Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Whale Falls

Whale Falls

Where do whales go when they die? 

Most dead whales sink slowly to the ocean floor, until they rest in the deep, 3000 feet or more.  But that’s not the end of the story – keep reading to learn about whale resurrection and Blue Theology……

Sometimes we see (and smell!) dead whales decomposing on the beach or in near shore waters.  But those are very few of the many thousands of whales who die naturally every year.  (If we lived in Norway or Japan or Iceland we might see the carcasses of the 2000 whales they still slaughter annually in commercial hunts.) 

Those lucky enough to die naturally become what’s called “whale fall.”

Because it’s so cold in the deep, with lots of pressure, the whales decompose very slowly. Scavengers like hagfish and crabs show up first, and eat all their soft tissue in a few months.  Then furry worms and shrimp, called “enrichment opportunists,” move in and colonize the massive whale bones for two or more years.  Finally, the bacteria arrive and live for many decades, 50 years or more, off the bones’ lipids, feeding in turn many nearby mussels and clams. 

Researchers using a remotely operated vehicle studied one 40-ton grey whale carcass deep off the coast of Santa Barbara for over ten years and found more than 30,000 animals, representing 200 different species, living off the one animal.  A dead whale can be one of the most species-rich habitats in the ocean.

 “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

OK, this is a slightly morbid topic for my weekly post on ocean spirituality.  I’m pretty sure those are eels in this picture, feasting on the dead whale.  I learned about whale falls as part of my volunteer guide training at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I guess I already knew that every animal body eventually ends up in the sea in some diffuse form, thanks to decomposition, gravity, run off and continental shift, but this picture at first made me a little sad.

But I am a resurrection girl.  I do believe that life is always more powerful than death.  Even for a 40-ton dead whale.  In their one death they give life to tens of thousands of others.  In that miraculous balance of life and death and new life, there is no waste, everything has value and meaning.  Even in the darkest depths, a rich habitat.

They are haunting, pictures of whale falls, courtesy of deep sea technology.  I am moved, and strangely reassured, seeing both the death hidden in the dark and the new life blooming from it.  There is so much we know, and so much we have no idea about at all.  I like learning new things.  And I like letting the mystery be, down deep.

Where do whales go when they die?  To whale heaven of course.  From deep dark wet, they are transformed into new life.   Same as for all of us living beings.   We move from deep dark wet to light and life, again and again.
Very much alive grey whales are having their babies in Baja Mexico this month, and then will swim north to Alaska in a few months – visit our Blue Theology Mission Station on Monterey Bay for a day or a week, youth group or adult pilgrimage, to see whales swim by close to shore, and experience ocean spirituality and stewardship.  You can read these Wednesday posts also at Blue Theology Mission Station on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Open or Closed?

Open or Closed?

“Closed Today,” has read the sign in front of Point Lobos State Reserve many days this winter.   Thankfully it’s not state budget cuts keeping some of the half a million annual visitors from entering what is called “the crown jewel of the state park system,” or “the greatest meeting of land and sea.” 

No, it’s possible danger to those visitors, from high surf, high winds, downed trees and mudslides.  It’s shaping up to be wild, wet winter, and the roads, trails and coastline are risky places to be.  A tree actually fell, on a pretty nice day, directly on a visitor who was obediently on trail (and not seriously hurt.)

But some locals (and probably some tourists) grumble that the Parks folks are being too cautious.  On any day, wet or dry, winter or summer, a guest could risk life on the wet rocks, slip on a trail, trip over a branch.  Life is dangerous.  We go to that great meeting place, to the wild, as Thoreau said, to see our limits pushed.

And we wonder why is there more damage this year?  Trees stressed and weak from years of drought?  Wild weird weather patterns because of climate change (or the new phrase I’ve heard, climate chaos)?

Lobos is a State Reserve, not a park, which means it is managed not with people in mind, but the wild life there.  Parking is limited, no ball fields, stay on the trails.  If a tree falls down, unless it is across a road or trail, it is not tidied up, but left alone to provide habitat for wildlife and decompose to enrich the soil.  Even when National Geographic wanted to come in early before opening to film, they were told no, we are closed when the animals eat at dawn and dusk – it’s their home, we are visitors.

So maybe State Parks is just doing their job, being good stewards.  The land and trees and animals need some recovery time free of thrill-seeking tourists, some respite after the storm.  It’s not all about us and what we want.  Stewardship sometimes means saying no.

Metaphor time: If we, like Lobos, are natural gifts of God (maybe not quite so spectacular, but not bad), can we choose times when we should be open for business, and others when it’s best to say, “closed today?”  Or are we being too cautious?  Should we let people in even if there is some risk?  And if something crashes and falls, do we let it nourish us or do we tidy it up to look better?  Are we parks or reserves?  What are our wild edges?  Where do our wild lilacs bloom and lupine bud?  On our “closed” days, do “the trees of the field clap their hands, as we go out in joy?” (Isaiah 55:12)

Open or closed today?

Our Blue Theology ministry of ocean stewardship and spirituality is always open.  Our youth service trips and adult pilgrimages on the Monterey Bay often include a poetry walk-and-write at Point Lobos.  Photo: Steve Lonhart, NOAA