Whales, Migrations, & Back-to-School



The sperm whale takes 40 years before it masters the global oceans, traveling with its mother for years and then joining a pod of wandering bulls. I heard this on National Geographic’s Great Migrations. These massive animals weigh up to 50 tons and travel a million miles in their 70-year life. Everything about them is superlative, from size to sound. After the film, I learned about its brain, the size and complexity, larger and similar to humans. The whale earned its name from the waxy fluid in its massive head which was mistaken as its sperm. Scientists are not sure of its function, but believe it has something to do with buoyancy.


The clicking sound they make is the loudest of any animal on the planet at 230 decibels. It is believed to be used for echo location and communication. The whales can hear each other from 100s, even 1000s, of miles away. Researchers believe they can possibly communicate from opposite sides of the planet. To give you a sense of just how loud that is, the sound can blow out your ear drum and actually vibrate a human body to death.* Here’s a recording underwater.



I can’t get them out of my mind, the whales with their big brains, the clicking and communication, their global migrations and the decades it takes to learn the seas. And it has me thinking of my children, learning, and humanity in general, especially in the rush of back-to-school with summer reading and math work to finish. My son is a senior with college visits to plan, essays to write and applications to complete. And my two kids still at home have preseason sports practice.


This hyper-activity, getting the brain in gear, the maniacal shift during the change of seasons seems contrived. Yet nature gets busy too, squirrels and birds prepping for fall and winter to come, gathering food or migrating south. For humans this departure from the outdoors and summer, the return to the desk, means getting back to business and learning.


And the idea of 40 years and the whales keeps surfacing. Mastery takes a long time. The brain surgeon spends 20 years in school, then another six to seven as a resident, until she’s 33 years old.  She’s still a journeyman brain surgeon, so mastery may occur at 40, not unlike the sperm whale’s age when it masters the seas. But for many, mastery remains elusive.


I’m not sure what I’ve mastered. And, for that matter, whales and brain surgeons aside, what can be said of mastery by the average human at 40 years? Navigation of the oceans without technology is unlikely. My friend’s son was hard pressed to drive home without GPS when his phone died. And that was the next town over, barefly five miles. Granted, he was a teenager.


Let’s try this thought experiment. If air-dropped into your state without GPS or the ability to read, could you make your way home? You’d need a sense of direction and geography, and a degree of physical fitness. You would need food and water. My guess is, like the young calf and mother whale, most of us would engage another human for help. If you lived in Wyoming, then braving the wilderness may be the first hurdle. Human navigational skill is technology dependent, but unlike the whale, it is not necessary for daily survival. Still. That makes the distinction between the species even more remarkable.




And what can the sperm whale teach me? I’d like to master the global seas but I was not designed for it. I’ve been confounded by the 40 years, that a creature traveling around the oceans all its life needed that kind of time. Then again, the earth is a big place.


The nautical mile is a bit longer than the statue (or land) mile. The circumference of the earth is 21,600 nautical miles, that is, equal to 360 degrees of latitude at 60 minutes per degree. The sperm whale that traveled a million miles made it 46.3 times around the earth in its life. And, it took roughly 26 trips to get the hang of it. This simple math doesn’t consider the currents and the geography, but is solely for the sake of illustration.


What have I done which even approaches mastery? Sleeping. Eating. Playing the piano. I haven’t memorized music and never learned how. I play well enough when I have the notes on a page because I’ve done so for 45 years. I play because I love to make music.  I’m not sure this is comparable to the whale’s navigation. Malcolm Gladwell’s popular idea of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class has been debunked. A Princeton Study showed that the hours of practice accounted for just 12% of a difference in performance, and only in certain fields.**


Which means that practice for thousands of hours and decades of study can help, but not always. There is something here at work that I simply don’t understand, though I believe it’s necessary that I try.


Navigation through the seas is part of a whale’s existence, something we’re only beginning to comprehend. Maybe this is comparable to how we imagine traveling through the world in a physical way and through our life over time, navigating each mile each day, and each year, the way we know how. As a child, I was apprenticed in a fashion to my parents, to my larger family, to society. As a young adult, I began to find my own way, a journeyman in life. What was my duty when I woke each day? To go to school, to work, to live, to engage others. Like the whale, for much of it, I must go it alone.


The bull whale leaves its mother after ten years, sometimes traveling in groups, but often alone. The female and calves remain in pods, interacting daily.  Yet, some females will take their families to wander for a year, often covering 20,000 miles.


My children are joining the human migration, eager to head out on their own, to wander and explore. The obsession about school and class and grades seems petty, even trivial against this larger backdrop. At times, I feel like my children are spinning on a hamster wheel, getting nowhere fast. I add stress to the system with my own hang-ups. when what they need, may be to slow down. Quiet the inner demons. See clearly. Discover. There’s a balance I want to teach them and I’m not sure it’s something they can learn from me. In certain cases, all the education in the world cannot supplant experience. Would we know of Mozart if he never met a piano? Could it be that the whale doesn’t know the seas until he reaches the arctic waters a dozen times? If humans don’t explore, they may never find their piano or see the arctic. When they do, it seems many hours and trips are needed to develop skill and possess real understanding.


Sperm whales live to reach their 70s, a similar life span as humans. Would it be fair to say that mastery, of whatever it is, the global seas or bricklaying or brain surgery, may take 40 years?





My cousin Rich and I were talking about school when he called me on his road trip home from Portland to Folsom. He talked about the teacher who gave him his only B in high school and that her lessons stuck with him. On one assignment, she said his writing was fine, but the paper failed. He was baffled. When he asked why, she responded. What did it mean? What were you trying to say? There has to be a point.


From Kindergarten to twelfth grade, of all his successes, this is what he remembered.  Rich said he still recalls things she taught him, common mistakes, how to avoid them. You might think he was passionate about this topic, but you would be wrong. Rich is an engineer and the class was English. It wasn’t the subject. Rich was passionate about learning because she was. She cared about what she was doing as a teacher and she cared enough to help a young man figure it out. And here was the lesson of a lifetime.


I wonder if I will ever figure it out, about the whales, about mastery. Here’s something I have learned. Eight years ago in 2011, along that same stretch of land where Rich had driven, I had an encounter that has been as lasting as his class was for him, but very disturbing.  Two miles from the mouth of the Klamath River, just south of Oregon in northern California, where route 101 crossed over, I saw a gray whale circling beneath the bridge. My family stopped to watch the mammoth 45-foot female make her way back and forth, far from her pod. I always wondered about her. Seeing her so close was a miracle to witness, yet something felt wrong.

Whale No. 604, MaMa, in Klamath River (8/8/2011)

Gray Whale No. 604 – photos I took that day do not do it justice




Gray whale No. 604 (how scientists identified her) had gone upstream with her calf weeks before. The calf finally returned to the ocean, but the mama died a week after my encounter on August 8th. For 54 days, she circled that part of the Klamath. An official said, “We don’t think she starved to death. There’s something else going on.”


A local Yurok tribal member said the tribe had never hunted whales, but they were part of the tribe’s history. Yurok elder Walt Lara Sr. had seen the whale.

“Whales to us are almost like humans,” he said. “A long time ago, our community of people were tuned into that and would sing to them. And when they died and washed ashore, they didn’t go to waste. We would cut them up and give the pieces to people in the community. … To us, a whale in the river is a good thing. It is a spiritual move that says, ‘You people are doing things right.'” (North Coast Journal, July 28, 2011)


Whale 604 had become a local celebrity with police controlling car and foot traffic at the bridge. Perhaps, she needed to wander like the female whales who leave the pod. Scientists did all they could to chase her back into the ocean, to identify causes, but in the end, they could not help her.  She died on a Tuesday morning after beaching herself on a sandbar.


Every year about 2000 whales beach themselves, like whale No. 604. Scientists do not agree on the causes. Did the whales just give up, and is that in any way similar to human suicide? The antithesis of mastery is ignorance or failure, even surrender, the ultimate escape.  Did MaMa whale deliberately choose to remain upstream, despite her calf’s needs for survival? Did the tribal elder’s suggestion, that a whale in the river, mean people were doing things right, that its presence was a good thing?


Things did not seem to turn out well for the whale, and yet, I’ve been thinking about it for years. She left her mark on all of us visitors. Maybe she was done with the great migration, choosing to swim up the river, to escape the pod, the journey, all the demands. In spite of that choice, her calf followed her into shallow water, stayed as long as it was able. Perhaps hunger and life drew it back to the seas and the calf made the unnatural, yet vital decision to leave its mother, to return to the ocean, to the pod, to learn how to survive and thrive.


My son and daughter started school this week and for my son it’s his senior year. He will visit colleges to figure out what comes next, after he leaves home. Sperm whales spend their lives on epic journeys. Mastery for humanity may be more about how to live, to navigate what comes our way, from blue skies to tsunamis, the changes in weather and seasons as tumultuous as the changes in our lives.


Figuring out which course to choose and with what equipment and people, and just how to do that, may be not only inevitable but vital. To do so, to find his path and learn, means that my son sets out on his own migration, be it alone or with others, that he engages them, and takes time to care, like Rich’s teacher. This may make all the difference. Some still travel upstream and get stranded, and maybe they are sending a message. Mastery is something we strive for, but might never attain.


Author with family 8/8/2011 on Klamath Bridge



Audio from:  Ocean Alliance. Sperm Whale Sounds in the Gulf of Mexico, YouTube Video, March 10, 2014.

*James Nestor.  Sperm Whales Clicking You Inside Out. YouTube Video, April 25, 2017.

**Drake Bear. New Study Destroys Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Business Insider, July 3, 2014.

Sep 4, 2019


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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