The Outdoor Poet: David Swanger

In August 2011, humpback whales started surfacing in unprecedented numbers in the waters just off the Santa Cruz shore, thrilling spectators on Westcliff and the wharf. This week's Outdoor Poet, David Swanger, wrote this piece forSea Kayaker magazine following the remarkable appearance. Swanger, an avid kayaker, is Santa Cruz County's poet laureate for 2012-13.

Careful Cetaceans Off Shore
What a prodigious display by prodigious creatures! Humpback whales came to within half a mile of the Santa Cruz, California shoreline, and stayed for two-and-a-half months. The whales appeared first in small numbers, then in pods of four to six. They arrived; were visible from the city’s beaches and bluffs, and at close range from kayaks. The humpbacks were reliably in place day after day, feeding in dramatic surges that shattered the surface of the water. They rose with mighty mouthfuls of fish they had rounded up, swallowed their catch, and allowed the excess water to cascade down their sides.

Usually humpbacks in our part of Monterey Bay stay ten miles or more offshore. Why did they come this close to Santa Cruz this month, and why did they stick around? Harbormaster Don Kinnamon says he’s seen nothing like this in his twenty five years on the job. He suggests that the water has been colder than usual, so there are more krill. And more krill equals more “bait,” the tiny fish, anchovies or sardines mostly, upon which the humpbacks feed.

My kayaking friends Penny Chesluk, Lewis Aptekar and Steve Lawson, and I, were among the first to spot the whales. Our sighting of a single whale took place on August 17th. Steve carries a camera when we kayak, and a photo he took at exactly the right moment appeared the next day on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, August 18, 2011. (Photo by Steve Lawson)

The Sentinel titled the photo and text “Close Encounters of the Baleen Kind.” The story was then picked up by the San Jose Mercury News, and quickly became a TV news story on a San Jose Fox affiliate station, KION. Unfortunately, the TV story sensationalized our encounter with the humpback which dove under my kayak, turning a remarkably peaceful event, as I had described it, into “A New Danger For Kayakers in Monterey Bay.”

During the weeks that followed, Steve took more memorable photographs. There was no danger to us in our kayaks, though our greatest thrill was when the whales broke the surface close to our boats. You can see, in this photo, that the whales were less than half a mile from the Santa Cruz shoreline. (Photo by Steve Lawson)

How close did the whales come to us in our kayaks? In Diane's photo at the top of this page, you can see that the humpback’s flipper is no more than a paddle length from Steve’s boat. This is unintentional on Steve’s part, as he prefers to document stories rather than become part of them. Onshore you can see Santa Cruz’ largest hotel, The Dream Inn.

Each morning when we went out, we could reliably find the whales by the cacophony of sea gulls over them. As the word of the whales spread, more and more people came on the water. Most respected the humpback’s activity; but some crowded the leviathans.

Towards the end of this saga, the wise proprietors of two kayak rental agencies in Santa Cruz, the Kayak Connection and Blue Water Ventures, closed shop for a day in order to give the whales a break.

But there was no break from sensationalism. One of the last web postings (now getting national circulation) about the humpbacks offshore is a video titled “Whale Almost Swallows Surfer." Of course the whales did no such thing. Two humpbacks surged upward near her, making for dramatic imagery; but there was no “almost swallows.” In fact the idea is absurd. The whales had bulging mouthfuls of fish and sea water. And in their hugeness they were deft; despite her proximity, the whales rocked the person lying on her surfboard, nothing more.

Kayaking is clearly the best way to see whales. We were among them, as well as amidst sea lions that careen after the same bait fish. Gulls and pelicans veered, swooped and plunged noisily for fish chased to the surface by the whales. The whales’ heavy breathing was a small storm; their spouting, fishy; and we heard the humpbacks talk to each other.

Regulations reminded us to keep our distance—officially, a hundred yards. We tried at all times not to harass the humpbacks; and when we were closer than the rules allow, it was because the whales approached or surprised us. It was impossible to know exactly where the feeding whales were located as they fished underwater. Yet the only collisions we experienced were with sea lions that occasionally bumped but did not capsize our kayaks. Although dwarfed by the whales, these are large sea mammals: and as they pursued their quarry in gangs, the sea lions seemed oblivious to all else.

The humpbacks ultimately controlled our encounters with them. And it was an honor to have these leviathans tolerate us mere humans! If we, in our ardor, impeded the humpbacks’ feeding, they were still meticulous in not imperiling us. “Gentle giants” is no hyperbole.

About The Author David Swanger has received fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. He has written a book about poetry, The Poem as Process, and a book about aesthetic education, Essays in Aesthetic Education, as well as four books of poems. His most recent book of poems, Wayne’s College of Beauty, won the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry. Wayne’s College of Beauty was also a finalist in Fore Word’s Book of the Year Awards. Two of his poems have been read by Garrison Keillor on NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac.”

The Outdoor Poet is edited by Robert Sward, author of numerous books of poetry including, most recently, New and Selected Poems: 1957-2011 (Red Hen Press). He lives on the Westside with his wife, the artist Gloria Alford, and a poodle mix named Cosette. Participation in The Outdoor Poet is by invitation.

Coming up next week in The Outdoor Poet, two poems by California poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chair Dana Gioia.

The Outdoor Poet: Stephen Kessler
The Outdoor Poet: Alan Cheuse
The Outdoor Poet: Ellen Bass