Whale song: elegy for a leviathan

Washed ashore, a mammoth whale leaves a human bystander with a sense of awe – and ultimately sadness.

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    Whale song: A Southern right whale shows its flukes off Argentina.
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Geese were blasting through the sky, cracking the afternoon silence with their honking, interruptive voices. They flew over me, flight after flight, in their usual arrowhead formations, skimming the crowns of towering pines. Their screeching seemed different that day: Was something out of sync?

The answer was yes, but a yes moving slowly toward – well, the commonplace, the expected: A whale had washed ashore a few miles down the Delaware coast from our place, only seven days after another landed farther down, by Ocean City, Md.

A local newspaper reported the latest had landed right in the middle of Fenwick Island. Surely its life ended before it reached the beach. The assumption is that it was hit by a large vessel. These collisions have been going on along the coast for some time now, and always the whale loses in the encounter. But who knows how often this occurs, and how many times will a wounded whale drift off to die elsewhere? Are these events recorded? Some, but not all.

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We decided to go see it.

A dozen or more people had also come to see this behemoth, though only a few approached it. Many will avoid such things. They are unpleasant, especially if you find yourself downwind of a whale such as this, already decomposing. To see it inert in the sand naturally inspires a degree of awe, followed by sadness, and not just among people of a more sensitive nature. And, I suspect, the bigger the animal, the deeper the sadness.

This fin whale was 61 feet in length. They can grow to as much as 72 feet and can live to be 100 years old. Only the blue whale exceeds the fin in size. Both are thought to be the largest mammals that ever lived. I believe it.

I managed to get up close on the south side of the whale, and upwind. Its skin was smooth and hard as the hardest wood. If you were to punch it, your knuckles could break. But who would do such an irreverent thing to an air-breathing, big-brained animal so spectacularly huge

It's been said that the whale came into the sea from the land at some period deep in our planet's history. This desire to reach the wider freedom of the oceans enhances the mystery that surrounds its being.

In my long life I think I've seen only one whale in its natural environment, this from the deck of a ship. Now, I've seen two whales washed up on a beach: the first in August 2006, a fin that landed just two miles north of Fenwick Island.

It was the biggest creature I had ever seen until that time: at a length of 55 feet, its weight estimated at 35 tons. I pushed at its outer skin because I wanted to feel the realness of it. I did: Its impact upon my mind and heart sped through me like a kinetic surge.

The strength of my feeling toward the one at hand was similar, though not so strong. No matter how astounding an experience like that can be, repetition wears away its effect and edges us toward indifference to the fate of these magnificent animals, a melancholy acceptance of their ultimate disappearance from the Earth.

I presume this acceptance is probably most strongly felt among those who live near the coastal regions traversed by heavy maritime traffic – freighters, cruise ships, even fishing boats.

Since the beginning of last year, seven whales have been stranded along the Delmarva coast on beaches from Lewes, Del., to Chincoteague Island in Virginia.

Suzanne Thurman, chief of Delaware's Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation Institute, expects more to come, "all the way down the coast." There are regulations, she told me. They require ships to move at slower speeds in certain waters, and during the whales' breeding time. The major threat to whales, she said, are the cruise ships. "They travel at very high speeds; whales don't have the time to get out of their way."

After about a half hour with the deceased, we left. I was only faintly perturbed by the scene, but strongly hoping never to see another such sight as long as I live. But if it comes again, I will be out there. Why? To bear witness.

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