A Whale of a Time on the California Coast

With stones, rocks, flowers, chants, songs and their own bodies, about 200 mourners gathered on a recent Saturday morning at Dillon Beach—near the border that separates Marin from Sonoma Counties—to commemorate the death this year of at least 70 Gray Whales, all stranded on the shore and visible at low tide.

At Dillon Beach, the sky was overcast, the air chilly and the mood somber. The mourners, in sweaters and shawls, gathered in a series of circles, some wider and some smaller, sang African songs and spoke their shared sorrows. Some wept. Others sobbed.

They were old and young, male and female and mostly white, with a handful of Asians. They came from Inverness, Point Reyes Station, Santa Rosa, San Francisco, Oakland, San Mateo, the town of Sonoma, and elsewhere, and they created a kind of sacred space between the land the sea. Many were barefoot and pushed their toes into the sand. Others took photos with their cameras; still others kept their dogs from running wild.

At the end of the 90-minute-long ceremony, the mourners walked together toward the ocean, waded into the water and offered a chant to the whales: “May you swim in safety. Maybe you find your kindred.” None of the organizers for the Dillon Beach event stated the exact number of whales that have died so far this year, though Elizabeth Herron, a poet and environmentalist who lives in Graton, estimated that the total was more than 70.

Nor did anyone explain precisely why so many had perished, though many assumed that somehow or other the human species was to blame, either because of global warming and rising ocean temperatures or the use of sonar by the military which can cause whales to hemorrhage and die. Still, the fact remains that more whales have died this year on the California coast than at anytime in the past 20 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Marine biologists say that most dead whales sink to the ocean floor and don’t wash up on shore. They estimate that beached whales represent only about 10% of the total number of whale deaths, which have been reported in unprecedented numbers this year in Europe, South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

I was present for an obvious reason. With a first name like Jonah I had to attend. I have read about whales and whaling ever since I was about four or five and I have watched whales migrate up and down the California coast from the shore and from an airplane above the ocean. The whale is my totem. One woman who gave me a bracelet from Japan made of wool told me, “May your own prophetic voice emerge in our time of darkness.”

At the beginning of the Dillon Beach event, Larry Robinson spoke for the crowd and addressed the whales: We owe an apology and beg for forgiveness.” He added, “May we turn the tide away from destruction to restoration.” Herron invited the mourners— who grew joyous as they sang and chanted—to face north, then South and West and finally East, “for new energy and hope,” she said. Like Robinson, she spoke to the invisible whales at sea, “our guest of honor,” she called them, and praised them as “great swimmers, older and wiser than we.” More literary and sacred than scientific, speakers quoted Oscar Wilde, Freeman House, the author of Totem Salmon, and D. H. Lawrence.

Michael Stocker, a long time Marin resident and the Director at Ocean Conservation Research, attended the event and felt uplifted, though he was saddened to learn that seven North Atlantic Right whales have died in the last couple of weeks because were caught in lobster gear and struck by boats. He also pointed out that many beached whales are emaciated, “There doesn’t seem to be enough food in the ocean for them,” he said.

Stocker has plans to put underwater microphones near the Farallon Islands, off the coast of San Francisco, and listen to the sounds of both whales and boats. He wants ships to be equipped with the technology, which is already available— “a whale view,” he calls it—that can scan the ocean, reveal the location of whales and hopefully prevent or at least mitigate fatal collisions.

Near the end of the ceremony, a young surfer in a wet suit and with a long board, joined the newly inspired crowd, knelt down in the sand and offered a prayer for the whales. Then he was back in the water, waiting for a perfect wave.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.