In June 2011, a pod of twelve pilot whales beached themselves on the shore of Key Largo, Florida. They were all sick with respiratory infections, and were simply too weak to keep themselves afloat. As you probably know, whales are mammals and need to surface regularly to breathe through their blow holes.
The Marine Mammal Conservancy put out a call for volunteers via Facebook. The volunteers would work four-hour shifts and hold these 20-foot, 7,000 pound whales upright in waist-deep water, until they recovered. Day after day, around the clock, a team of dedicated helpers worked to save the lives of these beautiful creatures.
My wife and I drove down to help out, and our son came the next day. When it was our turn, we waded out to the group of people clustered around the enormous, debilitated mammals to relieve them. We were assigned to an adult female whale who had been named "300."
I stood at her left pectoral fin area, one hand holding up her fin, and the other arm embracing her torso. My wife stood vigil at the opposite end, near the tail fins. Our sick patient hardly moved as we held her, and her lungs rattled with each breath.
Looking down I could see her mouth and occasionally her teeth, and yes, I was nervous at first. I could smell her strong breath as she blew out her blow hole, and did my best to avoid the spray she spewed out.
But more amazingly, because I was positioned at her front left end, I could feel her heartbeat! I hugged 300 for the entire four hours.
Her heart was beating against my side the whole time. It was intimate, magic and revealing — and by the way, for me, the longest hug of my life!
Here are five things I learned that day from hugging a whale:
1. Vulnerability brings us closer.
What are the odds of getting to hug a whale? If 300 weren’t so vulnerable we would never have gotten that close.
I think she felt our love and good intentions, which I’m sure helped her to relax. I’ve come to understand that vulnerability is one of the main ingredients of intimacy, along with trust. We’re all in this together, and we all share a beautiful fragility.
2. Focus on the positive, even when things look grim.
As sick as she was and as bad as she must have felt, when the Conservancy ranger entered the water with a bowl of food for 300, she wiggled with excitement! We could feel her joy. We laughed at how cute she was, and rejoiced at her spark of perkiness.
Even in the darkest of times, there is something to be learned here. A positive mindset can help us overcome just about anything.
3. Being of service is fulfilling.
I won’t lie: holding up a 7,000 pound whale is not easy. But it was such an honor. I was so pleased I took the opportunity to volunteer, and so satisfied that I could help these animals in their time of need.
We not only bonded with the whales, but we bonded with each other, too. We connected with our innate sense of care and compassion, and restored our faith in humanity. My wife, son, and I were on a high and stayed in the flow of this kindness for days afterward! You’ve heard of tree-huggers, well, we’re whale huggers!
4. Remember to play.
One of the whales, a calf — perhaps only six-feet long and 400 pounds — as sick and weak as she was, and even in the midst of family tragedy, played at every opportunity.
I heard more laughs coming from the humans holding her than from those holding the adults. Evidently she was flapping her pectoral fins to knock her humans off balance! Not to hurt them or because she was scared, but because she was mischievous! Her playfulness no doubt played an important role in her recovery.
5. Commitment before comfort.
OK, honestly I was relieved when my shift was over. Holding a large mammal upright to make sure it could keep breathing was psychologically taxing, physically demanding, and frankly not that comfortable.
However, the goal was clear, and I felt the commitment. It was personal. I was called to help a living being who needed all the help I could give. Time and discomfort came second. What a great feeling and lesson — I am bigger than my discomfort.
In the end, 300 survived and currently lives at a marine facility in Orlando. Because she had somehow suffered a spinal injury and could not live on her own at sea, she will be cared for in loving hands the rest of her life. The baby pilot whale also recovered fully and was released to join a pod in the wild.