In the Company of Whales
Creatures that evoke awe, connection, and mystery.
Gray whales, called ballenas in Spanish, are famous part-time residents of Todos Santos’ waters between January and mid-March. These beautiful giants come to Baja to breed and give birth in the sheltered lagoons along the peninsula before returning to Alaska in March, with babies in tow.
It was a privilege to keep company with these magnificent creatures, watching them frolic and feed so close to shore. They’d also roll in the sand, I was told, in order to get rid of the barnacles that attach to them. As I watched them day after day, I became convinced that some of them were curious about what was happening on the shore, including the humans watching them.
Walks twice a day on the beach to spend time with the ballenas, one in the morning and one at sunset, became a ritual that anchored my day.
Encounters with whales evoke awe; they’re good for the soul. Spending time in the presence of a whale is one of those experiences that connects us with something greater. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley and director of the Social Interaction Lab, states in his new book on Awe that “awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”
Science has only recently shined a light on emotions that connect us to something greater, like awe and wonder, which are associated with spiritual experiences. Yet great scientists, including Einstein, honor the experience of mystery and know that the emotions it evokes are a common source of inspiration for art and science.
Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology, researcher, and author, said the purpose of science is not to cure us of a sense of mystery. Instead, he says, “The purpose of science is to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate that mystery.”
While a picture can be worth a thousand words, some experiences cannot be captured in images. An encounter with mystery is carried in the liminal space within us, and it keeps portals open to experiences that offer our lives greater meaning. In an age of constant distraction, we need access to these doorways now more than ever.
Feeling awe every day the ballenas were near the shore, I initially pulled out my phone repeatedly as they surfaced, breached, and rolled. I witnessed how I was distancing myself from moments that might not come again, yet I still tried to get the best picture, until I consciously chose to stop and turn the phone off. While there's nothing wrong with taking pictures, making it the end goal diminishes our capacity for wonder and awe.
My time with the ballenas reminded me of an experience I had once 25 years ago, kayaking in the San Juan Islands. At the outset of a three day trip, several orca whales were spotted nearby, only minutes after my partner and I put our kayaks in the water. A mother orca, swimming in tandem with her baby, circled our kayak and as she came from underneath it, she looked at me directly in the eye. It happened quickly and yet, it felt like it was in slow motion, and I remember her gaze vividly. Her tiny eye, seemingly disproportionate to the size of her, reflected curiosity and kindness.
That gaze, her regarding me the way she did, and her level of comfort to approach me with her child led to a moment of transformation.
Afterwards, I had difficulty describing my internal experience of the encounter with mama orca to myself. I remember having an association with death and feeling comfortable with it; a thought like: “If I die today, I’m good.” The words were an attempt to articulate the powerful experience of encountering mystery and being welcomed to participate in it. Maybe death is in some ways the ultimate mystery, and the experience of awe connects us to it.
In homage to the whales and the mysteries they evoke, I offer a poem from Mary Oliver that articulates these nuanced feelings so well.
Here is an audio version of my reading of the poem:
Mysteries, Yes by Mary Oliver Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood. How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs. How rivers and stones are forever In allegiance with gravity While we ourselves dream of rising. How two hands touch and the bonds will Never be broken. How people come, from delight or the Scars of damage, to the comfort of a poem. Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. Let me keep company always with those who say “Look!” and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.
I felt transported to the moment you shared with seeing the eye of the whale. I have experienced a similar sense of awe and connection when close up. It is as if they use their eyes to guide us to be better humans.