With stones, rocks, flowers, chants, songs and their own bodies, about 200 mourners gathered last Saturday morning at Dillon Beach to commemorate the death this year of at least 70 gray whales, all stranded on the shore and visible across California. 

The sky was overcast, the air chilly and the mood somber. Participants, in sweaters and shawls, gathered in a series of circles, some wider and some smaller, singing African songs and speaking their shared sorrows. Some wept, others sobbed. They were from Inverness, Point Reyes Station, Santa Rosa, San Francisco, Oakland, San Mateo, and elsewhere, and they created a kind of sacred space between the land and the sea. At the end of the 90-minute ceremony, they walked toward the ocean, waded into the water and offered a chant to the whales: “May you swim in safety. May you find your kindred.” 

None of the organizers stated the exact number of whales that have died so far this year, though Elizabeth Herron, a poet and environmentalist who lives in Graton, estimated the total was more than 70. Nor did anyone explain precisely why so many had perished, though many assumed the human species was to blame, either because of global warming and rising ocean temperatures or the use of sonar by the military, which can cause whales to hemorrhage and die. More whales have died this year on the California coast than at any time in the past 20 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Marine biologists say most dead whales sink to the ocean floor. Beached whales represent only about 10 percent of the total number of deaths, which have been reported in unprecedented numbers this year in Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand. 

At the beginning of the ceremony, organizer Larry Robinson addressed the whales: “We owe an apology and beg for forgiveness,” he said. “May we turn the tide away from destruction to restoration.” Herron invited the mourners—who grew joyous as they sang and chanted—to face north, then south and west, and finally east, “for new energy and hope.” Like Robinson, Ms. Herron spoke to the invisible whales at sea, “our guests of honor,” and praised them as “great swimmers, older and wiser than we.” Speakers quoted Oscar Wilde, Freeman House, and D.H. Lawrence. 

Michael Stocker, a longtime Marin resident and the director at Ocean Conservation Research, said he felt uplifted by the event, though he was saddened to learn that seven North Atlantic right whales have died in the last couple of weeks after being caught in lobster gear and struck by boats. He also pointed out that many beached whales were emaciated. “There doesn’t seem to be enough food in the ocean for them,” he said. 

Stocker has plans to place underwater microphones near the Farallon Islands to listen to the sounds of both whales and boats. He wants ships to be equipped with the technology—“a whale view,” he calls it—to reveal the location of whales and mitigate fatal collisions.   

Near the end of the ceremony, a young surfer in a wetsuit joined the inspired crowd, knelt down in the sand and offered a prayer. Then he was back in the water, waiting for a perfect wave.


Jonah Raskin is a Santa Rosa author and the former chair of the communications studies department at Sonoma State University. He is a frequent visitor to the coast and an occasional contributor to the Light.