by Laura Parker Roerden
I’ve heard tales of how they once came
close to Cape Cod by the hundreds,
a thick layer of blubber enough to insulate
for cold, yet insufficient against spears.
When dead, they bobbed on the surface
like a cork. Or started to decompose as gases
expanded flesh like a bloated Macy’s
Thanksgiving Parade balloon.
Easy to tie to a hull, methodical sectioning
took place, as furnaces rendered blubber
into oil and smoke snaked from chimneys
as from a pyre, as fog, as stain.
Wives lit lamps with that oil waiting
for husbands, now heroes, to return from
faraway waters with more, until there was none.
Too slow, too buoyant, too close to land,
too numerous: they were the right whales
to kill. Now our children cling to rails
on diesel powered boats on Stellwagen,
simply to get a glimpse. A whale surfaces
to a choir of audible wonderment, followed by
stunned hush. Worthy enough to be named,
naturalists tell us this one whale’s story,
a history with details erased. There is
so much we will not know. Still, we pivot
to look closer; there are too few to take
for granted. They are now the right whales
to tell us about our hearts, about the depths
to which imagination can raise hope
like silt and mix layers of paint
on a palette in new combinations;
a rainbow after a storm. They are the right
whale to remind us: we have been here before.
Though billowy smoke spills behind us,
a calling card of folly, we also hold
science and art and will in our hands.
They are the right whale to teach us how we
entangle ourselves in nooses or in the refuse
of our inabilty to work together. But that we can be
also be struck by potentials to do it differently.
This time—this very pregnant now
in which we are—when the whales have stopped calving,
perhaps they are asking to simply be seen
as the right whale to save.
© Laura Parker Roerden. All rights reserved.
Laura Parker Roerden is the founding director of Ocean Matters and the former managing editor of Educators for Social Responsibility and New Designs for Youth Development. She serves on the boards of Women Working for Oceans (W20) and Earth,
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About the Right Whale
The North Atlantic Right Whale is the most endangered large whale, with an estimated population of 400. In 2018 there was an unusual mortality event with record numbers found dead from entanglements and ship strikes and a year without calving. Whereas groups of North Atlantic right whales once numbered in the hundreds in feeding grounds, nowadays they usually travel alone or in groups of 2-3 (sometimes up to about 12). In 2019, we are happy to report that 6 new calves have been spotted. For more information on the right whale and threats to its survival see the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life of the New England Aquarium.