Watch a whale - and rise on the social scale

ONE thing in vogue today is whale-watching. Why so many people want to see whales swim by is not clear, but a lot of coastal boat captains make a big living from this need. Most whales are covered with barnacles, and one sees only the fluke waving about. So as one tourist aptly stated, ``When you've seen one whale's tail, you've seen them all.''

One reason people give for wanting to see a whale is that they are the biggest animal alive today. But even if they see only a small whale, it apparently satisfies the need to overcome the social stigma of not seeing a whale at all. Anybody who is anybody has seen a whale, and if you are one of the unglamorous people who cannot offhandedly boast of a recent whale sighting, you'd better avoid important social gatherings.

One thing should be explained, however.

Some people mistakenly believe whale-watching includes going to Sea World and seeing Shamu, the ``killer whale,'' do his tricks. This does not, repeat, does not count as whale-watching, and gives no prestige in the social scale. Shamu doesn't even have barnacles, and he lives in a tank. Furthermore, he has lived with people so long that he may not even know he is a whale!

Whales can be found almost anywhere. They are at home in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. One popular spot on the East Coast of the United States is Cape Cod, where there is a Cape Cod Whale Watching Hotline, in case tourists wandering around the vicinity don't know where the whales are.

One can't be too critical of this new fad. Whales are very high on the scale of animal intelligence and live in a rather advanced social order, which includes an underwater language of musical moanings and groanings. If people didn't watch whales, whales might well organize ways to watch people.

Maybe that's what is going on now. Maybe the de rigueur thing is not so much whale-watching as it is to be seen by a whale. A real, honest-to-goodness, barnacle-covered whale, that is.

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