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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Whale of a Tale

Air Date: Week of August 31, 2007

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In her element: Lynne Cox after a swim at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)

Lynne Cox has made a name for herself as a long distance swimmer. She’s swam the English Channel, the waters of the Bering Strait, and bared frigid temperatures in the Antarctic Ocean. But it was during an early morning workout when she was a teenager that Cox had one of her most memorable experiences: an encounter with a baby gray whale. Lynne Cox shares her story Living on Earth's Ashley Ahearn.

Transcript

CURWOOD: You might say Lynne Cox is more at home in the water than she is on land.

COX: There’s something really serene about swimming through black water where the sea and the sky sort of blend together and so you sort of feel like you’re swimming across sheets of the cosmos in a way.

CURWOOD: Lynne Cox broke the record for the fastest swim across the English Channel when she was just 15. She swam the Bering Strait –from Alaska to Siberia--during the Cold War to encourage peace between Russia and the U.S.

And without a wetsuit or fins, she swam a mile in the Antarctic Ocean in 38 degree water. Huh, that’s cold! There’s one nautical experience Lynne Cox will surely never forget. It happened when she was a teenager, training in the dark waters off the coast of California before dawn.

Lynne Cox has written about the experience in her book called “Grayson.” That’s the name she gave the whale she encountered that morning so many years ago.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: When I was training one morning off the coast of Seal Beach when I had this baby gray whale that I wound up calling Grayson swimming with me. I didn’t know at first what it was. And so, to be swimming along and I feel the water hollow out underneath me and being sucked down into that little hole and being dragged along by the slipstream, I was really scared! And I really had to talk myself down and not just turn and swim out of the water as fast as I could. I had to sort of say, “Well it could be a seal, it could be a dolphin,” and then the mind goes, “Well it could be a shark!” (laughs)

In her element: Lynne Cox after a swim at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)

  

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: You know then I would talk to myself and say, “Ok, so I’m a little closer to shore because if it is a shark you can then get out of the water quickly”. So, I turned toward the surf line and I looked up and I saw Steve, the old man who ran the bait shop who was a fisherman and knew everything about the ocean. And he was waving his arms frantically at me. And I thought, “Yup it was a shark. It’s time to get out now”. And then and then he shook his head. And so I looked closer and he was cupping his hands around his mouth and he was shouting at me and he was saying, “Lynne, you can’t finish your work out now. You’ve got a baby gray whale. He’s lost and if you go a shore he’ll follow you, he will go aground and he will die. You have to stay out here and help him find his mother”.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: I didn’t know how you find a mother whale in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But you know, I was only 17 then. So I would sort of think, ok I can do it. I’m not sure yet how, but maybe if I just try there will be a way to figure out that we can do this.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: Then he tried to communicate. He swam over and rolled over and looked at me with one big brown eye. And I looked at him and I thought, oh my gosh he’s looking at me. And you know, he was huge. He was eighteen feet long. And I’m sort of all at once wanting to just touch him and comfort him. And at the same time I’m thinking he’s 18 feet long! Oh my gosh! And so he came very close to me and then would swim away. And then I decided well, you know, you learn in life that sometimes just being with somebody else will make all the difference in the world. So, I decided that I would just stay with him. And maybe by doing that we could together find his mother.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: I’d been off shore for about four hours with Grayson and realized that I was really cold and really tired and I needed to get back to shore because I wasn’t going to be ok otherwise. And so, I started swimming towards shore and he realized that. And he swam closer to me like when you swim in the water and you swim close to a friend you get a good drag off them and your swimming is a lot easier. So he swam really close and allowed me to swim in his slipstream.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: We made it back to the pier where there were people on the pier watching. And in the mean time the lifeguards who patrol the area had called each other to tell their friends to be on the look out for a lone female whale, gray whale. Who might be somewhere off shore. The fishermen also had radioed their friends. And we got a report there at the end of the pier that ten miles off us, in Huntington Beach, was a gray whale female that was heading towards Seal Beach. And I think that she must have heard Grayson’s calls.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

COX: When he came over to me it was obvious to me that he was asking me for his help. And I felt like I could do something. And that’s really one of the big reasons why I wrote this story because I figured out that in life we have big moments- really big moments-where we have a choice of doing something or letting it go by. And I think that that whole episode of being with the whale was really key to everything that I would do through the rest of my life. Because I realized that I could do something, that I could have an impact. And if I tried I would get a little bit closer with him to whatever we wanted to accomplish.

[MUSIC: Yo-Yo Ma “Unaccompanied Cello Suites 1-3 (various selections)” from ‘Bach: The Cello Suites’ (Sony Music – 1997)]

CURWOOD: And yes, mother and baby did reunite. Lynne Cox’s book about her experience with the baby gray whale is called “Grayson.” Our story was produced by Living on Earth’s Ashley Ahearn.

 

Links

Lynne Cox’s website

 

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