National Geographic : 1995 Mar
perceived as yet, which will at length break forth into light." -VICTOR HUGO HALERS called gray whales devil Sfish, for they were the quarry most Likely to ram boats and thrash them apart. What that name doesn't tell is S that the boat breakers were often try ing to protect their young, which the men harpooned first in order to draw mother whales closer. This one came straight for us, rearing its head from Laguna San Ignacio, one of the sheltered bays in Baja California, Mexico, where gray whales congregate to mate and give birth. Warm, salty water from the spout showered over me. Then some 35 feet and 35 tons of leviathan stopped with its nose just touching the gunwale of our 20-foot boat, soft as a kiss. An eye opened three feet from mine and stayed there while I ran my hand across the strange, barnacled brow; stayed while, gathering courage, I put my hand in the mouth and explored the texture of its baleen; stayed for I don't know how long. I just kept talking to this overwhelming presence whose curiosity dwarfed mine. We humans cannot help seeing ourselves in other crea tures. We and they share too many qualities to ignore, beginning with the miracle of our existence. For the same reason, we can't help but feel a powerful sense of loss when a life-form vanishes, never to return. Suddenly our planet seems a bit more lonely and our underpinnings a little less solid. In the United States at least 500 species and subspecies of plants and animals have become extinct since the 1500s. Natural causes appear to have claimed just one of the animals, a marine snail that used to live off New England's shores. We barely got to know the others. Ever hear of the sea mink? Emerald trout? Heath hen? But by the 1950s almost everybody knew about the passenger pigeon, the last one of millions dying alone in a cage a few decades earlier. Everyone knew that oblivion had nearly claimed the bison, whooping crane, and southern trum peter swan too. Those animals had been snatched back from the brink at the final minute. It could be done if somebody cared enough. During the 1960s and early '70s, an era of newfound environmental awareness, the nation as a whole was ready to try. Congress responded with the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. Based on the assumptions that each life form may prove valuable in ways we cannot yet measure and that each is entitled to exist for its own sake as well, the act gave the federal government sweeping powers to WOLVES HAVE IT, LIZARDS DON'T Charisma: Animals with it, say critics, claim an eagle's share of Endangered Spe cies Act (ESA) funds. Both U.S. wolf spe cies have benefited from captive-breeding programs. The red wolf's numbers have risen slowly from 17 to about 275. Hun dreds of listed spe cies, however, are still waiting for recovery programs. With 3,700 candidates-like the San Diego horned liz ard-waiting to board the ESA lifeboat, many think the ark may be in danger of sinking.