I’d like to tell you a whale of a tale, or how I found a poem in the whale and in a whale’s tail! A few weeks ago my family and I visited the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Life Sciences in downtown Raleigh on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The kids scampered up and down the steps, getting lost, screaming…you know, the usual.
When we reached the 1st floor from the 3rd, we found Stumpy the Dead Right Whale. Or her bones. I noticed that she had some extra fins near her center. Those weren’t hers–they were her son’s. She was killed by a ship, hauled in by the Coast Guard at Nags Head in February 2004 and examined. Stumpy, or EG#1004, was given this nickname because she’s missing part of her tail.
Her first reported sighting was in 1975 and these sightings are very important because northern right whales are extremely endangered. They live near the shipping channels on the East Coast and are likely to be killed or entangled in fishing gear. If more than two females are killed a year, then this species won’t stand a chance in another 200 years. But Stumpy’s death at age 30 changed all that. After her mandible was examined in Woods Hole, Maine, scientists determined the ship who struck her was going fast. Since 2008, ships must travel 10 knots in right whale territory to reduce their accidental deaths. Go Stumpy!
What does Stumpy have to do with poetry? Everything! Stumpy’s story had all of the necessary ingredients for an Alice poem: death, conflict and redemption. When I teach young poets, I teach them that poetry is all around you–you only need to bring it out! I ventured to the library, studied up on baleen and right whales and returned to the museum yesterday to fact check and take these photos.
Share your thoughts with me in the comments about what you think of my “Call Me Stumpy” poem.
Call me Stumpy
I never knew what hit me off Virginia Beach—
the bastard! I was going to be a mom
for the fifth time, a boy. I named him Jack,
after Jacksonville, Florida, where I mated
He was two feet shorter than me
with a thick lice spots on his head.
Such a gorgeous fluke! Not broken and scarred like mine.
Last I heard he died in fishing gear.
The other fathers are still around,
as are my other calves.
The good scientists tagged and named
my family with a long string of numbers.
I was EG#1004. Don’t know if the “E” stood
for endangered—if more mothers
die we won’t be around much longer.
Did you know they call us right whales
because we’re the “right” whales to hunt?
We float when we die so it’s easy
to catch our blubber and what not.
I was told my great great great grandfather
inspired Moby Dick, but wasn’t he a sperm whale?
Big difference, you know. They have teeth
to eat up nasty ships and sailors. Always wished I had teeth.
Anywhoo, can’t help how we’re
big black targets with barnacles,
I bet you could out swim me any day.
I’m somewhere in the ether now
and when I check back
on my bones in the Raleigh museum,
Jack’s still there in my belly!
Kids point and touch my ribs,
my messed up mandible…
That jaw got scanned to make the ships slow down.
Four hundred of us left,
and me peacing out on the sunny 1st floor
with no warm seas or crisp krill in my future.