Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Whale of a tale

We ran into the whale watchers at the beach today. An elderly couple about my age, already retired, on the beat to record the right whales lurking off Ormond Beach. Chris and I were sitting at the beach approach, decompressing after a long walk in the sand. Actually, Chris took a long walk as I tried to coax my knees into overdrive without much success.

The couple is on the lookout for whales every Thursday, 8 a.m.-noon. They hit five stations during that time, recording any right whales they happen to spy. The Atlantic is home to some 500 of these whales, not many when you look out and ponder the size of the ocean. The man in the duo said that he's seen three humpback whales off of this coast. I replied that I didn't know that humpback whales came to this part of the world. He said that humpbacks are easier to see that others because they have a dorsal fin and white marking that help them stand out against the blue-green waters. They also move fast. Right Whales are slow movers. Humpbacks are more like linebackers while the right whales are no-neck linemen. I have football on the mind.

I took it all in, wondering about the different whales and why some are endangered and others are not. We must have had whales in Wyoming when our state was drenched by the inland seas. Forty million years ago, give or take. My property and that of my neighbors was under tons of water, home to prowling plesiosaurs, but not sure about whales. But it's pretty clear that the demise of the dinosaurs opened the door for all of the mammals, including whales. About 55 million years ago, 10 million years after a giant asteroid and/or a swarm of erupting megavolcanoes put an end to the dinosaurs, even-toed ungulates started branching off from pigs and deer to become the whales glimpsed off the coast of Florida. Cool -- whales are related to barnyard pigs in Arkansas and foraging mule deer in Wyoming. I also have science on my mind.

I liked the fact that these two retirees were scouting the sea for whales even on their volunteer day off. They must be very dedicated to the cause. During this trip to Florida, I've been reading a lot about the shifting sands of tourism, about the fact that tourists are not just coming to Florida for the beaches but for trips along inland waterways, bird-watching tours, wildlife watching and explorations of Florida's many cultures. We plan a side trip to St. Augustine to explore its 500 years of settlement by Europeans preceded by many generations of Indian settlement. We won't be going to the beach, although St. Augustine has a fine one. I like beaches. I like warmth. But many people have left the freezing north for the warmth and the beaches and have found heartache instead. They leave friends and family and the life they know for slick online ads or glossy brochures It's warm here! Friendly, too! Come on down to paradise!

It's never that simple. When my dying father in Ormond Beach was being attended by Hospice personnel, I talked to them. One nurse said that it was a nice thing that my father had many visitors and that we all seemed to care so much. I replied that this must be the case with many of her charges. She shook her head. Sadly, no, she said. Most of her patients died alone. The spouse had already passed and the children and grandchildren and friends all lived in Michigan or New York or even Wyoming. There was an occasional visit from a new acquaintance or a pastor, but a lonely departure was the rule rather than the exception. Made me think. Why are so many retirees willing to give it up for life in paradise? I know what it's like to be cold and old. I know what it's like to be braced against a 20-below wind chill imagining a warm walk on a beach.

But a beach is not enough. I could imagine living here. I can imagine whale-watching. We would go to many events and explore the historic sites and museums. We have passions and pastimes to keep us involved and alert.

But I think this mantra will be on my mind: The beach is not enough. Repeat after me: The beach is not enough.

Or, as a cynical, bleary-eyed bartender in Key Largo once said to me and my new bride on a brilliant May evening in 1982, the setting sun coloring the sky, "Just another day in paradise."

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