A couple of years ago, back in May of 2010, 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." Right away, 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 had been decades, maybe a century, since a grey whale had been seen in False Creek — there was no way that my kids could miss this.
Whales used to be regular visitors to the Salish Sea and Strait of Georgia (as witnessed in the place names like Whaletown on Cortes Island and Blubber Bay on Texada Island), but nowadays, they're a rare sight. A century ago, whaling killed off the whales that came through the area, and now most of us don't even realize what we've lost. But this visit by the grey whale gave us a glimpse of what we could have here.
Just a few metres off the seawall that Vancouverites love, we caught sight of the whale as it arched its back out of the water, blew water vapour out its blow holes and waved its flippers. We even saw huge eddies come to the surface, which a colleague explained is from the whale pushing water out of its mouth into the mud on the sea floor to stir up small creatures hiding there. I also learned that grey whales eventually go blind in one eye because of all the sand and grit they stir up.
Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this unforgettable episode was 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 the next morning, went downstairs and drew a picture of a grey whale in a thriving underwater ecosystem. That picture still hangs at my desk.