Sunday, April 29, 2007

Whale Tale

Whale Tale
Jim Banholzer
A Dozen years back, a whale beached itself directly in front of my Brother David’s apartment, on one of the rare occasions that he was out of town. We considered this uncanny event symbolic, since David is a top-notch Wildlife Protector for the State of North Carolina. While he has a rascally background, Officer Banholzer takes his job as seriously as I do mine -as if our lives depended on them.
Once a whale beaches itself, that’s about it for the creature. The weight of its own body, used to being buoyant, crushes itself without the encompassing ocean-water to buttress its gravity. Many people wonder why so many of these creatures continuously thrust themselves onto our shores.
Some say that whales are becoming disoriented by modern sea vessel sonar and other mitigating factors –known and unknown. Ever since TV first radiated, it seems that technology gets placed on fancy pedestals while impact studies are mostly burning afterthoughts.
Could it be that the whales are sending us a bottled message from the once crystal seas, that they now mourn the earth? Their self-sacrifice is looked at as a clarion call for better caretaking by some, while laughed off meaninglessly by others.
Occasionally I read North Carolina newspapers. In fact, a “Mountain Xpress” comes out every Wednesday in the enlightened mountain town of Asheville. When the entire hullabaloo came into our hollar, about a rancher in Mackay who legally shot a local man’s dogs chasing his cows, I found a fascinating story in this seemingly parallel paper. It shows that the ways in which we treat animals, reveals much about ourselves. (See: In the eye of the beholder / Mountain Xpress / Asheville, NC)
After serendipitously discovering this story, I remembered another passage in Carson’s / Sam’s Medicine Cards, speaking about the loyalty of dogs:
“If Dog has been yelled at or paddled, it still returns love to the person who was the source of its bad treatment. This does not come from stupidity, but rather from a deep and compassionate understanding of human shortcomings. It is as if a tolerant spirit dwells in the heart of every canine that asks only to be of service.”
David gets to bark up all sorts of trees as a Wildlife Officer. If gunshots of unknown origin are heard, in the cover of night, he gets called first, in under the assumption that poachers are out spotlighting again. He rescues deer caught in barbed wire fences, using the same wrassling moves, I was only too eager to use on him, before he joined the Marines. In between teaching hunter safety courses, David occasionally captures and relocates wayward alligators away from Golf Course Links.
One dark night David caught a preacher illegally shooting deer in the dark. The preacher shrieked, in an inhuman voice, “I can’t help it; it’s a disease!” After his conviction, the preacher continued crying shrilly from his pulpit, that his parishioners “may have read some things in the newspaper, but that they are all fallacious.” Soonafter, people attending worship came to David and asked, “What is the truth?” David told them that in this case they should be believers –of the news of record accounts, of their leader’s conviction.
It seems that half the populace will try to take the easy way out. When they think that there is no
watchdog, many do not abide by the simple rules. David says that of the potential “violators” he surveils; fully one-half eventually litter something during the course of an afternoon. I have asked him about this often and he says that this statistic remains static.
Ironically in North Carolina, newspapers and political signage are not considered trash, even if they are stained full of things more unseemly than bloody poaching convictions, before being tossed aside into un-receptacled areas. Imagine the sausage-like mechanisms that went into passage of a law like that.
David sometimes finds fish choked in plastic, discarded from six packs. Some wormy fishermen find this funny. I suppose then for them, a keg of beer gone overboard, blocking up a whales blowhole is about as good as it gets.
Perhaps the real reason the ocean is so saline is that every animal on earth has been filling it with saltwater tears, trying to rinse clear their eyes from how wrongly man has war-shipped the earth, ever since that first rotten apple core was tossed aside, violating that foremost pristine garden.


  1. Popeye9:07 PM

    (Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan)

    They bought a round for the sailor
    And they heard his tale
    Of a world that was so far away
    And a song that we'd never heard
    A song of a little bird
    That fell in love with a whale

    He said, 'You cannot live in the ocean'
    And she said to him
    'You never can live in the sky'
    But the ocean is filled with tears
    And the sea turns into a mirror
    There's a whale in the moon when it's clear
    And a bird on the tide

    Please don't cry
    Let me dry your eyes

    So tell me that you will wait for me
    Hold me in your arms
    I promise we never will part
    I'll never sail back to the time
    But I'll always pretend you're mine
    Though I know that we both must part
    You can live in my heart

    Please don't cry
    Let me dry your eyes

    And tell me that you will wait for me
    Hold me in your arms
    I promise we never will part
    I'll never sail back to the time
    But I'll always pretend that you're mine
    I know that we both must part
    You can live in my heart

  2. Medicinal Porpoise6:36 PM

    Whales and Dolphins


    They are among the most intelligent creatures on Planet Earth. They have dwelled in all the oceans of the Planet for over 3 million years. They are some of the largest creatures Earth's history has ever known. They have captured the imaginations of countless Human cultures and individuals. And yet so little is known about them. What, or who, are whales and dolphins, and why is there such a close bond between our two so very different species?

    Whales, dolphins and their smaller relatives, the porpoises, are known to science as cetaceans. Although similar in appearance to many species of fish, whales and dolphins are warm-blooded, breathe air from the water's surface, give birth to live young and feed their young on milk. These characteristics mean that cetaceans are in fact mammals, just like humans. There are over 80 species of whales and dolphins recognised by science, and there may be even more yet to be discovered. They come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the tiny Vaquita porpoise at 1.3 m in length, to the well-known friendly bottlenose dolphin, to the enormous blue whale - the largest creature Earth has ever known.
    The origins of Whales and Dolphins: Science and Myth

    Whales and dolphins inhabit all the oceans of the world, and a few species dwell in freshwater. Yet this has not always been the case.

    Millions of years ago, a cow-like creature resembling a wolf in appearance, walked on the land in the continents now known as Europe, Asia and North America. These animals were of the now extinct family of Mesonychidae, and as they competed for food on the land, some began to search the waters for food. Generation after generation passed, and the Mesonychidae began to adapt in their new environment. They lost their fur to become more streamlined, enabling them to swim more easily, leaving bare skin over a thick layer of blubber to provide insulation in cold water. Their entire body too was re-shaped to become streamlined; external ears vanished, front legs became flat pectoral fins (flippers) to provide steerage and the back legs were replaced by a muscular tail ending in broad flukes (tail-fins) which, when moved up and down, provided propulsion. To make breathing at the water's surface more efficient, their nostrils moved to the top of their heads and became blow-holes. Thus, from the land-dwelling family of Mesonychidae a new family was born: the family of whales and dolphins.

    Such is the origin of whales and dolphins according to science. However, many cultures have told different stories. Perhaps the most vivid account of the origin of dolphins is that of the ancient Greeks. Legend tells us that Dionysis, the god of wine and mirth, was once voyaging across the Mediterranean islands of Ikaria and Naxos disguised as a traveller. But the sailors had evil intentions, and unknowing the true identity of their passenger, planned to kidnap Dionysis and sell him as a slave. Once Dionysis discovered this plot, he used his divine powers to fill the boat with vines and the sound of pipes. He caused leopards and lions to appear and changed the oars of the boat into snakes. In order to escape this madness, the sailors leapt over board into the sea, where the ocean god Poseidon changed them into dolphins, forever destined to help sailors by guiding their boats.

    The native Inuit peoples of the Arctic, who have depended on hunting small numbers of sea mammals for generations, also attribute whales and dolphins with divine creation. Their legends tell of a young girl named Sedna, who refused to every marry a man and rejected all her lovers. She then fell in love with a dog and married him instead. Enraged, all of Sedna's rejected men took the girl aboard a boat and pushed her into the sea. Sedna grasped the edge of the boat in an effort to stop herself from falling into the freezing waters, but the cruel men chopped off all her fingers. Her severed fingers fell into the sea, and turned into the world's first whales, dolphins, seals and walruses. Sedna is now the reigning goddess of the sea, and if she becomes enraged, she will shut away all the sea-beasts so man is unable to hunt.
    Whatever their origins, there is something undeniably special and unique about whales and dolphins. Most people find the appeal of these animals hard to put into words. Some say it is the beautiful appearance of whales and dolphins that attracts them - their graceful bodies, effortless movement, almost human eyes and, in many species, a permanent "smile" as cryptic as the expression of the Mona Lisa. For others, it is the apparent intelligence of dolphins that is so appealing; many claim that you need only look into a dolphin's eyes to recognise the spark of intellect.

    The Intelligent, Friendly Dolphin

    The intelligence of dolphins is well-documented by science. Studies show that dolphins are able to mimic, understand sign language, solve puzzles and use objects in their environment as tools. It is also believed that dolphins possess a sophisticated language, and countless examples indicate that they can transmit information from one individual to individual. A recent experiment proved that dolphins can even recognise themselves in a mirror - something that very few animals can achieve. This demonstrates that dolphins are aware of their own individuality, thus showing intelligence on a level that may be very near our own.

    Throughout history, right up to present day, there have been tales of whales and dolphins befriending humans. In ancient Greece and Rome, many tales were told of boys and dolphins who formed a very close friendship. In one moving account, a dolphin named Simo would routinely take a poor boy on his back across a stretch of water between the boy's home and his school. But tragically, the boy fell ill and died, and soon afterwards Simo was found dead on the beach, apparently having killed himself out of grief. This is just one of many tales of people and dolphins forging a close relationship in the ancient Greco-Roman world, and many Greek and Roman artefacts from coins to vases were decorated with the motif of a boy riding a dolphin.

    More recent history also reports friendly dolphins and whales from all around the world, and, like those of Greek and Roman stories, many unfortunately met tragic deaths through the actions of humans whom they trusted so much. In 1814, a large male dolphin named Gabriel befriended adults and children, but was killed by someone who attempted to transport him to London in a farm wagon. In 1979, a young male bottlenose dolphin named Dobbie would interact with people in the waters of Israel, but after several months he was killed by gunshots. During the 1980s, two belugas, or white whales, interacted with people in Long Island, near New York. One, a female named BW who would push people inside inflatables, was found dead from gunshot wounds, while another named Bella disappeared after aquarium owners attempted to capture her.

    Today, there are still many friendly individuals and groups of whales and dolphins around the world. One of the most famous is Funghie, a large male bottlenose dolphin who lives in Dingle Bay, Ireland. Thousands of tourists are attracted to the bay every month to watch his antics, swim with him and perhaps even stroke him. Another famous dolphin, again a bottlenose, is Jojo, who lives in the Turks and Caicos of the Caribbean. He is so loved by islanders that he even has his own warden, Dean Bernal, who protects him and helps him if he is injured by boats - which happens all too frequently. Other friendly solitary dolphins include Olin from the Red Sea, Filippo of Italy and Flipper of Norway. In Alaska, a friendly pod of Gray whales routinely approach whale-watching boats to be stroked by tourists, and in Monkey Mia of Australia, a pod of dolphins often visit the beach to visit the tourists.

    Many accounts exist, from both the ancient and the modern world, of dolphins helping people. In many areas of the world, dolphins co-operate with fishermen by driving fish into nets, a relationship that is often generations old. There are additionally countless examples of dolphins helping swimmers in distress. The ancient Greek and Roman tell us that the bard Arion, Odysseus's son Telemachos, and the son of Poseidon, Taras, were saved from drowning by dolphins. The Maoris of New Zealand have a legend that says they were lead to their promised land by a group of dolphins, who helped them to the shore. In the modern world, tales of dolphins saving humans by battling sharks, helping drowning people ashore and even guiding life boats to victims of shipwrecks frequently make it to the papers. Such actions of compassion are deeply touching, especially when considering the many ways in which dolphins and whales are mistreated by humans. It is no wonder that for the ancient Greeks and Romans, Christians and Native Americans, the dolphin is a symbol of protection, and its image is said to bring good luck.

    Sacred Whales and Dolphins

    For many cultures across the world, whales and dolphins are associated with divine powers and are seen as superior beings. In ancient Greece, to kill a dolphin was equal to killing a human and was a crime punishable by death. For dolphins were seen messengers for the Gods, and were closely associated with Poseidon's daughters, the Nereids, the goddess of love Aphrodite, the heroine Galatea and the music-loving sun god, Apollo. It was said that the constellation Delphinus, the dolphin, was put in the sky by Poseidon in gratitude to the dolphins for finding his bride Amphitrite.

    In the rainforests of the Amazon Basin, the native Indians tell literally thousands of legends about the mysterious pink Amazon river dolphin, also called the Boto. Stories abound of the river dolphins taking human form and wooing young girls. They are often as regarded as unlucky, as they may tempt unknowing men and women into the water, where they are taken to Encante, the underwater world of no return. Similar tales of shape shifting are told of the elusive Baiji, or Yangtze river dolphin.

    In Sumeria, dolphins were connected to Ea-Oannes, the deity of the sea, and sometimes with the goddess Isis in Egypt. The ancient Celts attributed the dolphin with well-worship and the healing powers of water, and the image of people riding dolphins is seen on some Celtic artefacts. Some Australian Aboriginal tribes claim to be direct descendants of dolphins, who are sometimes regarded as guardian spirits. The dolphin is also an important symbol in heraldry, the art of creating coats-of-arms, and represents diligence, salvation, charity and love.

    Whales too are seen as sacred in some cultures. Russian, Slavic and Arabian mythology claims that whales support the world, and in Chinese mythology a whale with the hands and feet of a man rules the ocean. The Chinese also connected the single spiral tusk of the Narwhal, an Arctic-dwelling whale, with the horn of the sacred Unicorn. Statues of the Buddha in Tibet are frequently accompanied by whales.

    The great black and white killer whale, or orca, actually the largest member of the dolphin family, is important for many native American cultures. The Tlingit, Nootka and Haida tribes in particular see the orca as one of the many animal ancestral spirits and is viewed as an embodiment of strength and speed. Orca motifs, as well as other whales, appear on many native American objects from clothes to shamanic drums, as well as items of South American origin. Like the river dolphins of the Amazon, however, native American mythology sometimes casts the orca as a dangerous being, who can take people to their realm under the sea and transform them into whales.

    Whales are also sources of fear and superstition for some cultures, and are frequently regarded as monsters in myth and legend. Many sightings of sea monsters can be attributed to whales whose sheer size terrified sailors of the old world. A large number of sailors believed in a number of demonic whales, such as the Red Whale, the Horse Whale and the Pig Whale, that sunk ships and ate everyone on board. To even utter the name of these whales was considered bad luck. In Japan however, whales were connected with the more benevolent sea serpents known as Shan, who would visit the coast to play in large numbers. Norse folklore told of whales with magical powers, and cast them as the mounts of evil witches and wizards.

    The symbolism of the whale in Christianity is ambivalent. The belly of the whale is often used to represent Hell, and the whale's jaws as Hell's gates and some Christians connect the terrifying biblical sea monster Leviathan with the whales. Yet the "big fish" that swallowed the sinner Jonah is usually interpreted as whale, therefore portraying the mighty sea mammal as God's ally. The Bible tells us that once Jonah had repented, he was vomited out by the whale - thus connecting the whale with rebirth and resurrection. Some ancient Islamic folktales also hold this legend true, and in fact Jonah's whale is one of only 10 animals allowed into Heaven.

    The whale features in another story from Christianity, telling of the voyages of the Irish monk St. Brandon. In one account, St. Brandon and his companions land on a strange island, where they settle and begin to cook food. But as the campfire burns, the island shudders and sinks. Having barely escaped, the sailors are told by St. Brandon that the island was actually a mighty whale name Jasconius, whom they had woken when they lit the fire. A very similar tale was told in Persia of the legendary sailor Sinbad, who also became stranded on the back of a whale having mistaken it for an island.

    Both whales and dolphins are regarded on a level equalling that of humans in Vietnam. If the body of dead whale or dolphin is washed ashore, its finder must mourn the death like a brother and bury the body. Mass graves filled with the skulls of whales and dolphins have been found in Vietnam by archaeologists. Ironically, this treatment was shared by early whalers in Japan, who on killing a pregnant whale would bury the foetus and give it a Buddhist name.

    Whales and Dolphins Today

    Even today, whales and dolphins are widely thought to possess mystical powers. Thousands of people, including healers and patients alike, claim that dolphins in particular have a mysterious healing ability, easing ailments ranging from depression to autism. Even the image or sounds of whales or dolphins alone are sometimes reputed to have a beneficial effect. Scientists have explained this healing effect as a result of endorphins - the body's natural pain killing hormone - being released as a result of feelings of intense happiness and excitement, and so interacting with a dog, cat or horse could produce a similar effect. Some New Age practitioners, however, believe that dolphins act as channels of Ki, the life-energy associated with Feng Shui, Reiki and Tai Chi. The calls of whales and dolphins are often used in musical compositions for relaxation and meditation.

    Despite the overwhelming popularity of whales and dolphins, these animals sadly face more threats from humanity than ever before. Whales and dolphins are still slaughtered in their thousands all over the world, dying for nothing more than the human greed for profit. Even more needlessly drown in fishing nets or as a result of pollution poisoning their habitat and food. Large numbers of dolphins and small whales are also imprisoned in tiny concrete tanks in marine parks and zoos, where they must perform several times a day to entertain visitors. Such exploitation is a far cry from the respect these animals earned from the cultures of the ancient world.

    It is highly ironic and disturbing that these gentle creatures, who continue demonstrate unconditional friendship and trust and touch the lives of millions all over the world, are among some of the most endangered mammals in the world. It has been estimated that as few as 150 Baiji river dolphins exist today, and this species, the source of many extraordinary Chinese myths, now has little chance of survival. The vaquita porpoise, susu river dolphin, Hector's dolphin, right whale and blue whale are among the many other cetaceans who have been classed as a threatened species.

    If we are to ensure that whales and dolphins continue to inspire our children in the future, we must reach back to the past and regain the respect held by our ancestors for our cousins of the sea. Only then can these magnificent beings can live the life they deserve - swimming safe and free for all time.

    Written by Megan Balanck

  3. whopper link to last comment8:36 PM


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