A whale of a wonder: impromptu nature journaling
A few days ago we came across a dead fin whale on our beach while on a walk, at Asilomar Beach, Pacific Grove, California. This was an unusual and wonderful opportunity for impromptu nature journaling. It was cold and windy but I managed to spend a good amount of time exploring and noting before my fingers got numb and paper got damp with sea mist.
If you’re new to journaling, and intimidated by pages that look so attractive with nice titles, handwriting and illustrations, I’m here to tell you there’s another side to nature journaling. The messy, imperfect and in-the-moment style!
I do most of my pages while in nature — and I do them with sketchy lines, contour drawings, scribbly messes- and splashing on approximate colors. Mostly, I like to capture not only the data but the experience. These are messy, but my pages are not about showing you my artwork.
My pages are where I work out my processing of discovery, exploration and reflection in nature. (However, you can focus on an accurate illustration- but that is not what I’m going for here).
This whale washed up onto the beach a few days ago, but looked as though it’s been decomposing for some time. I stood mainly upwind of this animal as I explored it’s remains with respect, curiosity, and wonder.
I’m a marine biologist and have worked with marine mammals, alive and dead, in my career. But today I set aside what I know, or think I know in order to be open to see and learn more from this particular whale. I am present and available to hear the whale’s silent storytelling.
I noticed the long longitudinal pleats along the throat and belly, and the baleen plates( Unlike toothed whales these whales have rows of baleen to filter food from the water). I noticed the bi-color baleen- a white section and a white section–which told me it’s name. Fin Whale.
More than a name
Sometimes we do not know the name of the nature subject. That is ok. What’s more important than having the name right away is whether we really stopped to notice. When we do this we gather more that the name. We may learn about size, color, patterns, behaviors, details, that we might not learn from a textbook. It becomes a personal experience and gets saved in our memories with richer detail.
Its interesting that curious humans, presented with a dead animal, want to know how something died, what it was and what happened. We want the answer, we seek an authority to get the answer.
But often, when they get an answer right away, the questions stop and they move on. I think the richest part of these experiences is being in the moment, observing, reflecting, look for clues, ask questions, and use some critical thinking…
When we stop, wrestle with that question, wonder and come up with what could possibly be the answer, we open the door to more interesting questions and discoveries.
When we get, or give the answer right away it risks robbing us of that intimate experience, and the opportunity to discover ourselves and really own that insight.
Back to Whale on the beach:
Walking around the whale, I noted what I saw.
Uniformly spaced scratch marks — like teeth- and I wondered if someone had taken bites. Gull picking bits of flesh from the carcass, and grapefuit-basketball sized patches of decaying sections on the throat.
The exposed right flipper looked sunburned– pink, tan and black, the black skin appeared to be peeling off, like the paper label on a bottle that had was left in the weather for weeks. One section of vertebrate was clean of flesh and exposed, seemingly attached to a 3-foot long chunk of flesh.
The center section of the whale appeared like a deflated balloon– thin and twisted, tail appeared to be cut off from the body, yet lying only 1 foot apart and the cut faces did not look fresh.
The smell was not noticeable when I was upwind of the whale (between the ocean and the whale), but on the downwind side was a ‘lovely’ smell that reminded me of my days working at the marine mammal center– and actually evoked a fond memory. This whale surprisingly did not smell as bad as a decaying sea lion on the beach!
So many wonderings came up as I examined further.
AHYJ: Always Have Your Journal
I always have my journal with me in a shoulder bag— even when I go on a walk with the dog like today because you never know when a nature journal moment will hit you!! This page spread was done all live, in the moment and on-site.
I don’t always have 45 minutes to spend but I did this time. While standing on the beach, I sketched with a fountain pen and added watercolor. It was a big of a juggling act!
I also took reference photos so that I can get the exact times, and perhaps capture a bit more detail. But for the most part- this page is complete— I’ll add date/time location title and some more wonderings.
If you want to practice quick sketching of marine animals, you can watch the class I did for Wild Wonder 2021. You can get a video pass to see the conference videos here .
What was the last thing you nature journaled in the field? Please share your messy and imperfect process pages!!!
Final pages after adding title, frames, boxes and additional notes.