Visits With Whales

We had an amazing experience yesterday aboard The Prince of Whales, a whale watch boat operated by Newburyport Whale Watch in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Cynthia and I joined Head Naturalist Dianna Schulte of the Blue Ocean Society to provide educational context on the trip. I have collaborated with Blue Ocean as an educator for the past five or six years.

After sighting a few fin whales in the distance who were spending very little time at the surface, we were suddenly joined by a young humpback, later identified from their fluke pattern as Lutris, which means “otter.” Lutris is the six-year-old offspring of Lava. Before we identified Lutris, we assumed we were being approached by a much younger juvenile, because Lutris spent close to an hour with us, right next to the boat, continuously checking us out, behavior that is more common among younger whales.

Several people who were on the lower deck had the very great honor of being looked in the eye by this magnificent creature. Several times Lutris rolled over to bring one large, pink eye out of the water to look at us. For a six-year-old to show this much curiosity and persistence in visiting a bunch of humans on a boat is fairly unusual, and it was a privilege to be among those visited.

Nearly every one of us on the boat felt an almost irresistible urge to jump into the water. People were hanging over the rails, trying to get as close as possible as Lutris swam past. It felt to me like we were being called home, like it was an intentional communication from Lutris to us, one which we recognized at a deep and unidentifiable level. Something very unusual was going on in this encounter. Something was being communicated, something we all felt, and experienced as an urge to be as close to Lutris as possible.

Several times we tried to leave, because our time was running short, but Lutris maneuvered into our path and would not let us go. Lutris was maintaining contact even when we were ready to break it off. It is unavoidable. Lutris was reaching out to us. The only other time I have felt such a clear connection and communication was when we encountered another young humpback who was entangled in fishing gear. That whale’s call for help, which we and others were able to provide in the end, was inaudible, but unmistakable. Lutris was not calling for help, but was clearly maintaining contact.

There is a strange phenomenon that occurs when one is visited by a whale in this way. Afterward, the whole experience slips away like a dream. We spent an hour with Lutris but it felt like minutes. And looking back, it was hard to believe that it was real. To be visited by such a huge wild creature, who is obviously intelligent and aware and purposeful and curious, just doesn’t compute in our brains somehow.

That inability truly to process the experience makes it feel a little surreal. But it is very real. It is the honest truth. It makes one realize what a marvelously inadequate thing this little brain is for truly understanding the living world. We are deeply embedded in beauty and wonder, and we hardly even know it. It remains a deep mystery to us. But when one meets a whale, or is met by a whale, in this way, one comes into direct encounter with the limits of the brain’s ability to comprehend, and that in itself opens up new horizons of possibility for engaging with this world. It is utterly impossible, in my experience, to go back into the human-dominated world after an experience like this, and feel quite the same way about it.

Clearly, the human is not the be-all and end-all of creation. The human is embedded in a magnificence it can not even comprehend. And the whale is also part of that magnificence, and so is all of life and all of everything. It adds dignity to our lives to see ourselves in this light, and also takes away our pretense of being the best and the brightest of all creatures.

I don’t know if it is intentional, but one of the things the whales are doing is putting us in our proper place in the order of things. It is a more humble place, but it is also a more beautiful and happy, and truly majestic place than the self-centered arrogance that has dominated human behavior for the past several thousand years.

Welcome home.


Where Would You Rather Live?

Is there any idea, or any belief, or any concept, or any thought that you can have about life that is more real, or more vital, or more alive than life itself, more alive than being alive? So where would you rather live, in your ideas and beliefs and concepts about Life, or in being alive itself?

For thousands of years, our ideas and thoughts and beliefs and concepts about life have been more real to us than living itself. Our sense of who we are, our identity, has been based more in what we think and what we believe about life than in the simple fact of being alive.

For us to survive now, we must turn and allow ourselves to be embraced fully once again by the simple beauty of being alive and we must allow our ideas and beliefs about Life to recede in importance.

Our obsession with our thoughts makes them chaotic and overwhelming. They were never meant to carry the burden of telling us who we really are. That job is too big for them. When we bring the clear seeing that is grounded in our inner silence to bear, then we shift our sense of who we really are, from thought, to silence. From that which can not carry our true being to that which is our true being, life itself, being alive, the whole of everything.

Facts and Figures Do Not Wake People Up To The Truth

Facts and figures do not wake people up to the truth of their unity with
nature. It is the direct encounter with nature that wakes one up to that
truth. My experience of whale watch naturalists is that our patter is
all about facts and figures. Whales are fascinating creatures, but it is
not the facts and figures, not the knowledge about whales that reaches
and changes people. It is the fact of the whale itself, it is the
unmediated encounter with the unknown and unknowable magnificence of the
whale. Facts and figures appeal to the mind. Unmediated encounter
appeals to the whole organism, the whole movement of life in a person.

To me, this is one of the most important things we can do for people,
from a very early age, to give them the opportunity to see that there is
no separation between them and the natural world. Trying to manage the
natural world seems a little crazy to me. It is too complex. Our brains
and our mental models of the world are too simplistic. Nature is alive,
for God’s sake. As soon as you figure it out, it has changed! What we
need most is not managers but respectful participants in the unfolding
of nature. Not control but respectful participation. Where does that
respect come from, the willingness to look and listen really carefully?

It seems to come from some experience of the natural world that is
unmediated. A direct encounter with something that strikes to the core
and says to the individual human brain, you are this. You are not
separate from this. You and this are one and the same. Take care.

This is where I am trying to go, not only through whale watches and
through whale programs, but through other means. To create the
circumstances in which the human brain might be able to see that it is
in no way separate, to get it to stop for one small moment the constant
stream of separating chatter and story, to allow reality to meet reality
and realize they are one. To correct the deadly imbalance that has come
into the world because the human brain thinks it is in charge, in
control, that it is capable of understanding everything, and through
perfect understanding will come perfect living.

Life already lives itself just fine, thank you very much. It doesn’t
need any help from human brains. Sorry, human brain, you are pretty
amazing, but you can’t hold a candle to life itself. You can be pretty
smart, but your intelligence is only a tiny slice of the intelligence of
the whole of life. When you set yourself against nature, which is your
own nature, you are being very dumb indeed.

Maybe it is time to stop thinking that all the answers to our problems
will come out of the human brain. Maybe it is time to start listening
deeply to what nature has to tell us.

This seems to me a rather lovely place for the human mind to come to
rest: in the recognition that it is but one of the multitude of
expressions of Life’s intelligence, and therefore conscious of all that
it receives from life. Knowing all that life provides it, perhaps it
will in turn treat life with the care and respect it deserves. It can
not keep going the way it has been, pretending that it is separate and
independent of all of the rest of life. That is its fundamental error,
and that error is making the whole world inhospitable to human life, and
many other lives as well.