Touched By Whales by Gail Harrington

No longer living an aristocrat’s life of privilege in 2005, Roberto Penny Cabrera was just getting by as a desert guide in the Pisco Basin of southern Peru, one of the world’s most significant and abundant locales for marine fossils. After dabbling in seedless grape farming and mining phosphorus for organic fertilizer, he finally found his niche, and a life built around passion and purpose, not possessions. One’s standing as a member of Peruvian aristocracy never changes, even if the family has lost money, land holdings, and haciendas, and you’re a rebel who never cared about fitting in. That was Penny, a swashbuckling character straight out of central casting, decked out in fresh khakis, a brown paisley silk scarf loosely tucked inside a double-pocket safari shirt, short brown leather jacket, and  beat-up fedora, promising me, ‘You’re going to see why I call this place a kingdom . . . why I love the desert so much. You’ll fall asleep on what was once the ocean floor, look up at more stars than you’ve ever seen, and wonder what life was like here millions of years ago.’

On that he delivered. The sights were astounding: fossilized spinal columns, skulls, and fragments of whales, penguins, and other marine creatures scattered across an eerie landscape of wind-rippled sand and steep sedimentary outcrops. The bizarre scene might as well have been an open-air natural history museum on a once-fecund Mars.

Not long after our off-road adventure, Penny called to confide that on his last jaunt to the desert he’d discovered a huge, odd-looking fossil, and made me swear not to tell anyone about the creature he thought was a massive whale, until he saw a pelvis, legs, and a skull with a long wolf-like snout and huge multi-cusped teeth.

To me, it sounded like a creature of spare parts.

‘Someday you’ll write about it. I’ll give you an exclusive.’

But henceforth, Penny ignored dozens of my emails asking for details. Fast forward three years to when I received this veiled message that was screaming for attention in 24 point, bold type: ‘My dear Queen, I haven’t forgot you. Take your time so you’ll understand what worries me a lot. I’m inside a big mess. It’s a story you have a right to know. I hope to see you here soon.’

Hours later I booked a one-way ticket to Peru.  

I should have known not to press Penny so soon after our reunion.

‘Why did you want me to come down here? Is there a reason you’ve ignored my questions about the fossil?’

‘Don’t be in such a hurry. From now on, 24 hours a day, I’m your fixer. You got a fly bothering you in your hotel room? Call me. I’ll come shoot the fly.’

That’s pretty much how I returned to my former guide’s mad-cap universe, which could be exasperating, fascinating, and side-splittingly funny at the same time.

It would be days later in the desert before he would open up about the whereabouts of the baffling fossil. Leaning back in a rickety lounge chair after eating a can of cold beans, Penny stretched out until his unlaced boots were at the edge of a blazing teepee of eucalyptus logs that were popping like firecrackers under a black sky freckled with countless stars. He was ready to talk.

What I learned was that eighteen months after his discovery, Penny, known for his long monologues, stood staring over a wall into his friend’s lumberyard that was protected by a security team and guard dogs. He couldn’t even breathe, much less speak. When his heart stopped racing, Penny opened his eyes, steeled himself for another look at the yard, and finally gave voice to the obvious truth, ‘They robberied the fossil.’

There went his dream of starting a small fossil museum, 200 miles south of Lima in his hometown of Ica, which had been founded in 1563 by Penny’s ancestor, Jerónimo Luis de Cabrera, a lieutenant in the Royal Spanish Navy.

After the painful betrayal by a friend who had promised to guard the large wooden cases full of fossilized bones, Penny just wanted to forget. It was over and he had zero interest in knowing the identity of the creature—unlike me. I sent his photos of elongated vertebrae, the pelvis, leg bones, and skull to three experts in early whale evolution. Just a lucky guess, but within a few hours they independently responded that the massive Peruvian predator was a Basilosaurus, one of the first fully aquatic whales.

One of these scientists, Dr. Philip Gingerich, who is practically the king of primitive whale research, later invited me for an afternoon in his lab at the University of Michigan. Understanding my interest, he handed me an 8-inch-long Basilosaurus leg and placed one of the same whale’s vertebra on a table and asked me if I could lift it . . . I could not. And I could barely see through my tears of wonder in the university’s museum, as we stood beneath a 50-foot-long, eel-shaped model of Basilosaurus, the largest whale in the ocean during its lifetime. The Egyptian government allowed Gingerich to ship the specimen to the US for research purposes, and the 37-million-year-old fossilized bones were carefully stored in his lab. 

During the previous three decades, Gingerich and an elite group of paleontologists had puzzled together the evolution of whales from small terrestrial animals to modern whales with very few missing gaps in the progression, and answering a question that Charles Darwin himself wondered about. Where did whales originate? From even-toed ungulates, possibly hippos.

What an amazing feat of research they pieced together, genus by genus, noting various changes that evolved over time, such as nostril openings near the tip of the snout in early whales that gradually moved up to the top of the skull in modern whales, the blow holes that allow them to remain under water for longer periods of time. And as whales began to dive deeper, their eyes started migrating from the top of the head to the sides, providing better lateral vision in water.

Basilosaurus whales retained features of their ancestor’s terrestrial iteration but never walked on land. Though they still had functional knees, their atrophied legs and a pelvis were no longer connected to the spine. Walking was impossible. Their front limbs still had elbows but were nothing more than paddle-shaped flippers. In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a chapter titled ‘The Fossil Whale’ stars the very first of this genus to be discovered, on an Alabama plantation in 1834. These predators of the sea that fed on sharks, large fish, and other live whales must have been powerful, long-distance swimmers because they’ve been found on every continent in the world.

As a travel writer and new grandmother, I was an unlikely cast member for Penny’s never-ending soap opera. But intense curiosity soon led me to befriend not just researchers but paranoids, rogues, and quite possibly thieves, along with a couple of pathological liars. I couldn’t have been more trapped had I walked into quicksand. Was I in danger? Possibly. I kept telling myself I’d get out while I could, if the melodrama escalated. But by that point, there’d be arrests, cyberattacks, death threats, government warnings, shamanic interventions, and UFO sightings. It’s all true except for the lies—I couldn’t make it up.

Even I was a victim of dirty tricks. Someone advised the Ministry of Culture that I was the enemy of Peruvian paleontology, and days later a stranger approached Penny at his uncle’s funeral in Lima and advised him to stop talking to me.

I never imagined it would come to this. I’d arrived in Peru months earlier feeling a huge vacuum in my life after I was laid off from a senior-level publishing job in the US. Like millions of boomers sacked during the financial crisis, I was unemployable. There were no jobs, and I was too old (59), plus the demise of print magazines was imminent. But all that wasn’t what shook me to the core—it was Alzheimer’s, and a call from my father’s physician, who said Dad’s disease would start shutting down his organs soon, and he probably wouldn’t live more than a week.

The next morning before my brother and I could catch flights to California, our sister arrived at our father’s memory-wing bedside, ten minutes too late. I was heartbroken. Not one of us had been there to squeeze his hands tightly before shallow breathing ended with the exhalation of a final breath.

After the funeral, solace came only from memories of my idyllic childhood. I grew up with an older brother, younger sister, and fun parents in a big house in Los Angeles, built in the 1920s.  Most nights after dinner, we sang around a grand piano. Dad played every song requested though he never learned to read music. Mom had the strongest voice and starlet charisma. And when our parents sang  ‘Some Enchanting Evening,’ my siblings and I left them to their duet, knowing that every night was like that for them. Maybe my parents’ happy marriage explains why I’m not disillusioned about love, though I divorced 34 years ago and shared custody of two young daughters. I never remarried. A long relationship fizzled out but I wasn’t afraid to try again . . .  and I did.

 You could say I had experience at navigating around dead ends. Eleven years before Dad died, I had quit my job in California because an abusive publisher in a rage threw a chair across my office one night after other editors and art directors had gone home. A human Resources manager wasn’t interested unless I had video of the incident. Sure. My only option was to quit. I dove into the deep end of the New York publishing scene, and never regretted that leap of faith.

A decade later in 2009, a global financial crisis left me jobless. Certain people in my life wouldn’t understand the decisions I’d make, but without change, there is no adventure in life. And just as life continued after the final extinction of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, which opened up ecological niches for an evolutionary explosion of huge new mammal species, a sudden void in my life brought forth unknown possibilities.

My next epoch began when I arrived in Peru, just after a flood of new books on Charles Darwin had been released, honoring the 200th anniversary of the British naturalist’s birth and 150 years since he laid out his then controversial theory of evolution and natural selection in On the Origin of Species. And one of Darwin’s conclusions spoke to me: ‘It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.’

That’s exactly what happened 50,000,000 million years ago when furry, hoofed- mammals identified feeding opportunities in salt-water marshes and shallow ocean, and walked right in. Their metamorphosis from land to water took one million years, and it would be another five to seven million years for partially-aquatic mammals to evolve into fully-aquatic whales that mated and gave birth in the ocean—and early whale experts consider those transitions fast. It could be the greatest story of evolution ever told.

My adventure in Peru ended after a Peruvian bureaucrat demanded I hand over to him my research, or the government would file criminal charges and lock me up in the women’s prison in Lima. Though I hadn’t broken any law, I fled to where no one would expect to find me, Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared when passing through airport security in Lima, looking over my shoulder, and trying to appear relaxed. Relieved I hadn’t been flagged as a person sought by the Peruvian National Police, I boarded with the realization that what I wanted was a big life full of wonder but not on the edge of danger.

In Cusco’s Starbucks I met Cherie, a soulful yoga teacher from New York, who knew that the right travel getaway can deliver joy from the smallest things and show us we’re capable of more than we know. I was worn out by the Peruvian bone hunters’ shenanigans. What I needed right then was serenity—warm days near the sea, stirring landscapes, perhaps a place where whales would be passing by on their annual migration. I had been thinking about Ireland, my most visited country, whose territorial waters are a whale and dolphin sanctuary. And I’d long wanted to visit Tonga, a constitutional monarchy and the only kingdom in the South Pacific, where humpbacks breed and give birth after migrating 3,700 miles from their summer feeding grounds in Antarctic waters that would be too cold for newborn whales to survive.

Cherie had just the place for me to slow down and breathe deeply on the coast of Ecuador, a small fishing village called La Entrada and an oceanfront B&B owned by a wonderful American couple, Marsha and Shell Spivey. I spent two months at Villa de Los Sueños, reading and writing, collecting seashells as a walking meditation, and watching the Spiveys (a former banker and an accountant) adapting to retirement and forging a fulfilling new life. I was in a very different place when I returned to New York to spend the holidays with my daughter and her family.

But when my apartment sublease ended right after Christmas, I chose to become a full-time vagabond for a while and put everything I owned into storage. Free as a bird . . . or a whale. Every New Year’s Eve I promised to settle down at the end of the next year but didn’t. I traveled to China, the Galapagos Islands, Colombia, Ecuador, the Peruvian Amazon, Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Ireland multiple times, Austria, England, France, Kenya, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Wherever I traveled that was bordered by ocean, whales were on my radar. In Mexico, I went whale watching with a marine veterinarian who dropped a hydrophone into the water and interpreted the enthralling songs and clicking sounds of humpbacks. And in a Pacific bay along Baja California, I experienced gray whales close up as the proud females swam along the edge of our panga boat to show off their babies.

I arrived in Ireland last October, just weeks after two humpbacks frolicking together in waters off Cork were sighted by researchers from the Irish Dolphin and Whale Group, which had sighted those two whales together in the same spot almost exactly 20 years earlier, photographed and catalogued as HBIRL1 and HBIRL2. There have been sad sightings, too, like last August near Donegal Bay, when seven beached whales could not be saved despite efforts to refloat them. The reason for stranding may remain unknown, but all too often whales die from ingesting plastic waste. Without even seeing that for myself, just hearing about whales with a stomach full of plastic is gut-wrenching. Why doesn’t the world wake up to the truth that whale lives matter?

For six years, I returned to La Entrada every June just as hundreds of migrating humpbacks were passing by the village on their way up the coast to Puerto Lopez and Manta. What happened for the villagers of La Entrada, was life-changing, thanks to the Spiveys, who were the force behind successful crowdfunding projects that with mostly small donations subsidized the building of a large church with wall-to-wall glass facing the ocean, the painting of all the village homes in bright colors, and creation of more than 100 murals, including a good number that depict whales, thanks to a dozen Ecuadorean artists that volunteered their time and talent.

Watching the Spiveys’ devotion to the people of La Entrada made me think I could do better as a human being . . . become more patient and giving of my time, if not as a leader or organizer, by being a helper every day in small ways. It was detrimental to my evolution, but I was fretting about eyelid folds, bulging hand veins, the sudden onset of skin ripples in the crook of both elbows, disappearing fingerprints (yes, that happens). But another older woman in the Peruvian Andes, who spoke only Quechua and had never seen herself  in a mirror, set me straight by the way she carried herself, the joy on her face when she invited me into her dirt-floored kitchen for a bowl of soup. I am a work in progress.

I felt happy during long stays away but sometimes torn by what I was missing out on, and guilty about the amount of time I’d been spending away from my granddaughters Chloe and Harlow, who have always called me Cookie not Grandma. Every time I return to New York, my forgiving grands beg me to convince their parents they need a puppy, and they catch me off guard with difficult questions like, ‘Cookie, what’s inside the Earth?’ Thank God for Google.

I wondered if I would ever measure up to my own cultured-but-gutsy grandmother, a Stanford University graduate, who competed on the women’s tennis and basketball teams, and married a California fruit and walnut grower whose idea of a great honeymoon was traveling from farmland east of Santa Barbara to Yosemite in a horse-drawn wooden wagon with only a beach umbrella and blankets for cover. Grandma proved she was tough enough but never went camping again. A brilliant storyteller, my granny used literature to encourage my curiosity about the world and told me if I yearned for it, adventure would choose me. In her farmhouse kitchen, she once read me many dozens of letters from a seafaring Harrington ancestor who had spent years in the South Pacific long ago. But for a reason I could never understand, Grandma wouldn’t divulge who wrote the letters. Every time I visited my grandparents’ farm, I would ask her to read me those mesmerizing dispatches, and afterward I’d promise, ‘I’m going to do that someday.’

Then two years ago when I was downsizing at my storage space, I found a photocopy of a letter my father had written more than 30 years earlier to a distant relative in Rhode Island, asking which of our ancestors living in the mid-19th century had visited the Solomon Islands and the island of Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas, where Melville had jumped ship off a whaler and spent four weeks in a village once known for head-hunting. But this Harrington knew nothing.

Not one of my 11 Harrington cousins had ever heard about this story, and the bundles of letters had long since disappeared, probably in a downsizing of my grandparents’ farmhouse. If I was ever going to solve the mystery of the letter writer, I was on my own.

Eventually I located a third cousin in New Hampshire, who revealed that he possessed boxes of Harrington correspondence dating back centuries and eventually turned over the archives to me. Amidst letters, faded family trees, 17th century property deeds, and more mysteries than I could possible solve in my lifetime, I found a summary of the short, heartbreaking story of Charles Frederick Harrington, written by my great-grandfather in 1928, sixty years after his older brother’s death. Those letters my grandmother read to me had been penned on a ship by my Great-Great Uncle Charlie.

After bolting from boarding school at age 15 to join the Union Army, he fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, and took two bullets through the chest in 1864. After recuperating, Charlie signed up as a seaman on the Pearl, a three-masted merchant vessel that would trade goods between Boston, the South Pacific, and the Sandwich Islands. But on the return voyage to Boston three years later in 1868, the Pearl stopped in Cienfuegos, Cuba, where Captain Freeman and the crew, except for one lucky British sailor, all contracted yellow fever and were buried in a common grave.

Next summer I’ll begin my South Pacific sweep, visiting places I remember Charlie wrote about and ports where the Pearl may have stopped . . . seeking records of ship arrivals, departures, duties paid, and passenger lists . . . and possibly hearing stories passed down for generations about the whalers and trading ships that visited the region long ago. I’ll sail on a cargo ship or ferry from another Marquesan island into the harbor at Nuka Hiva where Melville jumped ship in 1842 and Charlie arrived roughly a quarter century later, and hike to the village where Melville survived four weeks living with the infamous Typee tribe. And maybe this old fossil will see even more whales next July, when the humpbacks return to Tonga.

What happened to the Pearl and the lone British survivor, I may never know. But I just might discover the totally unexpected. Among my generation of Harringtons, I’m Charlie. I feel a life-long connection to my uncle who died too young at twenty-two, eighty-two years before I was born; his and my grandmother’s stories inspired my wanderlust. After months in the South Pacific, I’ll pay my respects to another Harrington vagabond in his final port, Cienfuegos. Only then will I be ready to settle down.

About the contributor

Gail Harrington
Gail Harrington is a New Yorker whose work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Departures, National Geographic Traveler, and The New York Times. Diverse assignments have led her to transect a Fijian rainforest with machete in hand, trek to Rainbow Mountain in the Peruvian Andes, and help restore a 11th century dry stone wall in Scotland.

Related Articles

More Like This