Yesterday afternoon I got a call from a friend of mine who works at the Vancouver Aquarium, "There's a Grey Whale in False Creek. It's somewhere around the Cambie Street Bridge." Bam! I called my partner at work, got the bike trailer, put my three-year-old daughter in it, and raced off to pull my five-year-old son from kindergarten. It's been decades, maybe a century, since a Grey Whale has been seen in False Creek — I knew there was no way that my kids could miss this.
Seeing a Grey Whale in the middle of the city I call home (Vancouver, B.C.) brought back a hope that is often crushed by environmental catastrophes like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Whales used to be regular visitors to the Salish Sea and Strait of Georgia, as is witnessed in the place names like Whaletown on Cortes Island and Blubber Bay on Texada Island. But they're now rarely sighted. Not only did we hunt them out, most of us don't even realize what we've lost. But we caught a glimpse yesterday.
False Creek is a former industrial area whose toxic waste created a near dead zone. It borders Downtown Vancouver and is spanned by three bridges. Over the past 30 years it has been converted into a residential area, replete with seawalls, schools, and a world renowned public market. Recently a tidal zone and small island were included in a park in the Olympic village to mimic its original state.
Last year, I heard that herring were once again spawning in False Creek after having disappeared with industrial activity decades ago — a once-toxic environment can be reborn after all. I was excited and hopeful, blubbering it to friends, neighbours, and anyone who cared to listened. But I never anticipated a Grey Whale. A freaking whale right here in our backyard!?
Anyhow, my whole family was fortunate enough to see the whale. We watched as it arched its back out of the water, blew water vapour out its blow holes and waved its flippers. We even saw a huge bubble come up, which a colleague explained happens when the whale blows into the sea floor to push out food.
Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of the whole unforgettable episode was the exuberance—the ecstatic social excitement—of all the people running, cycling, paddling and skateboarding to follow the whale along the shoreline.
Strangers were calling out to strangers: "There's a grey whale right here in False Creek." "It just went right by me." "It's headed back out that way." Everyone was short of breath from excitement or from racing to follow it along the shoreline. Not only did people want to see it, they wanted to make sure everyone else did too.
E. O. Wilson was right: biophilia is hardwired into all of us. And seeing it in action filled me with hope — we humans actually do care deeply about nature. In his own fit of biophilia, my son woke up before me this morning, went downstairs and drew a picture of a grey whale in a thriving underwater ecosystem, then woke me up and gave it to me to bring to work. It's hanging by my desk as I write this.
Thanks go out to the brilliant city planners who kept automobiles away from the shoreline here, and helped to create a place where whales feel comfortable to return, and where people can use their own power to follow them.
As testament, the whale came back again this morning. I hope it becomes a regular visitor.