I am 6 feet up on a ladder when my pocket starts to ring. Well, not literally, of course – it was my mobile phone. I reach for the device, teeter and realize that it will be best left alone. No sooner do I resume my mundane task than the melodious chant rears its head again. I must see who is vying for my attention. It is Pam, and she has been a reliable source in the past.
Instinct already has me answering, “Hey, what’s up?”
”Kim just called and said that there is a live whale on Indian Street in Fenwick.”
That seemed a little bit fishy to me. No pun intended and, yes, I know that whales are mammals, thank you. I asked her to check it out and let me know if this was for real and to give me an update, and thus ended the call. Then, reality took hold. I dropped what I was doing and hurried to the beach. As I crossed the dune at Indian Street, it was really foggy and I could barely see the ocean. There was neither a whale nor human being in sight. I was bummed - but then, just out of the corner of my eye, I saw the back end of the Town of Fenwick Island’s four-wheeler, cruising north. The “chase” was on, and three blocks later the car was parked, the camera bag was on my shoulder and ahead lay the whale.
The whale was a beautiful creature, and its tail was gracefully swaying back and forth. Its body would gently arch, and it would occasionally release a plume of water out of its blowhole. Its top-side eye was open.
All signs were positive – which itself was unusual. Our area has witnessed quite a few whales washed up on our shores in the last couple of years, but most, if not all, were dead on discovery. This fellow, or lady, was a rare commodity.
Was it injured or resting?
The waves were a decent height, so I thought maybe it had been playing in the surf and had ridden one in a little too far.
I broke out my camera and snapped away from what I thought was an adequate distance so as not to stress the animal. I have learned from MERR (the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute) that humans and animals can put undue or additional stress on stranded aquatic life when getting within close proximity.
As MERR representatives Pam, Claudia and Gregg showed up, all gawkers were asked to move back – much farther back – 150 feet. After the scene was secured, Gregg retrieved his Audubon Guide to Marine Mammals and determined that “she” was indeed a minke (pronounced “mink-y”) whale, approximately 20 to 25 feet in length and weighing between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds.
The location was under control and becoming uneventful, so it seemed an appropriate time to return to my job site and my ladder. Then the shout echoed through the hazy air – Could I assist in the water? Excitement rang in my head, as I was going to get much closer to the minke. In my haste, I was not too kind to my camera, as I hurriedly tossed it into my bag while I ran to the water. The whale had rolled on its side, and its fluke was stuck in the sand. As a result, this left her blowhole facing the incoming tide and underwater. She couldn’t inhale and was drowning. The goal was to get her upright, and time was of the essence. Instructions flew as we were told where to place our hands and how and when to push. We did not want to cause or complicate any possible injuries to the lungs by further obstructing her air supply or injuring her ribs. The first set wave approached, and all hands made an attempt for a roll. We failed, but certainly not from a lack of effort.
I had been involved in two near-death experiences before, and I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time in both cases to save both lives – once, with my brother and the Heimlich maneuver, and, a second time, with a stranger and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. This was a life-and-death struggle. When my hands contacted her skin, I felt adrenaline course through my body. An immediate, compassionate connection ran up my hands and through my body. Another wave and another attempt. I was growing closer and more attached to this glorious creature. Pauses in waves gave me time to observe shades of white, gray, black, red and pink colorations from her head to her tail. Up close, the colors were less solid and more marbled. Her body was sleek and the skin smooth to the touch. Scars ran from her mid-section, down one side, all the way to the tail – a sign of a past entanglement or a run-in with a boat. Another wave and a stronger push. All of the energy that I could muster went into saving this whale.
Then, an echolocation ping sounded, and my heart melted. I have only ever heard recorded audio of this amazing song; but, live, it was most impressive. Was she communicating with other whales outside of the wave lineup? Were others waiting for her? I pressed my ear against her rib cage to hear more. Another wave approached. Push. Fail. Ear back on the whale to listen. A couple of more faint pings, and then I heard the dreaded words: “She’s gone.”
I had both hands and an ear on the whale when she died. I was crushed – I had lost my first life. It ebbed from beneath my hands.
Silence fell upon the group. The waves echoed hollowly upon the beach.
The magnificent eye of the minke whale was closed.
Thank you, MERR, for all that you do, and for a once-in-a lifetime experience.