The shores of West Seattle had a large, unexpected visitor earlier this month. Although this one didn’t compete in size with the visiting giant in our waters in late February, its impact in our community does have the potential to be bigger and hopefully more long-lasting.
The news of this new visitor came rather early on what I had anticipated to be a lazy Sunday morning. Instead, I awoke to several text messages in rapid succession, photos included, from my sister. She had noticed a whale near her family’s home, which is just south of the Fauntleroy ferry dock, a few miles from where I live. The whale was a young Humpback, an unusual sight so close to shore. It was obviously in crisis.
Word of the distressed whale rippled quickly through our community. Soon, many of us were caught up in the whale’s struggle, watching for new information and updates to this breaking local news story, as the situation unfolded.
Various cetacean experts were summoned; they arrived and did their best to provide expertise, advice and help. Neighbors, ferry passengers, and people from nearby neighborhoods gathered and watched in concern, feeling hopeful, then very helpless.
Sadly, this human attention came too late.
The tide receded, which left the remains of the whale fully exposed on the sandy beach, a beach I know well. Though I’m not squeamish, that’s an image that I opted not to see in person. Experts took that opportunity to examine the whale closely and to discreetly take tissue samples that will help them determine its cause of death. Some have speculated that the whale was starving or that it may have ingested plastics or other debris.
Fortunately, no one is speculating that boats were directly involved. It’s also a small consolation that Humpback whales have been making a recovery here and are no longer endangered — the loss of one, therefore, is less significant overall.
Still, I feel sadness…as well as a persistent concern about toxicity, pollutants, and stressors in our marine environment, even if the cause of this whale’s death was illness, something genetic, or resulted from an injury.
The death of this whale provided another ‘teachable moment’ – a moment in which those who haven’t fully been paying attention, may stop and do so, albeit briefly. Did the death of this whale prompt questions: How and why did it die so young? Could we have changed the ending of its story?
We are fortunate to have several wonderful organizations here that work to protect and advocate for marine mammals. They educate our community about human behaviors that could adversely affect marine and aquatic life. One of these organizations is Seal Sitters, a Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN). They, along with NOAA’s West Coast MMSN, responded that day. Seal Sitters has since described their experience with the dying whale.
My hope is that this whale’s death has reached, or news of it will reach, those who are unaware and those who behave as though they are unconcerned about our environment. I hope so. It would be wonderful to see this whale’s untimely death take on a greater meaning, and perhaps become a rallying point for further steps that could make our waterways (and our planet) a healthier place.
All of us, wherever we live, can help in this effort. If you’re unsure about how to begin, start with some small changes that will yield big results. One is to learn about, and eradicate, the ‘Tox-ick Monster’ — that is, polluted storm water runoff.
In my community, most reports of whale sightings generally cause those who have a bit of free time (and even those who don’t) to head outside and find a good view point. I’m in that latter category, but still have been known to abandon whatever I was doing (that seemed or was deemed important) to do that!
At other times, I’ve inadvertently happened upon an impromptu whale watching viewpoint while out running or walking, and I’ve had strangers hand me binoculars when I showed up without – impromptu community — my people – these are some of the many reasons I love this place!