(Big) Sisters of the Sea

by Katie Pofahl on December 18, 2013

Every winter the Pacific coast of Mexico is visited by expressive, gentle leviathans – las ballenas jorobadas, humpback whales. Feeding only in the summer they finish filling their bellies in the north and then travel to the south to calve and mate.

These whales come thousands of miles to visit the warm, clear waters of our sweet little surf spot – and do they know how to show up for a party! Known for launching exuberantly out of the water, an expressive behavior called breaching, the whales’ namesake pectoral fins (from the genus name Megaptera meaning “giant wing”) flop about and give the animal an air of joyful, almost awkward abandon. The reason for this behavior isn’t known but surfers, from beginner to expert, can relate. Riding a wave may demand grace but in the water awkwardness is kindly forgiven, inviting moments of sheer abandon.

There’s a freedom in the ocean, a sense that you could go anywhere or do anything. Evolutionary opportunity in the sea allowed for the development of fantastic diversity within the animal kingdom – most types of animals got their start there – and whales are part of a select group who left and then returned. However, this about face came at a cost. Unlike torpedo-shaped tunas or sharks with their prehistoric design that’s worked for millions of years, whales’ re-adaptation to the ocean is perhaps a bit less complete. Though scientists do term them “fully aquatic,” whales still emerge to breathe air.

Setting out to meet the neighbors.
For mammals like us, whales are living a rarified existence. They’ve made the leap from land to sea and despite the grace and gravitas with which they often appear in our realm, just a momentary spout and flick of the tail, the humpback’s exuberant breach gives them away. Reemerging from the sea is a forty-ton kindred spirit, a graceful creature caught in an inelegant and fanciful essay. We breathe deep and search for the limit of our physicality, making a wild attempt to be what we dream or perhaps, what we once were.

Katie Pofahl is the co-star of Otter 501, the documentary that chronicles the story of an orphaned sea otter washed ashore on the California coast. Later, the young otter became part of a groundbreaking program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium introducing orphaned pups to a surrogate sea otter mother. The mom reared the pup for months, helping develop the necessary skills to survive in the wild. The PBS documentary Saving Otter 501 aired recently to check on the pup and her success in the wild.

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