[Originally dated February 2006, & published in “The Jarheads of Goshen”.]
The grand leap of the whale up the Fall of Niagara is esteemed, by all who have seen it, as one of the finest spectacles in nature.
When he wrote this to a London newspaper, Benjamin Franklin was pulling the flukes of those Englishmen who knew squat about New World experience. Of course, we know today that the whale leaps only down the Fall.
Just the other day, a whale went to London to visit the Queen. On a Friday, Londoners spotted a northern bottlenose whale swimming past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It was obviously lost, and in distress. Its natural habitat is the deep water of the North Atlantic.
Londoners jammed the river banks. Boatmen launched a flotilla of small craft. The drama extended into Saturday. Citizens waded into the murky waters of the Thames to dissuade the leviathan from beaching itself. The civilian navy tried to steer the beast downstream, to the North Sea, sixty kilometres east. Professionals — marine biologists and veterinarians and conservationists — became involved. They slipped an inflatable pontoon beneath the six-metre-long monster, cranked it out of the river with a crane, and laid it gently on a barge.
It’s been about a century since the last bottlenose was spotted in the Thames. What occasioned this visit? Yes, the Queen was in residence, but still, speculation was rife. Our planet’s seas are stressed, from global warming and massive pollution and extensive oil and gas extractions and busy shipping lanes and sonar. Yes, sonar. The British Royal Navy has developed extraordinarily powerful submarine detection technology, and the whale, which navigated acoustically, could have become disoriented.
I was reminded of my own encounter with a deep water creature. It, too, was out of its depth. I was eighteen at the time, on a work detail for TransCanada Pipelines, labouring on a stretch of right-of-way through the land o’ Goshen. At one point, to quench my thirst, I scooped a handful from a stream that trickled through the ditch, and lo! Leviathan reared its head. It flopped about in the shallows, Godzilla’s offspring, diabolically black, slimy and serpentine, and a good 150 millimetres long . . . Yeah, six inches long.
I was nonplussed. I was yeanegatived. I was aghast and aghust. I was . . . well, you get my drift. And my draft. A co-worker called it a ling. A ling. I have seen ling only twice since, but that’s another story. One Goshenite in a thousand is lucky to see a ling in his lifetime, yet it is a denizen of our domain. It is the Goshen equivalent of the North Atlantic bottlenose whale. If you can imagine finding a ling in a Toronto sewer, you have some idea of the sense of wonder and the waves of compassion that swept over Londoners.
The ling, also known as a burbot, haunts cold, deep water lakes. The largest catch in a North American lake weighed 24 pounds, 12 ounces. It is usually landed as an incidental fish, but there are fishers who target them. In some parts of the continent, they are declared an endangered species.
Which brings me back to the whale. In 1973, conservationists managed to ban the hunt for the bottlenose. The whale on the barge suffered from a damaged eye and several cuts to the torso. As the barge moved seaward, the creature’s condition worsened. As it went into convulsions, its nurses prepared to euthanize it, but then it expired.
A necropsy determined that the immature female died from dehydration, muscle damage, and failing kidneys. It had not fed for days, its favourite food being Atlantic deep sea squid. Squid also provided its hydration. How did the youngster find itself so far from home?
The best guess of the scientists is that the bottlenose took a wrong turn at Scotland, swam into the North Sea, and then, harkening to its instincts, swam west, seeking the Atlantic. It was not visiting the Queen after all.
The whale left a legacy. Animal welfare and conservation agencies, especially the Save-the-Whales variety, reaped a windfall of donations. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people had followed the whale’s progress, and received an education. Children a half century from now will remember those whirlwind days.
Which brings me back to the ling. How did this youngster find itself so far from home? Was it seeking the next cool, deep water lake? Was it seeking the North Atlantic? Or was it seeking some intelligent species, an author sapiens, that could, a half century later, commemorate its odyssey.
Do not expect anytime soon a Canadian campaign to Save the Ling. There are three things lacking. One, a foreigner to initiate it. Two, celebrities to pursue it. And three, the talent to Disneyfy the ling.
But first, above all, someone must sound the alarm. Someone like me.
Ding a ling. Ding a ling.
Is anybody out there listening?