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Whale-watching trip briefly stems cabin fever

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Ted Peck
January 19, 2014

We are all stuck in a tiny cabin with just a couple of small windows for the next couple of months.

Hunting opportunities are limited to rabbits and other small critters. Fish only show interest for a few short minutes just a couple times a day.

Attitude is essentially the only thing we can control regarding our place in the natural world until cardinals herald the arrival of spring sometime after St. Patrick’s Day.

Experience teaches the best way to cope with winter in Wisconsin. Some folks are already quite serious about celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Over the years I have realized a need to get out on open water at least every six weeks to evade the clutches of seasonal affective disorder.

This time last week I was off the Baja coast on a small ship owned by the Scripps Oceanographic Institution, watching gray whales on their semi-annual migration between Alaska and calving grounds in warm waters off the Mexican coast.

Scripps has done amazing work in the salty part of our big, blue marble for decades. The staff on the 95-foot research vessel Marietta tends to view whales as the brothers and sisters of humanity rather than piscatory combatants that humans have the option of releasing either back into the water or into grease.

Whales are mammals, not fish. I get that. Gray whales weigh a ton at birth, growing to a length of almost 40 feet. Their flukes—the whale’s tails—are 4 feet high and 10 to 12 feet long. Guys who wear Packers hats seldom see tails this big, even if they have been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day for more than a month already.

When whales come up from the depths to breathe, they expel air in a plume of spray which shoots 15 feet into the air above the calm Pacific Ocean. They might “breach,” coming nearly out of the water, blowing plumes of spray three to five times before offering that magnificent fluke in a wave goodbye before disappearing into the ocean depths for several minutes.

Even though they might be swimming 100 feet below the surface, movement can be tracked by a slick wake on the surface of the sleepy Pacific.

Observers on the Marietta followed the wake of a pair of gray whales for more than an hour on our whale-watching adventure. The first time I saw those magnificent flukes I blurted out the truth, saying something you would expect from a guy wearing a Packers hat.

“Wish I had my fishin’ pole,” I exclaimed.

Of course, this comment met with considerable disdain from all the whale huggers on the boat. They tried educating me with that brother-and-sister-in-nature stuff. For once I just nodded and smiled.

It isn’t that I would ever want to kill a whale. I would just like to wrestle with one through the bond of fishing line. Greco-Roman wrestling used to be a sport in the Olympics until it was replaced by bubble blowing or something similar.

The winter Olympics have several new sports in this kinder, gentler vein.

If beer pong was one of them, guys from Wisconsin who have been training for St. Patrick’s Day for months would have a serious shot at a medal.

Of course, this isn’t the case. I apologize that this isn’t much of a fishin’ column, either. It’s just advice from an old river rat who knows how to get through winter with a smile.

Next week we’ll be back on the ice, or maybe hunting rabbits. Six weeks from now you might read about the big bass down on Toledo Bend or honest 3-pound crappies in Lake Grenada.

Both of these adventures will require southbound travel beyond the Cheese Curtain.

Educators on the Marietta said those 100-foot-long blue whales—the largest creatures on earth—will be migrating along the California coast in another month or so.

Maybe I’ll grab the muskie rod, dig out the old wrestling unitard and hitch a ride to Mexico in a rented rowboat towed by big blue—knuckle dragging clear to Tijuana on the calm deep green Pacific singing “Oh Danny Boy” at the top of my lungs.

Beats the daylights out of dying from cabin fever.

Ted Peck, a certified Merchant Marine captain, is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at tedpeck@acegroup.cc.



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