Big Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus

Big Blue Whale

Last summer our poetry editor emailed me a picture of the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a big goofy roadside attraction off Route 66 in Oklahoma. It was the coup de grace in a non-literary competition for who could dig up the silliest visual non sequitur from the internet. The Catoosa whale—with its gaping mouth, porthole blowholes, candy blue varnish, and diminutive puddle of “ocean”—is sublime silly.

Weirdly just a few days later (or inevitably, because the laws of the universe are expressed in patterns), a real blue whale breached in Moss Landing, California during the filming of a BBC nature program called Big Blue. The timing was extraordinary, caught entirely on film by the helicopter crew, and the show host, Steve Blackshall, was overcome. Blue whales are the largest animals ever to have lived on our planet, he said, “the size of a jet plane without its wings.” During the 20th century, whalers exterminated 99 percent of their population and Blackshall noted that if someone had told him sixteen years ago, when he started filming wildlife that he’d ever see a blue whale, he’d have called them crazy. Today the World Wildlife Fund estimates their population at between 10,000 and 25,000. The whale’s TV cameo represented a radical accomplishment by conservationists and the sublime endurance of nature.

For their scope, songs, mystery and mythology, ferocity and vulnerability, whales have inspired writers from Melville to William Steig. Once you start thinking about whales, you find them (or echoes of them) everywhere. The theme of the Big Blue Whale struck us as both inevitable and irresistible.

Craig knew this of course when he sent me that apparently silly picture. He’d already been thinking about whales, the Whale of Catoosa in particular, for years—even written a short story about it, which was made into a short film. That dopey smile and veneer of inadequacy lay at the heart of an essential question: “What, finally,” he writes, “will result from the whale’s eternal happiness? It seems to me that its smile gives something to world while it takes something else away.” He goes on to ask, “Are joy and irony always at war, and what happens when they strike a balance?”   

It’s good to pose eternal questions. And good to endlessly posit answers—knowing that in the end, it’s balance we’re looking for. Balance that brings the whales back from extinction.

— Minna Zallman Proctor