On the days when the town beach is jammed and the line for the parking lot stretches a mile down the road, the privilege of taking your vehicle to the outer beach is priceless.
The outer beaches on the Atlantic side of the Cape are accessible by a long walk over the dunes or by ORV'ing. Taking a SUV out onto the dunes is by permit only, and over the years we've never managed to get our act together to watch the video, get the ORV kit for the car, and apply for the permit.
Oh, but what were we waiting for!
The outer beach is a magical place.
You never know what you may find there.
I was sitting in my sand chair, drinking coffee and day dreaming about schooners and sea captain's wives when I heard a shout from up the beach. It took a second to register what I was looking at as all I could see was a long, black streak coming out of the surf.
Looking for all the world like a big inflatable kiddie toy, was a whale.
A long black whale, being winched out of surf, gently and with dignity, by a frontloader.
The Princess, whose photos grace this post, has always had a deep attachment to whales. In fact, she has a tiny tattoo of one on her inner ankle. No sooner did I yell, "whale!" than she took off up the beach in a sprint.
Photo credit: Jessica Marvel
The beautiful creature appeared to be asleep as its gleaming black skin had no external signs of injury or disease. Rescue workers were examining it and discussing what to do. We hoped against hope that the beautiful creature could be revived, but it was dead. It had been reported to Fish and Wildlife Management by a surfer who discovered its body rolling in the surf around 5:30 that morning.
A small crowd gathered and we stood a respectful distance away, both fascinated and appalled at the apparent plan to lift it into the bucket of the bulldozer to take it away.
The town was helping the rescue folks from Provincetown to take the whale for a necropsy and burial further up the spit.
The small crowd that gathered to watch the pilot whale being trussed onto the front loader fell silent as it was lifted off the sand. In the bright light of morning, the beauty of the ink black creature, with it's closed eyes and slightly agape mouth revealing a stubble of teeth, was enormously moving. I had to restrain myself not to walk over to it and lay my hand on its head.
It may have been an ignominous end for the body of a mammal whose life was spent roiling in the deep, cold waters of the Atlantic, frolicking with its brethren, blowing spouts and breaching and fin slapping on glorious summer afternoons. For those of us who witnessed its winching out of the water and loading onto the lift, however, it was a stark reminder that the land we were visiting was not a Disney simulator ride, but a place where fish and mammals and humans coexist in an uneasy alliance in which only the humans have the ability to consciously plan how to manage and conserve the fragile ecosystem.
Our family has gone on countless whale watching cruises and have never ceased to be awed by the majesty of the humpbacks, the minkes, and the pilot whales. We've been baptized by the spray of a humpback blowing spout across the deck as it breached from the underside of the ship. We've had whales follow in pods and fin and tail slap for miles to entertain us. We've seen whales breach three times their height over the ocean, plunging out of the sea as if to pierce the sky. We have never left a cruise feeling other than awe and amazement that such beauty and wildness still exists on an earth.
After the bulldozer drove down the beach with the whale in its mouth, its tale hanging awkwardly astern, we felt sad and deflated. Before we could disperse, the captain of the rescue team came over to speak to us. Being from New York, I expected to receive a scolding that we had gotten too close or interfered with their rescue efforts.
Not at all.
He told us about the surfer finding it that morning, that they thought it may be an elder whale since its teeth were very worn and it was smaller in girth than it should be, and that they suspected it died a natural death as it had no obvious signs of distress or injury. I felt relieved that awesome creature had not been felled by human hand, whether by intent or omission, such as propeller or fishing line.
He thanked the town for allowing them to arrive on the scene before disturbing the body and for letting them perform a necropsy before burial at the end of the beach. I think we all stood there with our mouths slightly open, fascinated by his off the cuff summation of the event and feeling validated that we had in fact witnessed something important and not just out of the ordinary. We were all struck by the professionalism and seriousness of all involved in responding to the event, and their courtesy in educating us as to what occurred.
Later on in the week, we had a similar reaction to our encounter with one of the National Seashore rangers. During a beach bonfire, the kids noticed a shore bird that was having trouble getting out of the surf. The kids helped it onto the sand and it did not fly away, but just took a few wobbly steps and stopped. The kids decided it was weak and proceeded to feed it hot dog rolls. (I know we've all had our French Fries snatched by bold gulls on the beach, but I don't think it needed to eat hot dog rolls, but the kids were on a rescue mission.)
Their mother, my cousin, was upset that the bird wouldn't make it through the night and wanted to do something about it. Later one, when a ranger came by to check for our bonfire permit, my cousin told him about the bird. He said he thought it may be an old bird who was tired and yes, it was possible that it might not make it through the night, and that's just part of the natural world. (I was beginning to feel like an elder care worker at that point.)
My cousin was dying for the ranger to do something to help that bird, but the ranger kindly advised her, "This is the National Seashore. Our philosophy is to allow all wildlife to have the privilege to live and die in the wild as nature occurs."
He then recounted a recent event where horrifed beach goers watched a coyote drag off a baby seal. As you can imagine, people were crying and screaming and demanding that the rangers take action. They did not intervene. The National Seashore's philosophy of nature management is to not intervene in natural acts and to let nature takes it course.
Despite the horror to our eyes of witnessing a baby animal being attacked by any predator, he asked us to consider it from a different perspective. "What a privilege it was" he said, "to be witness to such a primal act in nature".
It was a hard nugget to swallow, but we all understood that the National Seashore's philosophy of management of nature by not managing or intervening is really the soundest practice.
However, I don't think any of us really wish to witness a baby seal being dragged off by a coyote. And we're grateful none of our kids were there when it happened. We're just not that John Muir but really just a bunch of tenderfoots from the big city.
Which is why my cousin just couldn't help herself and when she thought the bird was cold, she just had to try to wrap it up in a towel, which, of course, he promptly wriggled out of and wobbled away. It stayed on the perimeter of our campfire all evening, but don't worry, we left it right where we found it.
Of course, if you do come across injured or stranded wildlife, you should not try to intervene yourself but contact your local wildlife management agency. The New England Aquarium's Marine Rescue Alert Team has a motto that says it all: "Keep the WILD in WILDlife".
In the waning hours of Hurricane Irene, in your rain-soaked houses and branch-littered yards, take a moment to consider the ocean in all its mystery. Think of all the fish and mammals that we cannot see, whose beauty we will never know, but whose presence are vital to our planet. Take a look at the New England Aquarium's Marine Animal Rescue Team, or one in your area of the country. There's even a blog where you can read and see pictures about their contingency plans for Hurricane Irene.
If you made it safely through this hurricane or tropical storm, how about giving a donation to a marine rescue team that will help care for those marine animals that are stranded or injured in storms and who risk their own lives to detangle a 100 year old sea turtle from a fishing line or save a stranded pod of dolphins?