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A Small World with Tiny Oceans

May 11, 2014

“…a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it.”
– Herman Melville, from Moby Dick

After a nice evening at the theater last weekend, a friend and I took a short tour around Oakland. We learned that long ago we lived in apartments across the street from one another. Not tracing the exact dates, we’re not sure that we both lived on that little street at the same time, but if not, we know that there was a gap of a few months at most. How’s that for a small world?

We both had memories of the neighborhood. She told me of the mugging she witnessed and the other things going on in her life at the time. I told her of the drug dealer who drove the Porsche and other stories.  I remembered the three other tenants in the four-unit building, all single women. They were good neighbors. Mrs. L. lived in the other first-level unit. Her son was an Oakland policemen, who held the A’s baseball star Reggie Jackson in low regard due to his arrogance and hot-shot attitude when interacting with the force. We all kept an eye on her and made sure to say hello. Two young women lived upstairs. Sandy was always up for a chit-chat or a beer. She had a large collection of black and white celebrity photos on the wall of the staircase. Everyone from Clint Eastwood in one of his Spaghetti Western costumes to Paul McCartney to Judy Garland. She was fun and so was her gallery. The name of the third neighbor is lost on me now, but as these things go, may very well come back to me after I stop trying to remember.

My friend and I thought that it was pretty funny that we both once lived on that side street. Who could have guessed? But just how small is this world? A few years after both of us had moved from the neighborhood, we lived across the street from one another in another part of Oakland. Holy Young East Bay Renters Pick Up and Move, Batman!

While taking a look at the old neighborhood last weekend, we drove down the main commercial avenue. Most of it is still intact – the old movie theater, built in 1917, is still there. The local grocer, ice creamery, pharmacy, bank and a few other establishments remain. The bus route and other vestiges are still there too. Of course, there are more restaurants and fancy coffee and tea shops. But, the neighborhood is still recognizable.

whale center

The Whale Center was one of the charms of the old neighborhood.

What’s missing? The record store. The pet shop. Maybe a laundry mat or two. And The Whale Center. The Whale Center was an educational and policy advocacy organization committed to the whales and the oceans. It was co-founded by Maxine McCloskey, a veteran environmentalist from the 1960’s. Her husband was the Executive Director of The Sierra Club and the two of them committed themselves to protecting the environment from the ravages of our industrial practices. They worked at the highest levels in Washington D.C., Sacramento and other power centers, but also were in the field and on the street. The Whale Center had a small storefront (a closed candy store) on the avenue. There were a few desks with phones for Maxine and the others to do their work, books and papers for the public’s checkout and purchase, and lots of clutter. The people were friendly and always willing to tell you what they were up to. I’d stop in sometimes, when heading back to the apartment from the bus stop or local spots I frequented, including the pet shop, where we made frequent runs for parakeet seed. I was also a regular at the ice creamery, where two or three scoops of homemade splendor was the standard and the five-scoop bowl was for a Saturday evening splurge.

I was a student and had a little extra time. I volunteered to help The Whale Center with some basic bookkeeping and organization of their records. I was pleased to lend a hand and pulled for anyone who worked to end the mindless and savage slaughter of the whales. Maxine was very kind to me and appreciative of the work I performed. She rewarded me with a beautiful photo of a diving whale’s tail that hung on my walls for most of the next two decades, but has since been lost. She also invited us to an informal dinner with some of the group’s staff and supporters, including Joan Baez’s father. Here’s one more from the small world department. Any curiosity I had about meeting the 1960’s folk queen’s father was put to rest a few years ago, when I learned that in the intervening years, he made advances towards a woman I knew and cared about, even though she was much younger than him at the time. Creepy.

I lost touch with Maxine right after I finished my assignment and never put much more effort into helping the whales. Heaven knows they need it.


Morning coffee with a theme. My mom gave me the cup way back then. It’s still in the daily rotation, reserved for times I’d like a small cup.

In 1962, the author Arthur C. Clarke said of our hunt for the blue whale, “we do not know the true nature of the entity we are destroying.” If we didn’t, that was out of convenience and denial. Sure, there have been many scientific studies since then, but as far back as the 19th century, much has been known about the whales’ intelligence and social structure. Cetaceans have much in common with humans on an evolutionary basis. For a long time, we have observed their advanced function and behavior. They capture our imagination and in recent decades, we’ve even built large water tanks in our amusement parks for them. They’ve been revered and feared forever. Melville gave his famous whale standing as a metaphor for God, no less. Regardless, whales were relentlessly hunted for commercial reasons for hundreds of years.

The blue whale, which can grow to 100 feet long and 300,000 pounds and live up to 90 years, was once too fast and strong to be threatened by whale hunters. However, with harpoon canons and other technology, the blue whale met its match. One of the largest concentrations was in the Antarctic, where they were nearly wiped out entirely. From 1928 to 1972, with a three-year break during the Second World War, the Antarctic was a blue whale slaughterhouse. A population of 239,000 was reduced to less than 1,000.

During the nineteenth century, American whalers aggressively depleted five whale species. No ocean was too far away. The Pacific Ocean off New Zealand was a favorite spot, where right whales were plentiful. Stories go that there were so many right whales offshore that people complained about losing sleep because of the noises that they would make. Researchers estimate that up to 58,000 were killed between 1830 and 1849. Scientists now estimate that there are about 1,000.  The whaling industry estimates that there were 100,000 humpback whales before the industrial whaling started. Scientists from Harvard and Stanford say that the figure may have been as much as 1.5 million. The population, down to 1,000 forty years ago, has increased to 20,000. 

Observations of sperm, right, bowhead, gray, and humpback whales by American whalers between 1780 and 1920. See PLOS|One for other wonderful spatial maps.

It’s a small world with tiny oceans. Too small for the insatiable appetites for seafood. The fisheries have been decimated – 85% have been over-fished and some will never recover. There isn’t even enough water in the seas for the mighty whales to escape. After decades of protection, seven whale species are still endangered or threatened. Anthropogenic noise changes their behavior and masks natural sounds that the they depend upon. Toxic poison from pollution enters the food chain and ends up in the their tissue. Climate change and shipping lanes affect their migration patterns. And believe it or not, the industrial hunting continues. Japan, Norway and Iceland insist on maintaining their practices. Japan is currently flaunting a March 2014 ruling from the United Nations under the guise of scientific research and appears willing to disregard any norms now accepted by most nations since 1986. After centuries of devastation, they refuse to stop.  I for one, appreciate the work anyone does to bridle the greed and gluttony that seems to carry on with no limits.

“There is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of man.”
– Herman Melville from Moby Dick



  1. A fun, and important story, Bruce. I always enjoy the way you shift from one subject to the next and make it seem so natural.
    Peggy and I have a week long Kayak trip planned for August where we will be ‘visiting’ with the orcas off of Vancouver Island. Curt


    • Hi Curt – glad to see you back on WP. The Orcas in the Pacific NW are planning for your upcoming visit. They will be in full regale.


  2. You tied up those two stories beautifully … it is a small world in terms of our human friendships, and the impact that humans have on our earth. I really liked the old neighborhood connection story.


    • LB – thanks.

      Sometimes, it doesn’t seem all that difficult to find a connection with another’s past. Nonetheless, it’s always a kick when you do.


  3. Thank you for reminding us. Whale activism may no longer be in the spotlight but we still need to be aware of what’s happening and take action when we can.


  4. Hi Crystal – the health of the oceans and its wildlife aren’t in the headlines much and as large as they are, we seem to have a way of making them smaller all the time.


  5. 58,000 whales killed in 19 years. astonishing.

    After reading some of your past posts on fish/catch patrol, a recent 60-minutes episode on salmon farming and a documentary “The Cove” on how dolphins are being mercilessly killed in Japan, we are saddened at what is happening to our natural resources or nature in general.

    shifting gears before we get too depressed, we loved the coincidences on past living situations. then again, maybe there are no coincidences, hmmmm. xo, LMA


  6. Dionysus Amber permalink

    What a fascinating article. You do write ever-so-well. Packed full of information too.


  7. Dionysus Amber permalink

    Reblogged this on Orca Freedom Fighters.


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