Please Don’t Eat Me Humpback Whale

I’m snugged down inside my cabin sipping hot cocoa with a roaring fire, on this unusually cold day.  The full moon came and went with very little herring spawn to report, considering the record numbers who gathered down South, but hopefully with the dark, new moon approaching, the silvery, little fish will cloud the waters of Wakeman Sound with their milky-white spawn and I will get to witness such a magical moment for the first time.  While counting down the days, I am reminded of the day I discovered the wonders of a herring bait ball while swimming among them…

Magical experiences often happen when we leap into the unknown without hesitation, because deep in our hearts it just feels like the right thing to do.  Sometimes these opportunities arise without a hint of expectation.  I was touring a guest from Ireland around the area when I found myself in this “must do” vortex moment.  Perhaps it was the raucous, frenzy of seagulls energizing me or the unusually clear, sun-sparkled summer waters beckoning me in, but for whatever reason, I was mesmerized by the huge number of rhinoceros auklets gracefully flying below my boat and the silver sheen of thousands of Pacific herring swirling and popping like popcorn on the surface.  In a flash, I stripped down to my bikini and leapt into the 47 degree ocean.

Thankfully, a humpback whale did not come over for a snack while I was a herring too.  I want to leave that experience to Pinocchio.

The contrast of the obnoxiously loud, feeding mayhem above and the angelic dance of auklets below was like visiting two different dimensions of reality every time I came up for air.  And the center of it all was a spiraling galaxy of shining fish.  I was touched by the giving spirit of herring.

These fish normally travel in large, organized schools making an ambush difficult, their shimmering bodies flashing and dazzling in unison make it hard to pick out individuals.  Schools of fish normally follow a precise spatial arrangement which helps maintain their constant cruising speed, but predators often cooperate in groups using different techniques to panic and herd a school into a tight ball. Humpback whales blow a net of bubbles and auklets round them up like cowboys.  Forming a bait ball is the herrings last-ditch defensive measure, abandoning their coordinated movements and each trying to force their way into the center for safety.  Such panic and chaos only brings in more harm, just as it does with humans in a survival situation.

The herring, as well as many other small schooling fish, are vital to the ecology of the ocean, have been for a millennia, feeding a huge array of creatures, from fish to birds, seals to whales, plants to humans.  Countries around the world depend heavily on herring, not only to feed the planet, but provide bait for other fisheries and fertilizers for crops.  They give life.   And while swimming near, watching the salmon and birds devouring them one-by-one until reduced to a teeny ball of fish, I really felt the gift of their beautiful life and connection to our world.



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