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Cover article titled "Whale Tale" featured in Good Times Santa Cruz.
July 30, 2009

 

Whale Tale
How a wayward whale and the crumbling health of the ceans forced one local to take positive action—with words.

Good Times Cover

As a child, Douglas Carlton Abrams remembers being knocked down by a wave in Nantucket, Mass. The force of the water swept the young Abrams underwater, where he recalls a moment of “suspended animation,” in which time seemed to slow down. For many children, this would be a moment of panic, but not for Abrams.

 

The Author

“I actually felt quite at home,” Abrams recalls. Floating in the Atlantic surf, Abrams’ brief life did not flash before his eyes. Instead, he found cause to wonder at that most powerful body of water—connected to all of the world’s oceans—and all the life it held within.

This early childhood experience may in part explain the Santa Cruz author’s affinity with the ocean, which is clearly expressed in his new novel, “Eye of the Whale,” a story of one marine biologist struggling against time and powerful industrial interests to save the whales she has studied for so long and loves so much.

Growing up in New York City, Abrams’ interest in the ocean was not only shaped by his regular summer outings to Nantucket. It also grew out of the disconnection he felt when he was away from the open water in his native borough of Manhattan.

“Growing up in the metropolis,” Abrams says, “far away from the natural world, I felt the longing for nature that one has when one doesn’t experience it.”

Abrams left the East Coast for the West to pursue his bachelor’s degree at Stanford University. It was there that he met his wife, Rachel. Upon graduating in 1989, Abrams and his wife moved to Santa Cruz for a summer. “It felt like home,” he says. After living in Davis, Calif., while his wife earned her medical training in integrative and ecological health, the couple returned to this coastal city to raise their twin daughters.

“In Santa Cruz, one is surrounded by the abundance of the natural world,” he says. Even though Abrams has visited Australia, and lived in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa, he is sure that Santa Cruz is the only place for him. “This is the place that feels the most like home of all the places I’ve lived.”

 

Doug Abrams swimming with whales
Author Doug Abrams went to new depths in researching his latest book. Here Abrams explores the lives of whales. Photo: Bryant Austin

 

The Novel

“Eye of the Whale,” like Abrams’ last novel, “The Lost Diary of Don Juan,” is fact-based fiction. In researching the book, the author studied the habits of whalers in Bequia, a southern Caribbean island, where readers first meet the story’s protagonist; he swam with whales off the shores of the Kingdom of Tonga, which lies southeast of Fiji off the eastern coast of Australia; and he met with ecotoxicologist John Peterson Myers, author of “Our Stolen Future,” a book which discusses the effects of endocrine disruptors—a class of chemicals which threaten life at sea and on land, both in the novel and in our modern world.

whales   Each person he met—and each whale he swam with—helped ensure that his book was scientifically accurate. But they also helped him develop his characters. While he insists that no character in the book is a direct carbon copy, he acknowledges that just about every major character is an amalgam of several individuals he met while researching “Eye of the Whale.”

“When you’re a novelist, you steal parts of people,” he says.

In his new book, Abrams uses his characters to draw the reader into the natural world he loves. The novel spans the globe, following a multitude of characters: marine biologists, whalers, industrialists, ecological
How have the changes in the oceans altered the lives of whales? That’s the question Abrams hopes to answer. Photo: Bryant Austin

activists—all of them with conflicting agendas, yet all of them connected by the plight of one whale.

The fictional leviathan, Apollo—like the real-life Humphrey in 1985 or Delta and Dawn in 2007—swims up the Sacramento River singing an unusual distress call, which the story’s protagonist, marine biologist Elizabeth McKay, is working frantically to decipher in order to save the whale and her doctoral thesis. It is an uphill battle, as McKay faces heavy opposition from sinister forces in the whaling and chemical industries who fear her research puts their livelihood at risk.

If current events are any indication, many big industries have plenty to fear—if not from new legislation as a result of what scientists, like the fictional McKay, are now discovering—at least in bad press. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled “It’s Time to Learn From Frogs,” columnist Nicholas Kristof details what a class of chemicals, called “endocrine disruptors,” is doing to both life in the water and on land.

His conclusion: a rise in frogs with multiple legs and an increase in hermaphroditic smallmouth bass are just the tip of the iceberg.

 

When an endocrine disrupting chemical, such as a PBDE, gets into an animal's system it can alter that animal's hormone balance in a number of harmful ways. "In the worst case, they can lead to the development of malignancies. There is real concern that endocrine distruptors contribute to breat cancer and ovarian cancers." - Robert Lawrence, John Hopkins Universary

 

According to Robert Lawrence, professor and director at the Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, this class of chemicals is making its mark on humans. Endocrine disruptors in our air, food and water are suspected to be at the root of a rise in male genital abnormalities and certain cancers, among other maladies.

“Chemical pollution is actually more dangerous than the harpoon,” says Abrams, and the issue is at the heart of his book. As he learned more and more about these chemicals, which are found in plastics, pesticides and many common household products, he became increasingly alarmed at how they might be affecting life in his beloved ocean. He wondered if Humphrey’s journey up the Sacramento River might be linked to an endocrine system gone awry, so he started doing some research. What he found disturbed him greatly.

He not only noticed through his own observation but also read reports of an increase in dead sea birds lining our beaches. He came across estimates that predict the world’s supply of edible fish will be all but gone by the year 2050. He read about the patch of debris—much of it plastic—floating in the Pacific Ocean. Known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it covers an area more than twice the size of Texas, according to a recent GT cover story.

“I knew this had the potential to be a very powerful story,” Abrams says of tying the increasingly polluted state of the oceans in with his novel about whales and the efforts humans are making at understanding their songs and social fabric, as well as reversing the damage caused by whaling and pollutants. Abrams hopes that because his book is informed by scientific studies it will jar readers into action.
  Doug and Rachel Abrams
“So many of the great health challenges that we and other animals face are man-made, which is actually good news. It means that if we make different choices, we might be able to save our species.” — Doug Abrams

“Beyond enjoying the story, I hope people will start to understand how the pieces fit together—the relationship between pollution on the land and the oceans, between animal health and human health,”Abrams says. “They say the truth is stranger than fiction. I think the facts are even more compelling than fantasy.”

 

The Science

That relationship is being studied, written about and publicized more than ever before. After writing “It’s Time to Learn From Frogs,” Kristof was interviewed on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, and a recent episode of the PBS series Ocean Adventures followed Jean-Michel Cousteau and his team as they discovered the deleterious consequences of one group of endocrine disruptors. The episode, titled “Call of the Killer Whale,” found that polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which are used as flame retardants in textiles, computers, televisions and many other common household items, may be causing developmental and neurological problems in humans as well as whales.

These PBDEs are especially prevalent in California due to laws that require many items such as clothing, bedding, furniture and other household objects to be treated with these flame-retardant chemicals.

The endocrine system in all mammals is a network of glands that work in “feedback loops,” according to Lawrence, the Johns Hopkins professor. In humans, the pineal, pituitary, thyroid and adrenal glands, along with the thymus, pancreas, ovaries and testes, control hormone levels—stimulating or halting the release of hormones and changing the flow of hormones throughout the body. When an endocrine-disrupting chemical, such as a PBDE, gets into an animal’s system it can alter that animal’s hormone balance in a number of harmful ways.

“They fool the body into thinking they are a part of these feedback loops,” Lawrence says of endocrine disruptors. In the womb such chemicals can hinder or distort development. In adults they may stimulate changes in cell function. “In the worst case, they can lead to the development of malignancies. There is a real concern that endocrine disruptors contribute to breast cancer and ovarian cancers.”

Lawrence says that around half of the known organic pollutants in this country’s water supply are not filtered out at water treatment plants. He cited a major study, which compared the water from 50 of the country’s largest water sources before and after treatment. Where the original source water had on average 60 to 70 persistent organic pollutants, the treated water still contained about 30 of these pollutants, including phthalates used to soften plastics and hydrocarbon chemicals that leech out of asphalt, both of which can act as endocrine disruptors.

He says that the old approach to dealing with chemicals in our water supply—“the solution to pollution is dilution”—is no longer sufficient. Furthermore, attempting to treat these chemicals once they enter the water supply is unfeasible. Due to cost and to the number of harmful and questionable compounds in our environment—10 new chemicals are created every day, Lawrence says—the only real solution to pollution is to stop it at its source.

 

California’s Senate Bill 772 aims to lift requirements on adding flame retardants to “juvenile products,” a term which includes, but is not limited to, “portable cribs, car seats, strollers … and infant and toddler pillows,” according to the California Legislative Council’s Digest on the bill.

 

 

The Solution

As a graduate of Stanford University and a world traveler, Abrams has been afforded the opportunity to see the world in a different light than the average American consumer. In the grocery store, recognizable brands and ripe, unblemished produce at an affordable price are easier to spot than the harmful chemicals that went into producing them. The question, then, is hard to answer: How do we turn the tide?

Industrial agriculture and the pesticides it uses provide food for greater numbers of people at cheaper prices. Flame retardants reduce the danger of losing our homes and loved ones. Plastic is durable, cheap and convenient for so many applications.

“The first step is consumer education,” Lawrence says. It would seem that the well-worn axiom, “think globally and act locally,” is no less true in this case.

Greater awareness of these issues, which Abrams hopes to generate with the publication of his book on Aug. 4, has also pushed government into action. California’s Senate Bill 772 aims to lift requirements on adding flame retardants to “juvenile products,” a term which includes, but is not limited to, “portable cribs, car seats, strollers … and infant and toddler pillows,” according to the California Legislative Council’s Digest on the bill.

By helping shield children from exposure to endocrine-disrupting flame retardants, SB 772 hopes to reduce avoidable instances of developmental problems that may occur as a result of exposure to PBDEs.

Lawrence cautions that “we’re never going to eliminate all harms,” and that the harms of certain products “can be exaggerated.” But he also laments that “we’ve just flooded the environment with these compounds without thinking of the consequences.”

He attributes this oversight to our country’s reluctance to govern industry according to what is known as the precautionary principle—a moral as well as political principle, which states that when public or environmental health may potentially be jeopardized by a given action, and a scientific consensus cannot reach a definite conclusion on the matter, that the burden of proof falls upon the party wishing to take that action to prove said action would not significantly disrupt the well-being of the public or the environment.

“There is a lot of pushback in the United States, as opposed to in Europe, to adopting the precautionary principle,” he says. “That gets back to American exceptionalism and the bright shining city on the hill.”

Abrams, although distraught at what he has learned in researching his book, remains optimistic.
  Doug Abrams swimming with camera
It's a snap - almost. Photo by Bryant Austins

“So many of the great health challenges that we and other animals face are man-made, which is actually good news,” the author says. “It means that if we make different choices, we might be able to save our species and many others from a great deal of illness and suffering."