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.

Whale in the distance in center of photo near the water.

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.

Nature Journaling in the field

Beginner’s Mind

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.

Answering questions

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.

What I completed at the beach

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.

Macy showing us the ventral pleats and skin peeling off.

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!!!

5 thoughts on “A whale of a wonder: impromptu nature journaling”

  • Melinda, thank you for this post. I love the way you teach.. It brings a subtle wonderful richness to my life. It called to mind a quote from Einstein that a friend recently sent to me.

    “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why.”

    “A human being experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

    “Our separation from each other is an optical illusion.”

    “When something vibrates, the electrons of the entire universe resonate with it. Everything is connected. The greatest tragedy of human existence is the illusion of separateness.”

    “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

    “We are souls dressed up in sacred biochemical garments and our bodies are the instruments through which our souls play their music.”

  • Wow – what an adventure! So great that you could document it in your journal!
    I am finding that I remember things much more vividly when I journal about them – I do all my journaling in the field now.
    The last time I journaled I traced a huge walnut leaf onto my page – while it was still attached to the tree. It was awkward and not so easy and I did not get it down very precisely but I remember the smell of the walnut and the sun on my skin and how I was completely absorbed journalling on the sidewalk while cars were driving past.
    Thank you for sharing the experience and the invitation for spontaneity and experimentation with us!

    • Oh, Ayoka, wow, Thanks for sharing that. I think it helps everyone to know that journaling does help plant that experience more vividly in the mind. And, i will smell the walnut leaves when I see one next time!

  • So we took our two dogs to the beach today. We saw what looked to us like a rock? Before we knew it Olivia was going crazy over this rock, she was rubbing all over it and even got on her back making sure she got every spot. It was not until I touched it gingerly with my finger that I figured out it was not a rock and then the smell hit me. Needless to say we had to drive 117 miles home with said stinky dog.

    • Oh boy! I think i know what you’re talking about! Might be a dead chiton– but regardless of what it is, what a bummer to have to have that smell in the car! And dogs have a sense of smell much stronger than we do– if they were to describe the smell I wonder what they would say??

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