The Day the Whale Came

When I was in elementary school, I read every book in the school library about any and every animal. The horse books by Marguerite Henry (like Misty of Chincoteague) were some of my favorites. To this day, I’m a sucker for an animal story. Book or movie: if there’s an animal involved, I’m probably going to cry at some point. Especially if it dies. Or if there’s a chance it might die — or if it gets hurt — or lost — or if it saves someone…

My list of Animal Stories I Loved That Made Me Cry would be LONG if I sat down to write it. I can’t help it: I love critters. I’ve always loved watching Nature programs on PBS, too. But I get so sucked into the real-life drama of animal life and I can never decide who to root for in the predator/prey scenes; either the cute baby zebra gets away (yay, zebra!) but that means the lion’s babies might starve (sad), or the cute baby zebra gets eaten (sad) but the cute lion cubs get to live (yay, lions!). Being a highly sensitive person is hard sometimes.

One childhood book that stands out in my memory is When the Whale Came to My Town.

book cover When the Whale Came to My Town

This story was about a beached whale in a small fishing town, and was told from the perspective of a young boy. I loved the story, but it broke my heart, too. I remember a particularly poignant part when the boy looked into the whale’s eye, and the connection he felt to the dying animal. It’s been nearly 4 decades since I read this book and I can still get misty-eyed about it.

Last week, the whale came to my town.

It still boggles my mind some days to realize that I live right next to the ocean. It’s crazy. Just like with my elephant in Africa, living here and seeing the things we see feels like I’ve stepped into a Nature show. And I love it.

I’ve seen baby loggerhead turtles hatch. I’ve seen dolphins playing just offshore, and sharks, too. On my Bucket List is seeing a whale in real life, breaching or spouting close enough to see it from shore. Like this one off a neighboring island last month.

When I heard that a whale was stranded here on our island, I had such mixed feelings. I wanted to see it. Because, a real whale!!! But according to marine biologists from nearby UNCW who came to assess the whale’s condition, things did not look good.

biologists assess the whale
UNCW biologists assess the whale

They determined it was a 2-3 year old male sperm whale, badly emaciated and weak. Sperm whales are usually still with their mothers at this age, but this one must have been separated from her somehow. Before the officials arrived, beachgoers tried to help it, and for a while people were in the water with it, covering it with wet towels and hoping to figure a way to help it back to sea.

stranded young sperm whale
stranded young sperm whale

I finally decided to go down, briefly, to see it. But I couldn’t bring myself to go close. One of my friends was there before the biologists arrived, and she recorded a video where you can hear the whale clicking out echolocation. She said the vibrations tickled her skin.

stranded whale eye
close-up of the whale’s eye

A sad ending to our whale story

The whale was weak from weeks or even months without eating, and it was bleeding from scraping on the sand for hours. A whale is meant to be fully submerged, and when it isn’t, the weight of it’s body slowly suffocates it — but this may take days. In the meantime, seagulls may begin to peck at it’s eyes and sharks might start to eat it before it dies. Biologists determined that the most humane thing to do, since there was nothing that could be done to help the whale, was to euthanize him.

Once he died, they pulled him out of the water. Although he was thin as far as whales go, his weight was estimated at close to 30,000 pounds and he was 27 feet long. The following day, biologists performed a necropsy to see if they could determine the cause of death. Afterwards, town officials dug a big hole and buried him deep in the sand.

drone view of whale
drone view of whale being removed from water

I’m ridiculously sad about it. Tragic events happen everywhere in the world, but animals have always been my soft spot and this was right here in my town. It feels personal.

The kids went with me to see it from afar and we’ve discussed it all; it’s been an unexpected unschooling topic. I’ve read all the news articles and looked up more on my own, so I’ve learned much about stranded whales.

A few of my friends went out the evening after he was pulled to shore to touch him. I would love to know what a whale feels like. But then I would have had such a connection with him that I’d be a blubbering mess.

Now I want to read When the Whale Came to My Town again. It might even be a good read-aloud, but there’s no way I could read that book aloud with sobbing. Normal people probably won’t have that problem, and it’s truly a good book so I absolutely recommend it.

*drone photo from local photographer with permission to share; other photos courtesy of fellow sea turtle volunteers