Wednesday, February 13, 2008

her fifteen foot barnacle-scarred head

David Matlin describes a visit to the gray whales of Baja in “It Might Do Well With Strawberries” (which is a reference to what Herman Melville suggests would go with a serving of whale milk). As we are going to be visiting the whales this spring I was surprised to stumble upon Matlin’s account in Golden Handcuffs Review, v.1 no. 8, the latest literary magazine to drift into my active reading pile. I’m trying not to build my hopes too high concerning whale communing possibilities. After the sleepy manatee experience I remind myself not to be expect a performance. Still, Matlin makes his whale visit sound sweet:

The Lagoon this morning was unusually calm. … The guide began to slow [the boat] and in this silence the backs and sides of grey whales surfaced all around us, cows and calves arching up, exposing their spines and flukes; glittering, and slithering into the depths, great mammalian dragons, their spouts creating instant flower-like rainbows over the nearly glass-like water nursery. We could hear the huge animal breathings, the wind carrying their breath-spray and ourselves immersed in the raptures of these life sounds for maybe an hour … drifted, and listened.

A single cow suddenly rose up from the whale generated sea-whip. At first she appeared and then subsided; ascended again and then let us touch her. She was 45 feet long and had extraordinary control of her tremendous body. She could float on her back under our small boat not moving even an inch for minutes as she watched us with her great eye or turned and floated up to the side of the dory, her fifteen foot barnacle-scarred head fully exposed, her blow hole expanding in spray with the force of a geyser … We could see her flukes, her huge fins, her multicolored body as she floated around us in circles, gentle, curious, elegant, distinct and I don’t know quite how to reach for any of the words that might help me to say how suddenly relieved we were of cynicism and malice …

David Matlin visited the whales at Scammon’s Lagoon, also called Ojo de Liebre, which is near the village of Guerrero Negro and a huge salt works. We won’t be going there. We will spend our time in a tent at the more remote San Ignacio Lagoon.

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