For generations of Americans raised watching old Jacques Cousteau TV specials and remarkable modern nature documentaries like The Blue Planet, the ocean is not quite so mysterious as it once was. We know, on an intellectual level, that what looks like a flat, dull expanse is actually brimming with amazing life.
And yet news that six blue whales were recently observed grazing in our vicinity makes for an altogether more potent realization that big things in every sense are happening offshore.
We live in a maritime community where fishing and ocean-related commerce are vital parts of everyday life. Even the majority of citizens, who dont spend much time on the water, are here because of the scenery, economic opportunities and stimulation the ocean provides. But that doesnt mean any of us understand the ocean or often think about it in any substantive way. This ignorance and indifference are especially true for the deep water far beyond where most fishing and crabbing occur.
Blue whales and their more numerous cousins the fin whales, with which they occasionally crossbreed, were spotted earlier this month along with numerous humpback whales. Part of an ongoing survey by the Oregon and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife and Olympia-based Cascadia Research, this roving city of whales was found above a seldom-mentioned undersea canyon thousands of feet deep just 30 or 40 miles west of our Peninsula. They gather there because it funnels nutrients soaring upward, feeding the krill and baitfish that marine mammals find delicious. Food forms above some undersea canyons like clouds form above mountains.
Actually sighting these blues was a rare and precious experience, but there have been other indications that the largest whales are among our neighbors. According to the U.S. Navys SOund SUrveillance System (SOSUS), the military has been listening in on the distinctive calls of blue whales in far-offshore waters for more than a decade. (See http://tinyurl.com/d7nh9s7) Although these auditory observations were from about 100 to 400 miles due west of the mouth of the Columbia, they are another indication of how little we comprehend the wealth of life in our vast front yard.
Some may question the importance of all this. Almost certainly, no money is to be made from blue whales.
But the fact is that the ocean is by far the biggest component of the earths surface, and yet were barely able to even spot the largest creatures living in it when they virtually swim up and wag their mighty tails in our faces. Much may be gained, and our future security as a species insured, by better understanding what is happening out in the deep blue waters.