It’s a reminder of the way the world once was. Even before we’d left Provincetown Harbor, with its odiferous nesting cormorants, punk-crested mergansers, and pistachio-green-necked eiders, a pod of common dolphins hove into view, sewing up and down the calm surface of the sea, an advance guard for what was to come. Cape Cod in early May was alive. The reason, if you peered down into the green, was clear: millions of bait fish, gathered into tight balls by the dolphins, an intense concentration of food. Gannets plunged into the same resource, creating plumes of erupting sea. Farther out, a raft of loons worked the water, too.
Nothing was leaving this opportunity untapped. Harbor porpoise rolled through the water; grey seals bottled at the surface. Then, something much larger — in the deep water that runs almost up to the sandy banks of Race Point, the unmistakable scythe of the dorsal of a fin whale, the second largest animal on earth. For all its outrageous size — its sleek ebony back almost too big to belong to an animate object — it too was feeding on sand eels barely bigger than my finger, albeit in mouthfuls that would fill a dumpster. A pair of minke whales, more modest members of the rorqual cetacean family, joined in.
The dolphins swooped alongside the boat as the whales circled the bait fish with nets of precisely blown bubbles, rising triumphantly — even smugly — their vast mouths open wide, gulping down their dinner. Gulls dove in from above, perching on the whales’ snouts to pick out their tidbits. More fin whales — a dozen leviathans — lunged on their sides, showing off their asymmetrical gray markings and the bristles of baleen in their upper jaws, straining their food like pasta in a sieve.
Once the world’s seas were like this. Once you could look out from the coasts of New England or California, the British south coast or into the Tasman Sea, and witness oceans alive with animals. When the Pilgrims first pulled into Provincetown Harbor in 1620, they wrote of right whales so numerous that one might almost walk to the other side of Cape Cod Bay on their backs. The first western colonizers of Tasmania in the early 19th century complained that there were so many whales in the Derwent Sound that they kept the settlers awake at night with their bellowings.
We know all this from historical record, and from scientific evidence. But we also know it within our own consciousness, and guilt. We live in a new age, not of Aquarius, but of the Anthropocene — the era, which may have begun with the Industrial Revolution, or, as some scientists believe, with the atomic half-life of the last century, around 1950. I was born in 1958; I am a child of the Anthropocene, living under two elemental, apocalyptic storms: nuclear and carbon. My existence bears witness to what those same scientists, and environmentalists, call the Great Acceleration; even my bones are irradiated with the byproducts of nuclear tests undertaken in remote oceans. Within that half-century of half-life, the world has changed exponentially.
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