While others lobby in Washington to save the whales of the world, Dr. James G. Mead, 34, is roaming the chill, wind-swept beaches of the North Carolina Outer Banks this winter hoping a dead one washes ashore.
Not that Mead, a lean, bearded biologist from Olympia, Wash., wishes ill to whales. As associate curator of mammals for the Smithsonian Institution, he's made them his life's work. But it's the work of a scientist for whom feelings about whales are less important than facts.
Each year winter storms drive more than 100 whales and dolphins ashore on the Outer Banks, providing rare study specimens of animals that mankind, despite centuries of observation, knows less about than the butterfly.
"It's incredible how little we know," Mead said last week, rattling southward in his Land Rover to autopsy a beached dolphin. "We know something from the whalers of the last century about the species that were hunted, but we only know about those when they were massed on the whaling grounds. We don't know what they did before or after they migrated there, and we still don't know. We don't know where to go to breed. We don't know what they eat in the wild, for the most part.
"The most frustrating thing is we don't know what natural factors limit their populations" and thus what could be done to help them increase.
The result, he says, is that many of the decisions designed to benefit whales are based on environmental politics and sentiment rather than fact.
"There are only two species of whales you can even make a case for as being endangered" - "the right whales (which include the bowheads) and the blues - "and most of the damage to them was done nearly a hundred years ago. Yet nearly all whales have been designated endangered as a matter of political expediency. There's become a symbol for the entire environmental movement."
Mead, who saw his first whale while hunting for a frozen mammoth in Alaska and later worked three years in a Newfoundland whaling station to gather specimens, said whales might be more endangered if more people knew how good they are to eat.
"It's not the blubber that's the good stuff," he said, "it's the meat. I'd rather eat whale steak than anything. It's much better than beef. And there is something the Japanese call 'Number One tail meat' . . . so rich it's like eating a stick of butter, but with an herbal, aromatic quality to it. It retails for vast amounts in Japan . . . almost by the gram."
The life of a whale biologist, however, is not all tail meat.
Working out of a U.S. Park Service trailer here during the winter months, Mead ranges by truck and plane over more than 100 miles of beach, from the Virginia Capes south to Ocracoke Island.
Last week, after spotting a moribund dolphin on the beach at Ocracoke during a routine flight, he drove down in his spine-jolting, 12-year-old Land Rover ("About 273,000 miles on it . . . I'm doing a longevity study"), missed the Hatteras ferry and arrived just at sunset - in time to autopsy the animal by flashlight in a cold, pouring rain.
The reek of a rotting porpoise can deter the most frenzied of the animal's protectors. Mead, however, waded in to measure and weigh the remains and, whetting his butcher knife like the carver before a Christmas goose, dissected the corpse at seaside and recorded his findings.
Then he drove two hours back through the rain (over flooded roads), dined on barbecue and a pitcher of beer at Sam and Omie's Restaurant in Nags Head and rolled out the next morning for another two-hour drive in the Land Rover to Norfolk, where a beached pygmy sperm whale was awaiting the coroner's knife. How Many Kinds?
THE POINT of it all, for Mead, is less the prospect of some dramatic breakthrough in behavioral knowledge of whales than the most basic sort of biological research.
Much is devoted, for example, to the simple question of how many different kinds of marine mammals there may be and what constitutes each species.
By most reckonings, he says, there are "about 75, but that's give or take about 20." Some dolphins now thought to make up one species may turn out to be simply individual variations from another. Other species - particulary the beaked whales - scientists know almost nothing about. Some are known only from photographs or skeletal pieces found on a beach. "We have one skull of a baby whale that washed up in California a few years ago. It washed up on a military base and some meathead decided to run over it in a half-track to see what effect that would have. By the time we got it, it was about 1 1/2 inches thick in places. But we know it was a new species."
Since almost all species of whales are defined on the basis of skeletons, Mead says, what is really needed is a place where scientists can find 30 or so skeletons from each species and decide what constitutes an individual variation and what constitutes a separate species.
That's never been done anywhere, even at the Smithsonian, which has had a full-time whale scientist since about 1880. The Institution is compiling such a collection now, but Mead fears some marine mammals are so secretive, live so far at sea and are so few in number that science may never know very much about them.
"The key words these days if you want your [research] grant funded are 'radio tracking' and 'aerial survey.'" Mead said. "But administrators are finding out that you can pour more money down a hole flying airplanes around and maybe get less to show for it than any other way. If we can implant radio beacons in whales we'll probably get much of our knowledge in the future through satellite tracking."
In the meantime, Mead takes what the sea gives him, combing the beaches for whales and dolphins beached by the mysterious forces wave and tide and current. It's not usually a case of saving a life.
"Most of them are dead or dying by the time we find them," he said. "If they have any strength left there is a sort of moral responsibility to help the animal get back out to sea, even though we know it's 90 per cent certain to beach itself again.
"But most of the time it's a case of putting it out of its misery. Things happen on the beach that aren't very pretty - things msot people don't like to think about. The gulls, for example, almost immediately tear out the eyes."
Mead evinces a sort of abstract fondness for whales, but doesn't spend a lot of time being outraged by whalers. He has, in fact, a good deal of respect for the whalers of the 1700s and 1800s, who he says taught us most of what we know today about the animals they hunted.
"We really haven't learned a whole lot new. I have a little book on whales that was published in 1790. You could publish it today and it would stand as a fairly good across-the-board picture of the state of the science."
Much of Mead's work deals with porpoises and dolphins, about whom he tends to be as unsentimental as he is about whales. Not all dolphins, he says, are in the same league with television's Flipper.
"Some dolphins are extemely intelligent but others are pretty dumb," he said. The dolphins usually caught in tuna fishing nets, he said, "are pretty stupid. They have a brain about the size of your fist. If they were as smart as is commonly believed. they would obviously see the net coming and jump out of it. And the smart ones do."
Dolphins provide an object lesson, Mead says, in the way the scientific establishment often goes after knowledge. Naval interest in the dolphins's echo guidance system "created a climate" for the dolphin research in the 1960s which was popularized in the book and film, "Day of the Dolphins."
"In those days, the key words for getting your grant approved were 'cetacean bio-acoustics,'" Mead said. "There was an awful lot of money spent and a lot of work done but much of it was pretty poor. Everybody concentrated on the meaning and use of the sounds dolphins made, but nobody looked at how they made them. Today people are still arguing over whether the sounds are made in the larynx or the blowhole." Some Basic Questions
THAT KIND of leapfrogging of basic knowledge is what Mead is attempting to correct as he plies the Outer Banks beaches carving whale corpses. But he can't help puzzling also, at time, over the behavioral questions about whales that have mystified man since biblical times. Why, for example, do whales beach themselves in the first place?
"For a while we thought mass strandings might be caused by a parasite - a tiny whom we found in the inner ear of washed-up whales. But that now looks incorrect. We know that at least some species carry that parasite around in the open sea when they're healthy.
"As for the ones I usually deal with, most of them appear to have been sick or injured before they get to shore," and can't seem to deal with the hazards of surf and shoals. "Most of these animals live all their lives far at sea, in water so deep they never hit bottom. They probably live all their lives without ever encountering a physical barrier. When the tide carries them in and they encounter the ocean bottom in the form of a shoal or sandbar, they don't recognize it as a hazard. They can't deal with it."
The "life without physical barriers" theory, Mead says, is just a theory, and one "completely unsupported by any data." But it leads to the next question. The closest thing to a large physical barrier whales and dolphins encounter is their mother, against which they instinctively nudge to nurse right after they're born. When they beach themselves under stress, are they therefore reverting to the earlier instinct? Do they think the beach is mother?
Freud would approve, but Mead isn't ready to speculate that far. Besides, there's a dead dolphin to dissect before dark. Really intrudes in the form of heavy rain on the Land Rover's roof and the surf pounding just a dune line away. The winter storms of Hatteras are raging again.
"It always seems to be raining down here in January," he says, wiping the mist from his windshield. "My father was a logger in the Pacific Northwest, and whenever I went out to help him he was working in the rain and mud. I always promised myself when I grew up I'd get some clean, dry job. But I guess God means for some people to work in the rain and mud. And I guess I'm one of them."