in my life, and those of my friends—especially at this life stage.

What makes it so simple for the whales? What talks to them, says, Go this way? From whom and from where is that original voice?

I’m no marine biologist. I imagine there’s nuance here that I don’t know and can’t understand. But I find myself envious. I envy the seeming simplicity of their orientation. If my friends and I were whales, what would we look like to a boat of eager tourists? We’d be spinning, swimming in big circles and small circles, cruising back and forth between two or three or four or more places. We’d be ridiculous as whales! The whale guides from the natural history museum would frown. They would say, “This behavior is puzzling. They’re wasting precious blubber. Who knows how these whales expect to survive to eat and mate and calve.”

Of course, whales we are not. But are our wanderings anything like their migrations? What tells us, too, to move? Is it the same voice that talks to them?

And perhaps biggest of all my questions: what’s the voice that says, OK, you can stop now. To them? To us?

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