Floating mirror

In the logs of sailing ships that plied the Pacific a hundred years ago, we are told never a day went by without mention of a whale. Whales were to the sea what clouds are to the sky - it was a rare day when one didn't see them.

They seem by all accounts to have been creatures of great innocence. They cavorted through the waves and plumbed the depths with a vigor that reveled in their enormous strength. Their great weight was translated into weightless muscle tone, and their big warm eyes spotted each other in the depths. Sometimes their ''sounding'' was for food. Other times they seemed fairly to explode out of the water for sheer joy.

I have read these accounts - those of the ancestral captains, and those of the contemporary whale-watchers. Unfortunately my own encounter with the mammoth cetaceans was not so joyful, or so innocent. We were leaving the California coast full of enthusiasm and determination, the fourth Pacific Greenpeace voyage. At first we indulged our reveries, drawing whale cartoons, writing whale poetry, and rushing topside to look for the genuine article.

Days went by. We clung to the rail and squinted through our binoculars. Not a single spout. Not a fluke, not a dark shape in the water. We tried the crow's-nest, and posted a permanent watch around the clock, desperate to see any sign of the leviathan.

It was in our fifth week at sea that we finally caught sight of our first whale. We didn't spot it by a fluke or a spray of water as we had expected. We spotted it by the marker that had been left protruding from its back. It had been suspended at the surface for some time. Fortunately, it was dead.

Suddenly our crew went from a friendly family group to a tightly drawn organization with a mission. We grabbed our life jackets; we slipped over the side into three-person motorboats; we sped toward the huge mechanical whaling ship, rising ten stories out of the water, and looming six hundred feet in length.

It wasn't the red water, staining our boats, and our memories. It wasn't the carcasses tugged to the flensing deck by ragged ropes. It wasn't the gentle eyes silently imploring us for some last-minute reprieve. These images and smells and sounds are now only part of the mental movie.

It was the single human face, filling a lower porthole, in the mammoth mother whaling ship. It had looked cheerfully out at the foreigners in their attempt to save the fellow creatures. ''Come join us!'' the man had seemed to say as he beckoned with a gesture. ''Come join us!'' we had replied in his native tongue.

How could it be that we were at odds with this single sailor? How could we have steamed six thousand miles and spent $80,000 in donations to confront - a smiling face?

And here we found our lesson. We hadn't come to confront any man at all. We had come to confront that mind which is enmity against life. We had come to confront it in ourselves. After all, that smiling face was us. We had come not to save the whales - but to learn from their gentle surrender how to save ourselves.

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