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Lessons from Captain Scammon

As I prepared myself for my first Baja charter season I acquired as many writings about the region as possible. From beautiful large format photo journals to intertidal organism identification books to awkward, self-published accounts of personal adventures. As I have read through this eclectic collection each one has allowed me to ink in an area on my personal Baja chart where before was written only Terra Incognito.

Several of these books address the history, biological make up and current challenges facing Baja’s three gray whale birthing and breeding lagoons. The northernmost of these three lagoons was, until recently, named Scammon’s Lagoon, for the whaling ship captain that discovered it’s labyrinthine entrance, and then exploited his discovery until the whales who sheltered within were thought completely exterminated.

This took less than ten years.

Scammon had more than the lagoon’s complicated entrance to solve, he also had to completely change how his men killed the whales. Up until this point in the fishery, the process had been to quietly approach a whale as it breathed on the surface, impale it with one or two heavy barbed harpoons, secured to the small row boats with long ropes, and then as the whale ran for its life, hang on for the dangerous “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” as the whale tried to flee its attackers. Once the whale was exhausted, the men again approached and ended the fight with what was called a bomb lance, a heavy harpoon whose end was fitted with an explosive charge which detonated deep in the whale.

This was how Scammon began hunting gray whales, with disastrous results. Within a couple of days half of his boat crews were laid out on his ship’s deck with broken limbs and many of his whale boats had been smashed beyond repair. Gray whales didn’t react to harpooning the same way that other species did; instead of running, they turned on their attackers and charged them, destroying their boats and badly injuring (and in some cases killing) their crews.

So Captain Scammon devised a new approach. He decided to send his remaining boats far into the edges of the lagoon, into the nursery shallows. Here he instructed his men to first strike the newborn calves after positioning their boats in waters too shallow for an adult whale to be able to attack the boats, and then, when the protective mothers responded to their calves distress, to harpoon them as well. The other modification was to open the attack with the bomb lances, ending the fight before it had even begun.

His scheme worked brilliantly, and Scammon and his crew sailed their heavily laden ship back to San Francisco and into Baja’s history.

As horribly fascinating as is the story of Scammon’s success, the one detail of his history that fascinates me is that after the whales turned and attacked their attackers the crews nicknamed the whales “Devilfish”. Given the crews killing strategy of attacking the babies first so that they then could kill the mothers as they responded to their offspring’s distress, I find it ironic that they would assign the whales a name so closely associated with evil.

That is an extremely telling facet of our humanity; the projection of our own deep fears, evil intentions and prejudices onto the animal, or fellow human, that we hope to exploit.

Sometimes on our voyages aboard either Westward or Catalyst, we sit mellowed by a day of active discovery and yet another incandescent sunset, our conversation breaks through the surface and we discuss deeper things over a glass of wine. Recently we had a discussion centered on whether humanity is morally or ethically improving. Some cited legal and cultural advances toward more equal treatment for all citizens, others countered with the opinion that for every advance in one arena, there is an offsetting reversal in another.

A sort of moral whack-a-mole.

My thought is that whenever we make assumptions about any group of people based on the actions of a few members of that group, or project our own prejudices onto them as a generalization, we are no different than, say, Hitler, Lester Maddox or, those that launched the Crusades. For that matter; whenever we create a “group” based on superficial criteria, whether those criteria be race, gender, political affiliation, sports team support or world view we have crossed the line.

Spend more than a few minutes on Facebook during an election season and you’ll have enough information to forever erase the notion that mankind has morally improved since we first stood up straight and picked stuff up.

My readings about mankind’s interactions with gray whales also revealed another interesting human tendency; that we see what we expect to see, and parse facts based on what we believe to be true. This practice sets us up to have our prejudices confirmed.

Earl Stanley Gardner traveled extensively through Baja in the 1950’s, and wrote several books about his adventures. One of his books, “Hunting the Desert Whale” describes his visits to, and explorations of, what was then known as Scammon’s Lagoon. Gardner had read Scammon’s accounts of his boats being rammed and destroyed by the “Devilfish” in the lagoon, so he approached the whales as though we might now approach a Pit Bull, expecting to be attacked at any moment. So, when the whales approached within a few hundred feet of his small boat, he saw their proximity in only negative terms.

When I examine Gardner’s accounts through the lens of my own encounters with gray whales in their birthing lagoons, I see the whales exhibiting the same behaviors that hundreds of daily whale watchers actively seek, a close encounter with a curious gray whale. But because Gardner expected to be attacked, he thought that he was being attacked. The evil intentions that he assigned to the whales were his own projections. Of course we still project our own bias onto whales, but now it is mostly that whales are somehow communing with humans on a spiritual level when they approach our small boats, or that they can sense who in the panga may be ill, or pregnant and approach that person first. Perhaps this is all true, or perhaps it is just us very much hoping that it’s true, so we see the whales’ interest in our panga in those terms.

How many stories have you read about bear-loving people climbing over zoo barriers to get close enough to cuddle with the bear that they know loves them back? How many of those stories had a happy ending? Our anthropomorphic projections can kill us, and our prejudices, projections and lazy minded thinking keep us, as a species, always on the brink of another holocaust, genocide or bloody revolution.

As in many destructive human behaviors, the first step toward recovery is to acknowledge that we have a problem. Likewise, the first step away from recovery is to conclude that our species would be better if those people would deal with their problem.

Only when we look into our own dark hearts and face our personal horror show can we begin turning away from our potential for hatred and violence. And that’s why many seek a Higher Power to help them in their individual struggle to be a better person. We are all our own little Apollo 13’s; damaged and drifting in space. Some think that we have enough parts and knowledge on board our individual spaceships to be able to make the needed repairs, and some of us, having searched through all the cabinets and operations manuals have concluded that we simply don’t have the parts needed to fix us, within us.