“Watership Down” For Whales

Ben Loory, by Mars Sandoval

Ben Loory, by Mars Sandoval

That’s what he said. I am off my rocker right now. I received word today from none other than Ben Loory. If you don’t know who Ben Loory is, you better ask somebody. First and foremost, he’s a hell of a cool guy. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a few times, and even worked alongside him once (at a Pravic event with David Gill, if you remember).

See for yourself...In writerly terms, Ben Loory is a keen fiction and screen writer on the American literary scene, having appeared in The New Yorker, as well as on multiple episodes of This American Life. His enchanting book of fables, Stories For Nighttime And Some For The Day contains many animal characters, just like Cetus Finalis. It garnered wide critical acclaim, and his next collection is due out from Penguin in 2017.

I sent Mr. Loory (rhymes with story) a copy of Cetus Finalis, hoping against hope for a reply, or that he may even read it. I mean, he’s a busy man, and we haven’t hung out a lot. And, well, today he knocked me off of my rocker. Not only did he write back, he described Cetus Finalis as “Watership Down for whales.” What a sweet thing to say.

Image by Lucie Hall (Linoleuim block print)

Watership Down for whales.” – Ben Loory

Of course, acting in my capacity as a shameless self-promoter, I immediately asked him if I could plaster that statement across the internet and the universe for all to see, he replied, “Sure! You can do that.”

What a guy.

So, you heard it here first: None other than the illustrious Ben Loory has described Cetus Finalis as “Watership Down for whales.” Get yourself a copy and see what the hubbub is about!

Posted in Authors and Writing, Book Reviews, Books, Poetry, Sociey and Culture, The Writing Profession | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Free Keiko, The Orca Rescue

keikoReminder: Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Please join me for the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

Hello, readers, and welcome back! This week I will be delving into a story about orcas. Cetus Finalis does contain significant orca encounters, but today’s story is about a different orca, one orca in particular: Keiko, the orca who played Willy in Warner Brothers’ Free Willy.

There is much to learn about the language and culture of toothed whales. Orcas in particular have ancient, elaborate social relationships. They have small, intermediate, and large group organization, like kin, tribes, and towns, with distinctive surnames for each. They possess complex knowledge transferred through sonic communication. Like humans, their childhood is long -not quite as long, but long- for there is much to teach. Et cetera. I don’t wanna pump you too full of more whale facts (ask away if you want to know!).

A Sea World MomentKeiko was a captive whale, put into a concrete pool at the age of two years, and trained for the next 20 years to bellyflop, tailsplash the crowd, sing tunes, kiss spectators, and ferry human trainers around her pool. She was fed fish for doing tricks, and that behavior was reinforced until she was well gone into biological adulthood. Her teeth were ground down from gnawing at her concrete pool out of stupid, isolated, nervousness, like a chew toy. Her dorsal fin flopped until its tip touched her flank. One of the things that may keep a dorsal fin upright is use, by actually swimming forward at speed in the open ocean, which Keiko had never done.

Keiko, with floppy dorsal fin.

Keiko, with floppy dorsal fin.

Of course Keiko was not freed when Willy was. She was a pool whale. She’d never make it out there. Nevertheless, there was a massive uproar from child fans and their concerned, obedient, fetishizing parents. Naturally, the public opinion was that Keiko must be freed. How hypocritical to use her as an actor in a story of ocean release, they cried, then not release her into the ocean. (As if Harrison Ford wears a bullwhip at home now that he’s played Indiana Jones.) Make Keiko free, don’t just let me glamorize Willy’s fictitious freedom, that’s too galling. Free the actor, also.

Art by Indieferdie

Art by Indieferdie

Eventually, a plan was put into place to free Keiko. It would take three years of untraining and acculturation. It was a tall order, and the whale lovers gave it their best shot, to please the children. They moved her to a large retraining pool, and stopped feeding her fish from a bucket, but instead releasing live fish. Keiko gradually learned to eat live fish. She experimented with her echo location. She strengthened her muscles, grew a few inches, put on a couple of thousand pounds.

Keiko's Bay, Iceland

Then she was satellite tagged and moved to a tiny natural bay in Iceland, barricaded so that she could live in it alone, catch her own food, and touch the sea floor for the first time in her life. From here the plan was to encourage her into the company of her kind. For three summers she lived in her nook of bay, with a gate in the net fence so she could go out and actually try to meet other orca. She would never thrive if she could not join a pod. For three summers, the pods resisted her. Sometimes she was ignored by orca groups, sometimes driven off. Sometimes a pod would let her hang around for a while, but she would return to the gated bay and try to interact with the humans on hand, jumping for them, swimming to be petted by the only family she’d ever known.

free-willyAt one point, a boat of untrainers escorted her to the company of a large group of orcas, probably multiple pods congregating for reasons we can only infer. Keiko made more attempts to approach or relate to the group, but became overwhelmed and returned to the boat, cruised along side it as they returned to shore. She leapt, breaching and landing on her back, as if to say “Hey, this is what we do together. Isn’t this what we do together? What’s going on?” It’s always been what they did together, she and the humans. She jumped, and they loved her and fed her. Three summers wasn’t going to break that Stockholm syndrome bond.

Art by Okura-d7d7szi

Art by Okura-d7d7szi

For an animal with such a long childhood and complex language to be reared and trained entirely isolated, surrounded by an alien species, she had no idea how orca lived, though she was one. She didn’t speak a lick of their language, let alone their dialect, (for different regional tribes of orcas have distinguishable dialects. Distinguishable even to the human researches who have only recently begun to study them in depth, at depth). She didn’t have a name or a mother, or any kin to sing of. She couldn’t hunt, didn’t know any of the games, and never had a single relationship or social interaction with another orca. The only beings she ever loved, her domesticators, were obviously pushing her away, but she didn’t know what to do. After those three summers, she eventually swam off into the open ocean with a passing group of orcas, perhaps getting the point.

freeingkeikokillingkeikoImagine capturing a two year old girl, raising her on a raft with pod of orcas, feeding her captured raw fish, building relations exclusively based on food, nuzzles, and mutual incomprehensibility. Then, when the girl is 21, drop her off in Kansas City, in her own diner for a couple of years, so she learns how to make grilled cheeses. Then open the diner to the public and send her off to start a family. All she speaks is a few weird clicks and whistles. Her brain development hampered for so long it is likely irreversible. She knows nothing about reading, music, speech, or sex. What would happen to her? How would people treat this person? She’d be a crazy homeless person in short order, mumbling learned mimicked snippets of human speech, maybe hanging out at the ocean a lot, once she’d found it, hoping her affectionate adoptive family would return.

The cairn of stones marking Keiko's grave

The cairn of stones marking Keiko’s grave

In time, Keiko swam 1,000 or so miles from her release bay in Iceland to the coast of Norway. Uncharacteristically gregarious, she coaxed local fisherman into feeding her, which felt natural. She also taught other local orcas in her adoptive pod to beg for food from humans. It’s curious to think she brought that captive knowledge into the wild. (Will future orcas beg for fish?) She stuck around and played with little children, and found humans who would feed her and pet her, all she’d ever known. In 2003, about 1 year after her “release,” she died of a pneumonia related disease, at the young age (even for an orca) of 24.

You can visit, but you can't stay.

You can visit, but you can’t stay.

After the episode ended, Keiko’s predicament sank in deeper and deeper, for days afterword, deep enough to end up here writing about it. I’m not here to come to any conclusions about it, but it’s a story worth knowing, about a form of “alien” intelligence right here on Earth, under our noses, which we know next to nothing about.

Thank you for reading! Reading rules.

Reminder: Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, on sale NOW! Please join me for the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

Posted in Books, Reflection and Personal Knowledge, Science and Nature, Sociey and Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cetus Finalis Author Interview, The Revenge

What was that?

Cetus Finalis, now on sale in ebook and paperback. Get your copy of the book Ben Loory called “Watership Down for whales.” Join me for the book launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6PM, at San Francisco landmark Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, 94117)

Greetings and welcome, dear reader. In the past weeks I’ve presented interview format Q&As addressing some of the most common questions put to me while writing Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey (Available NOW!). This week, the third times a charm. With the Sunday, October 2nd, book launch approaching (Finnegan’s Wake, 937 Cole Street, San Francisco), I will wrap up the interview volley with a recent parcel of questions readers have asked me about whale physiology, and the process of creating a new novel.

How good is whale eyesight?
Eye of a Gray Whale, grey whale
Whale eyesight is approximately as good as human eyesight. They have eyelids, and eyes very similar to human eyes. But think about how useful (or not) our eyesight is underwater. For this reason, whales rely very heavily on sound for identification, communication, and wayfinding.

How important is sonar to whales?
Sound is very important, but I think “sonar” may be too precise a term. Sonar refers to sonic imaging like that used by dolphins, orcas, and other toothed whales. But sound can be used for many other purposes than sonar imaging. Gray whales do a lot of vocalizing, but at much lower frequencies. No one is yet sure what their vocalizing signifies. As far as how important sound is to whales, I will say that whales rely on sound similarly to the way we rely on light; their culture is tilted toward the aural the way our classically geared Western culture is tilted toward the visual.

What gave you the idea for Cetus Finalis?
The idea came after I learned that whales were the first petroleum industry. We did not drill oil out of the ground until 1851. Before that, the entire Industrial Revolution was powered by whale oil. Every lamp in Europe burned whale oil. Candles and cosmetics were made with whale products. Machines were lubricated with whale oil; from turbines to train engines to watches, all those precise and sometimes delicate machine parts were lubricated with whale oil. Walking canes and corset stays were made from whale baleen. To put it simply, the ascendancy of Western civilization would have been impossible without decimating the whale population. In a deep way, our fates are intertwined. I had to tell a story about it.

It’s been four years since your last book. Why so long?
I had to get it right. Cetus Finalis took considerable rewriting, and was a labor of love.  I had the luxury of no publisher deadline, and my readers were patient, and curious. Other projects came along in the meantime, like Perfect Beings, and Chili Bill’s Collected Works. When those projects called, I set aside Cetus Finalis to see them through… I considered releasing Cetus Finalis last year, but my editor convinced me to hold on to it a little longer, and make significant cuts and rewrites, which will be chronicled elsewhere. Cetus Finalis has undergone significant changes since the days I first imagined it. It’s remarkable to me how it is still the same story I originally envisioned, but a very different book from the one I began.

The wait is over! The whales are out of the bag! Get your copy and please, tell me what you think!

Party Note: Please join me for the Cetus Finalis launch celebration on Sunday, October 2nd, 3-6 PM, Finnegan’s Wake (937 Cole Street, San Francisco, 94117)

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