Whale Magazine :
Captain Joseph Bettis
by Joseph Bettis
Joseph grew up on a
ranch in west Texas. After earning his MA & PhD in Religious Studies
from Princeton, He taught world religions at Rutgers, U. of Alabama,
U. of Nebraska & Western Washington University. Then he discovered boats, the Pacific Northwest and the Inside Passage. He spent one year as a hand troller in Alaska and several years as captain of a small boat engaged in whale watching. A few years later he chartered his classic British Columbia fish packer, Sundown, for eco-adventure cruises through the Inside Passage.
Do whales and humans communicate? Ask
Ahab. Humans chased sperm whales in every ocean, slaughtering them
for their oil to light our lamps and their baleen to make our
corsets. A century later we kidnapped orca whales, put them in
prisons we call SeaWorld, and gave them fish for jumping through our
hoops. We communicate.
But is that “real” communication? “But did I really fly?” Carlos Castaneda asked Don Juan. “Did I fly like a bird?” “No” answered the sorcerer. “You flew like someone who has eaten Jimson weed flies.”
Why are we obsessed with this question? Are we seeking absolution for our brutality and stupidity? Are we looking for something missing in our own souls? Is there a bit of Ahab in each of us?
We scan the night sky and send binary messages into deep space hoping to communicate with non-terrestrial life forms. Is it because we don’t know how to communicate with ourselves? Does a Christian American president with an atomic bomb communicate with a Muslim suicide bomber?
Why this obsession on the part of the humans? Do the whales care? Perhaps, instead of a frantic effort to communicate, we should just stop and listen. They are calling.
In tribal societies the primary role of the shaman was to relate the human society to the rest of the natural world—other animals, plants, earth. Perhaps the whales are our shamans. As an indicator species, they remind us that in our mechanized world, even with GPS—perhaps partially because of GPS—we have lost our way.
Fifty years ago the government paid a bounty for killing Orcas (killer whales). Fast forward to 2002. Thousands of people became obsessed with the plight of one orphaned Orca, lost in the nether regions of the southern part of Puget Sound. Known by the whale experts as A73, she was known by the popular press as “Springer.” During the Winter and Spring of 2002, Springer had attracted world-wide attention. An orphaned killer whale, she was in poor health, and seeking out Washington State Ferries and other boats for companionship.
Eventually she was identified as belonging to the resident pods of Orcas that live in British Columbia near the northern end of Vancouver Island. She was designated A73 to identify her linage. After lengthy debates among many individuals and organizations, Springer was captured, rehabilitated, and prepared for reintroduction to her home waters and family. It was an experiment that had never before been attempted.
When my vessel Shadow left Friday Harbor on July 4, 2002, we were barely aware of Springer and the worldwide attention she had garnered. We were on our way through the Inside Passage to Alaska. On July 12, when Shadow arrived in Telegraph Cove, we discovered that we had arrived one day ahead of Springer’s expected return. Telegraph Cove was filled with reporters from all the media, as well as representatives of various interested groups. We found ourselves in the middle of an almost unbelievable media event. Springer the orphan killer whale that had become an international celebrity, was expected to arrive from Seattle aboard her private 140 foot catamaran to be reintroduced to her own resident family. Because plans changed at the last minute,
representatives from the Vancouver Aquarium
asked us if
Shadow could be used as an observation platform during her
acclimatization. We were delighted by the opportunity and shortly
moved to a secluded bay on Hanson Island to tie next to the
fish-farm pens that had been donated and prepared by Stoldt Seafood
for her return. We were the only boat permitted inside an exclusion
zone, protected by the Canadian Coast Guard and the RCMP.
Springer arrived that afternoon aboard her impressive boat, having made the trip that took us a week in 10 hours. Then, to the accompaniment of a phenomenal array of scientists from all areas of biology, representatives of the US Coast Guard, US Customs, National Marine Fisheries, Canadian Customs, Canadian Coast Guard, The RCMP, Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, US and Canadian Veterinarians, Whale Experts and Whale Watchers, First Nations representatives, media boats and others, Springer was hoisted from her catamaran onto the deck of a crane barge and along with about 40 handlers and animal health experts, brought to her temporary new home.
Shadow was tied to her pen for observers keeping twenty-four hour watch.
Shortly before Springer arrived, Chief Bill Cranmer from Alert Bay and other elders representing First Nations arrived aboard to constitute a welcoming party. Their war canoes were magnificent with many paddlers in ceremonial clothing. Six of their purse seiners anchored off the cove and native people, many in traditional clothing, lined the shores. While those of us reared in Western Civilization may wonder if humans and whales communicate, it is not even a question for tribal people.
Springer lay quietly in her sling on the barge as it maneuvered to the net pen. Then as her caregivers hovered about, she was given a final round of medical tests, hoisted slowly up and over into the pen to be received by a team of divers led by Jeff Foster from Ocean Futures. Once out of the sling, Springer took command. She spy-hopped, breeched, jumped, tail splashed, flipper slapped and generally cavorted like a killer whale. Chief Cranmer and drummers conducted an impressive traditional welcoming ceremony.
Then the bay began to empty quickly. Her handlers intended that Springer receive minimum human contact once she had arrived safely. Well before dark, a few remaining observers were aboard Shadow and we relaxed in the salon and rehashed the day’s excitement and potential perils. Congratulations and thanks were exchanged regarding the glories of the day and we discussed the possibility of waiting weeks for her family to appear.
After we turned in, through the hydrophone we heard Springer continuing to vocalize through the night. Her observers said the entire pen was lit by phosphorescence as she swam calmly and gently.
The next morning, Springer was much more active and restless. We soon realized that her home pod had appeared in the area. There was tremendous excitement everywhere. After less than 24 hours, the whales that were her closest relatives had arrived.