Whale feeding

For behold, ye shall be as a "whale in the midst of
the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you."
The Book of Mormon

Being poor in America is very expensive. Any attempt at saving money can cost you a lot. If you buy an old car, or park in the street instead of a parking lot, or try to rent a place in a cheap part of town, you end up paying parking tickets, or being endlessly milked for cash by car mechanics, or having your car broken in or stolen. The worst kind of extortion is the health care system. Doctors can suck your wallet dry even faster than car mechanics. You can fix your car yourself, but you are not allowed to take care of your health: virtually all drugs can only be bought with prescription, so you have to finance the medical mafia whether you want to do it or not. Having guaranteed income means that most doctors are more or less incompetent. If you are sick, you go online, diagnose yourself, learn everything about your medical problem, make an appointment, wait for a few days, go to the doctor, pay a lot of money, have all imaginable tests taken, explain to the doctor what your diagnose is, lecture him on all the stuff you've learned from the Internet, and, if you are lucky, get the prescription you need.

Being rich is cheap. You get discounts for being a long-term client, paying up front, and buying wholesale; you write off taxes in a hundred different ways; while poor people have to pay back loans and credit card debts. What is even more important, rich people buy houses and then pay for them, while poor people keep wasting money on rent.

Of course, some people move from one layer to another. You get a well-paid job, and in a few months all your financial problems disappear. You lose your job, and debts made in times of prosperity pull you to the bottom like lead shoes. Only very rich people never fall from the top.

Natalia and I lost our jobs at the worst possible moment, a few months after the collapse of the software industry. Finding work was impossible, and we didn't even have money to move elsewhere. We dropped out of flight school and sold some furniture. Natasha signed up for online veterinary technician classes, while I tried to survive on temporary jobs. My company was not completely dead, but I was only employed for a few hours a week.

So we spent time on the Internet, looking for hiring ads and sending out resumes. Of course, it never worked. Just as in any other country, the only effective way to get a job in the US is through personal connections. But most people we knew were also unemployed.

Finally, I got a part-time job from a friend in Monterey. She was a well-known marine biologist, and ran a small whalewatching company which I considered the best one in the North Pacific. I never earned any substantial amount of money there, but that wasn't the point. Now I had the opportunity to go on free whalewatching tours once or twice a week. My job was mostly spotting: I had good eyes, especially for wildlife.

It was a lot of fun, although probably not for everyone. The Pacific Ocean off Northern California is anything but pacific. Even inside the Monterey Bay, it was usually choppy enough to make most passengers seasick. If we couldn't find whales there and had to go into the open sea, it got even worse. Usually the ocean wasn't even blue: cold gray surface, blanketed by fog, with heavy swell moving in from the Bering Sea.

The ocean had its own seasons - three of them. The best time was fall, from September to December. The sea was relatively warm and clear; the fog disappeared soon after sunrise; our boat was happily slicing through glasslike water along the forested shores; rainbows danced in whale spouts; tourists were excited to see all kinds of colorful jellyfish under the bow. Winter, from January to April, was stormy. It was really exciting to dance in huge waves, listening to busy hum of the engine and to screams of frightened passengers. Summer was the fog season, the most difficult time to work. We often had to locate whales by their sounds, while shivering clients were dozing off in the corners of the cabin.

I only took Natalia with me twice. She was very prone to motion sickness. Besides, these were the only two trips out of more than a hundred when we didn't see many whales. After that she refused to go. "What's the point? I'm not watching whales, only feeding them." Later she got her share of fun: we drove to Baja California, took a speedboat to Laguna San Ignacio, and had an opportunity to play with a baby gray whale for more than two hours. The calf liked us so much that it wouldn't let us go, demanding to have its nose scratched. Together with its mother, it followed our boat for a few miles when we finally had to leave.

I enjoyed those whalewatching trips a lot. I had to get out of bed an hour before dawn, throw a bag of warm clothes into the car, and drive sixty miles through rolling fog to Monterey. That charming city is one of the best places in the world to study marine mammals.

I also got seasick, not from large waves, but from medium-size ones. Pills helped a bit, especially chewable Dramamine for kids. As I was letting the tourists onboard, I kept hoping that it would be either a quiet day or a really stormy one. Of course, the moment we spotted something interesting, all symptoms of my motion sickness disappeared.

Before leaving the pier, I had to give our passengers a safety talk. The most important thing to make clear was: don't throw up in the toilets. They were a bit small, so if one or two people missed the sink, it got really unpleasant there. The smart thing to do if you got sick was to go as far back as you could, so that you were downwind from other passengers.

Our trip began with circling the harbor. The jetty was taken over by sea lions and pelicans; sea otters were playing in kelp banks. Then our captain would use the radio to ask other boats in the Bay for whale sightings. Fishermen and the Coast Guard were always very cooperative. If there were no tips, we usually started our search from the area where the whales had been seen the previous day, looking for whale spouts or dorsal fins.

Soon I was able to identify a whale or a dolphin by a distant spout or a glimpse of the animal's back. Most species of marine mammals are surprisingly easy to recognize: each has its own silhouette and swimming style. There were eight species of dolphins in the Bay, and all looked completely different, from tiny, very slim right whale dolphins to large, slow, scar-covered Risso's dolphins. My favorites were Dall's porpoises, unbelievably fast and agile. You could tell their herds from afar by "rooster's tails", splashes of water they kicked up as they instantly changed direction at full speed.

Being surrounded by thousands of dolphins was great, but our main goal was to find whales. In winter we were looking for gray whales. This species has the longest migration route of any mammal, from summer feeding grounds along the coasts of Alaska and Chukotka to breeding lagoons in Baja California. There was usually a lot of them around, but they were difficult to follow, and seldom did anything except move across the Bay.

Summer and fall were much more interesting. During warm months, nutrients-rich water from the ocean floor was rising to the surface along the mile-deep submarine canyon in the middle of the Bay. Water in that area often looked like plankton soup. In July and August, we would sometimes have more than a hundred whales feeding around us. Blue whales were particularly impressive: twice as long as our boat, fast and powerful, they resembled nuclear submarines. Finding them was easy: they had spouts up to fifty feet high.

Humpbacks were even more interesting. They were very playful and inquisitive. Every day we'd see them jumping out of the water, or harassing blue whales, or joining sea lions in herring hunts, or sunbathing on the surface, their long flippers up in the air like narrow white sails. They often approached the boat to get a better look at people, to scratch their backs, or to shoot a spout in passengers' faces.

Thanks to the deep canyon, we could occasionally see rare visitors from the open ocean: sperm whales (these giant predators looked like battleships with their dark-gray skin and determined movements), mysterious beaked whales, slim fin whales. And there was always a lot of smaller stuff around: elephant seals, fur seals, basking sharks, blue sharks, sea turtles, sunfishes, tuna, and, of course, seabirds. Abundant food attracted them from all corners of the Pacific. In the fall, millions of shearwaters arrived from Australia, moving across the sea in one endless river of birds, or feeding in immense flocks. In spring there were albatrosses from Hawaii; in summer, storm-petrels from Mexico. Every month brought something new: Arctic terns from Alaska, phalaropes from Siberia, skuas from the Antarctic, guillemots from Canada.

In addition to finding whales, we had to photograph them. Individual blue whales could be identified by the unique pattern of spots on their backs; humpbacks - by black-and-white undersides of their tail flukes. Local scientists had a database of photos, and could follow some whales for many years.

Of course, the most exciting thing was never knowing what a day would bring. I participated in more than a hundred trips, and every time there was something new: birth of a gray whale, or a seal playing with giant jellyfish, or a rare bird. But some days were special. You could tell it almost immediately: sea lions were strangely quiet, dolphins didn't leap in the air, whales didn't play or sing. They were scared of transients, a killer whale tribe.

The spots on the backs of killer whales are also individual. A few years ago it was discovered that there are three separate ethnic groups in the North Pacific, each with its own language, hunting culture, and migration routes. Oceanic orcas live far from shore, chasing tuna and small sharks. Residents inhabit particular areas along the coast, feeding on herring, salmon, and other fish. They are not as nomadic as others, although we did get occasional visits by packs from Puget Sound and Mexico. Transient killer whales are very different. They have more pointed dorsal fins; their packs are small, quiet, and fast, able to cover great distances in search of warm-blooded prey.

Amazingly, all local marine mammals could distinguish the three killer whale tribes by their language. They were not afraid of oceanics and residents, even joined them in fishing sometimes, but were absolutely terrified if transients were in the area.

We were fascinated by killer whales, and never missed a chance to follow them for as long as we could. They are the smartest and the most beautiful creatures of the sea. But if you watch them, especially the transients, you should be ready for some of the most violent and bloody scenes in nature. It takes orcas no more than a few minutes to tear apart a seal or a dolphin, but finishing off a family of whales can take hours, with the sea turning red for hundreds of feet around.

Dizzy from the wind, the waves, and the intensity of the chase, we returned to the harbor. We were always greeted by tame harbor seals and seagulls, who took us for a fishing boat and expected scraps. I carried the most seasick passengers to the pier, had a cup of coffee, and drove home. Sometimes the tourists wouldn't let me go for a while. The Japanese wanted to take a group picture, Europeans had to write down scientific names of the animals, Mexicans had to kiss on the bow, Americans came up with questions like "who is stronger, an orca or a white shark?" or "how powerful is your engine?"

Once a year our company organized a special trip for people seriously interested in marine biology. We would leave Monterey at sunset and go west all night, watching dolphins play in luminescent water. By dawn we were far out into the sea, above a submarine mountain, which was rising from the depth of three miles to within a thousand feet from the surface. It was a good place to look for the species of the open ocean: petrels, rare whales, oarfishes.

I always wanted to get even further west, away from the cold current, into the waters seldom visited by biologists. And one day I got such a chance: my boss bought a new yacht, and asked me to help with navigation on her maiden voyage. He didn't have time to install any navigational or radio equipment, so I had to find the way in patchy fog, using a plastic school ruler and Polynesian three-star technique. We sailed more than 200 miles west, and managed to get back to San Francisco. It was an exciting trip, but the best part was seeing and videotaping Perrin's beaked whale. This species was only described in 2002 from three dead specimens found on beaches, and had never before been seen alive.

Eventually, I saw virtually all species of birds and mammals of the North Pacific, except for some tropical visitors that only show up in warm-water years of El Nino. The only thing I missed was great white shark. But they are supposedly much easier to find off South Africa, and I very much hope to swim with them there sometime soon.

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