Cetacean Society International
Whales Alive! - Vol. X No. 4 - October 2001
Review by Brent Hall, CSI Board
Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia, by Dick Russell, maps by Eben Given. Simon & Schuster, 688 pp.
Readers of Whales Alive! will be familiar with some of the controversies that have involved the eastern Pacific gray whales in recent years, from the plan by Mitsubishi to build a salt works at San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, to the Makah decision to hunt gray whales, to the Navy's testing of the LFA sonar on gray whales migrating along the California coast. But these individual issues do not convey the "big picture" of the remarkable relationship between humans and gray whales that has developed over the past two centuries, from the carnage in Baja California in the 1800's brought about by the whalers who drove the "devil-fish" to the brink of extinction, to the modern whale watchers in that same area who now marvel at the "friendly" gray whale mothers who offer their calves to humans to be petted, humans who discover that one gaze into the eye of a gray whale is a life-transforming experience.
That "big picture", for want of a better term, has now been provided for us in Dick Russell's wonderful book, Eye of the Whale. Mr. Russell followed the gray whales on their migration path from the Baja lagoons, along the California coast to Alaska and the Bering Sea, even including side trips to such remote areas as Sakhalin Island to observe the rare western Pacific gray whales. Along the way, in his very engaging personal style, he describes many of the people whose lives are currently intertwined with the whales, from the activists who helped to prevent the salt works, to members of the Makah Nation, to scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying and learning about the whales. The whales are always his close companions (and ours), and so is the legacy of Charles Melville Scammon, a whaling captain who ushered in the brutal era of whaling in the Baja lagoons, but who went on to become a naturalist writer and artist whose book published in 1874 still stands as a definitive study of the gray whales (or at least it did, until Dick Russell's book!).
Today the gray whales are threatened by the possible resumption of commercial whaling, and by pollution, noise and global warming. Will they survive this new assault on them and their environment? The outcome is uncertain, of course, but I believe a book like Eye of the Whale will help, by making people more aware of the amazing gray whales and the issues that surround them in their complex relationship with humans.
I consider Eye of the Whale to be a must-read for everyone who cares about whales. Granted, at 688 pages it is a large book, but its size suits its subject, and it is worth reading every word.