The Whaling Sound

Kathryn Lynch

© Copyright 2018 by Kathryn Lynch

Photo of a whale on the beach.

The familiar sounds and smells of the shore swirled in the air as the Old Lady removed her shoes for her daily walk. She cherished this beach because in spite of having free public access with no inhospitable cliffs, it still remained relatively unknown, with few visitors.

Sandpipers staged their daily dance at the water's edge, while terns hovered overhead looking for the occasional fish which swam too close to the shore. Seagulls protested the whole performance, flying back and forth, squawking at their winged competitors. An occasional crab scrounged for a bit of food washed in by the last high tide. This ancient choreography played itself out daily, unchanged, no audience required.

Wet sand squeezed between the Old Lady's toes, slowing her pace, but welcoming her return, as she made her way to the cluster of rocks where she rested during her sojourns.

The sound penetrated the air suddenly, distressing, frightening! Flocks of seabirds terminated their dance, swooped into the sky, and disappeared. Crabs scurried for cover under salt encrusted seaweed. The Old Lady began to shiver, her internal circulation slowing to a crawl.

The desolate sound continued, permeating the atmosphere. She perused the sea for ships, boats, anything which could upset nature's balance to produce this sound. For the first time, she could see a giant shadow rise up and slap down on the surface. Water sprayed into the air, followed by another horrible roar. A large grey whale was swimming offshore, obviously in trouble.

The Old Lady could not determine the reason for the distress. She was still deciding what to do, when her attention was diverted down the beach by a disheartening sight. A young whale flopped helplessly in the muck, stranded by the retreating tide. His frustrated mother bellowed periodically to him, urging him back to the sea. It was not going to be easy—if it ever happened.

Her call to the Mammal Rescue Center, located at the beach downtown, was not ignored. Within an hour, more than 50 men and women arrived with ropes, rags, towels, buckets, and shovels. Some men dug in the sand at the sides of the whale, inserting thick ropes farther and farther until other men were able to pull them through on the opposite side. After two hours of effort three critically spaced ropes encircled the creature, tied together at the top.

All of these action did little to assuage the distress of the mother whale who continued to cry out for her young. The Old Lady was struck by the similarity of her grief to that of human parents who had lost a child. Images of Adam Walsh's parents, and memories of Elizabeth Smart's family, filled her thoughts.

The roar of news helicopters now joined the whaling sound. Stranded whales were always big stories! The more aggressive rescuers raised their hands in the air, third fingers waving, when the noise frightened the already shocked young whale. News makers on the choppers were undeterred. They reported on these salutes in excruciating detail. Cameras zeroed in on the faces of the small town peons who would dare challenge the big business of cable news. Another chopper nearly went down when attempts to film the mother whale ended with the giant mammal leaping upward from the water and crashing down within a few feet of their hovering vehicle.

A rescuer who was in the Coast Guard Reserves, called a buddy in charge of ongoing patrols off the coast. In a matter of moments, red and black service helicopters arrived, using megaphones to inform the news birds that the area was “Off limits!”. The news choppers reluctantly retreated, reporters mumbling about the military in a string of expletives.

The cries of the mother whale dominated the beach once again.

Waiting for the tide to reach the young whale was excruciating. Every third or fourth wave, the water level inched higher. Frustrated rescuers poured more water on the captive. Two older ladies spoke to him in soothing voices similar to the murmurs of a mother to a newborn child They stroked the side of his head, assuring him that everything would be all right. The men who had placed the ropes checked and rechecked them, to assure themselves that they were properly positioned and would not injure the calf.

At last the sea water found its way under the whale and around the legs of the rescuers. The plan was to use all available persons to pull forward on the ropes to ease him into the sea. Special knots had been employed so that once he was swimming, the ropes would be released.

So it was, that the rescuers, young and old, pulled on the ropes with all of the muscle power they could muster, in a life or death tug of war exercise. The young Grey weighed about 1,500 pounds. In spite of all their efforts, he did not budge.

The rescuers knew that the waters of high tide would not cover the young mammal sufficiently to free him from his sandy bondage. Discouragement settled into the group. Mothers filtered away with their children, unwilling to let them watch the whale perish. The old ladies who had spoken to the whale were inconsolable. They cried for this helpless creature, shamed by the unfilled promises they had made to him. A crusty old fisherman left the area, muttering “This s&*% won't work!”

A desolate pall settled on the crowd, affirmed to the world by the continuing desperate cries of the mother whale. A sense of loss and defeat filled the air. Now a veterinarian stood nearby, ready to euthanize the helpless creature to end his misery.

Someone pointed out the boat approaching in the distance. One of the rescuers recognized it as vessel owned by the fisherman who had left the beach. It was a small tug he used to pull his fishing boat and other boats into the dock when they experienced engine trouble. Dropping anchor near the mother whale, he wondered for a moment if she would attack him as a potential enemy. She circled the tug, dousing him with water which sprayed high in the air from her blowhole.

At last he was able to climb into a small rowboat, bringing along the tug boat's tow rope. The rescuers welcomed him on the shore, more than one pounding on his back in the universal “way to go” gesture.

The ropes on the young whale were attached to the tug boat rope. The idea was for the boat to pull the creature out to sea in the vicinity of his mother. At some point the ropes around his body would be released and he would be free to swim. The plan was simple, but it had to be extremely slow in its execution so the animal would not be injured. Interest and renewed hope seeped into the rescuers.

The boat's engine was engaged in the lowest, most powerful gear. The winch system began to pull, inch by inch. At first no movement was detected. Some wondered if the rope would fray and break under the strain. Others were concerned that the animal's weight would overtax the engine until it sputtered and quit. Finally the young creature slid forward, less than a foot. Closed fists raised into the air and cheers melded with the weary cries of the mother whale.

After about 45 minutes the whale pulled free of the sand. He made no attempt to swim, so the boat towed him out to his mother. She encircled him repeatedly, sending huge spouts of water into the air, complicating the job of the rescuers who were disentangling the young mammal from the ropes.

At last it was done. The ropes swung free and water soaked towels drifted on the waves toward the beach. Rescuers grabbed then up, waving them back and forth in the internationally recognized gesture of victory.

Their cheers stood alone, for the whaling sound which had dominated the beach for almost a full day, was now silent...

Epilogue: The two whales lingered in the area of the tug, swimming in circles and blowing air for about 20 minutes before slipping under the water.

Rescuers dried and kept their towel trophies as souvenirs of the happy outcome.

The beach is more well known and has more visitors now because it is the location of a famous whale rescue. The Old Lady considers it a tradeoff for the life of the young creature who was snatched from the sea by the tide and returned to its grieving mother by kind and dedicated people.

The ancient choreography at the water's edge is once again in place. Sandpipers, terns, and seagulls have resumed their places in the dance. The seaweed has given up its crabs to hunt for a quick meal. . . .

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