The Right Whale Research Team at the New England Aquarium have been studying whales in the Bay of Fundy, Canada for more than 30 years. The peak of right whale presence in the Bay is usually in September or October of each year. So it was that in 2001 the team was in the Bay when shipping traffic was halted due to the 9/11 attacks. It also happens that at that time the team was pioneering a new research method, using dogs to track right whale feces. Whale feces are a treasure trove of information, including the presence of stress hormones.
It should come as no surprise, but the NEAQ now has evidence that stress levels in right whales decreased when ships were absent in the days following 9/11/2001.
Chronic stress wreaks havoc with general health, as most of us know. Shipping noise is pretty much ubiquitous throughout the oceans, so where is a whale to go to get some peace?
I have several connections to this story that make it personally resonant.
My very first encounter with a whale was in 1995, in the Bay of Fundy.
That was a fin whale, not a right whale. But the encounter was one of the most ecstatic of my life, and it changed the course of my life. I came home so excited that my parents then changed their vacation plans and went whale watching on the same boat out of Nova Scotia and also saw whales. My mother then turned that experience into a children’s sermon called Digby the Whale.
I did not know about the story until several years later, after my mother’s death. Discovering that story was a revelation to me, because it helped me understand why the whale encounter had been so potent for me. In her genius, she recognized what the whale represents, at least for her and for me: they are messengers of the Deep. For me, this story was the conscious wedding of what until then had been an unconscious understanding: my life is uniquely oriented toward the contemplative life especially as it expresses itself in the natural world. It is really as a result of my mother’s insight that The Natural Contemplative came into being.
My mother’s story anticipates the NEAQ’s research finding: “Whales are probably happiest when they are experiencing deep calling to deep.. and they are not really meant to be in the midst of the hullabaloo of human restlessness and noise.”
Back to the Bay of Fundy. I had my first experience of a right whale in 2002, also in the Bay of Fundy. I was on a whale watch boat but I was well aware of the NEAQ research boats and the dogs, although it took a while for me to learn what the dogs were doing.
Although I was a Benedictine novice back in the 1980s, it is really the whales and the Bay of Fundy that made me a contemplative. And my mother’s story:
“Like Digby the Whale, I think that we too are meant to live with the deep in us quietly calling [and listening] to the deep which is God, and not always be around the hullabaloo and the noise and the restlessness that is all around us in the world.”
That is as good a description of the contemplative life as I know.
If you read my last post you’ll know that I, too, find the press of human noise pretty stressful. I can relate to the whales. I want to get away from the hullabaloo, and I don’t always know where to go, except for short periods. The cell phone and wireless devices have reached into nearly every corner of our world. The Bay of Fundy used to be one of my quiet places. But, like the right whales, I am finding that even there the noise is increasing, thanks especially to cell phones and iPhones and all the rest of those mobile noise makers.
In addition to the noise, we are now bathed in wireless signals (a “smart” meter was just installed on our house this week. Before now, we had no wireless signals at our house. We are going to try to get rid of this one too). How sure are we that this ocean of electromagnetic energy we are swimming in does not add up to yet another stressor? If we turned off all the signals for a few weeks, like what happened for the whales in 2001, would we discover that our stress levels drop as well?
I well remember what it was like to be outside in the days following 9/11 when all air traffic was grounded. It was lovely. What an interesting experiment it would be, to turn off all the wireless signals for a couple of weeks. What might we hear? What might we rediscover in ourselves and in our world, if we simply turned off all the noise?
But the real question is, where can the whales go? Right whales (of whom there are only about 500 remaining) go to the Bay of Fundy in the summer, because that is where their food is most abundant. They don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Maybe there are technologies that can make ship traffic quieter, but there will be costs involved, and are we willing to pay those costs for the sake of the whales? Maybe we would if we realized that they and we are much the same. We need the quiet. We need the deep in us to call to and hear from the Deep that is the living universe, if we are to know any measure of peace in our time.