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HEALTH : Healing Visions : Brain-tumor patient finds whales' survival as important as his own. The animals reward him with the rarest of sights.

May 16, 1991|NORMAN CHANDLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was a sunny, perfect January day on Point Conception, 40 miles west of Santa Barbara. From the top of the hill, I had a spectacular 360-degree view of unspoiled coastal mountains, a sunrise and sunset over the ocean. All morning my therapist Caroline Grierson and I had been watching for migrating gray whales. Suddenly, there they were, more than a half a dozen of them, making their winter migration toward Baja California.

They were a good half-mile out to sea, but it was obvious from the timing of their spouts they were grays. It was an exhilarating sight--but it was nothing compared to what unfolded later that day.

I know a lot about whales. I have seen, swum with and studied these gentle giants all my life. But events a year earlier had made me aware that whales and I were connected in a far more significant way then I had realized; their survival had become as important to me as my own.

It started when I began working on "guided imagery," a new healing technique taught by Caroline, a registered nurse. Caroline works at the Bresler Center office in Santa Monica, where I went regularly in pursuit of curing an inoperable brain tumor. The tumor was discovered when I blacked out while jogging in October of 1988, only six weeks after completing a 13-hour Ironman Triathlon in Canada. Remarkably, doctors told me the cancer had been growing for years.

The Sea of Cortez, which lies between Baja and mainland Mexico, is a popular breeding ground for both gray and blue whales. While grays breed yearly and those along our coast now number more than 20,000--a healthy pre-whaling-era level--blues are making a painfully slow recovery. Whale biologists believe that only about 500 of this endangered species, which breed only every two to three years, survive in the Northeast Pacific. That's down from hundreds of thousands in days before propellers and explosive-tipped harpoon guns. Worldwide, the total estimate is only a few thousand surviving blues, in spite of a 1965 international whaling ban to protect this nearly extinct species.

Caroline showed me how I could--through meditation and imagination--conjure up "animal advisers" as positive images that would help heal my tumor. First there was Orca, named after a harbor seal I knew from surfing and diving just south of Point Conception. Orca eventually introduced me to an imaginary female dolphin whom I named Whitney, who in turn introduced me to Cathy, an imaginary blue whale.

Blue whales are the largest creatures ever to inhabit our planet. They can grow more than 100 feet long, can swim more than 25 m.p.h., and yet eat only krill, a small, shrimp-like crustacean that lives in their Arctic or Antarctic summer feeding grounds. Daily they eat up to 4 million krill--that's four and a half tons , yet only a small fraction of their total body weight of up to 150 tons. Their hearts are 6 feet tall, their brains weigh more than 20 pounds and their spouts shoot three stories above the surface.

Through Whitney, I imagined myself a dolphin, playing, flipping in the air and even surfing. Cathy became my adviser. I would ask her questions about my healing--and get answers. The more I meditated with her, the more real she became to me.

Then, one day in 1989 as I sat meditating on a Baja beach at twilight, I opened my eyes and saw a huge, tall spout backlit where the sun had set. I sensed this big whale was a blue that had a special message for me.

Blue whales have the loudest voice af any animal in the world at more than 180 decibels--more than a jet taking off. Whale biologists theorize that their low-frequency voices once communicated across oceans. Now, say those same experts, their range is probably limited by the ocean noise pollution of explosions, ships and oil exploration and drilling.

Nowhere else in California does the coast protrude so far into the Pacific as it does at Point Conception. Nowhere else do the wind, waves and currents clash so dramatically with land. Seabirds wheel past by the thousands, some pausing to rest on the huge cliffs. Sea lions and seals sun themselves on the beach of a nearby hidden cove, safe from the great white sharks that patrol the murky, turbulent waters off the point.

Caroline hiked down rickety stairs to the point's lower headland. I stayed above and walked over to the upper point's west edge, a giant cliff plunging 100 feet into the sea. Two giant rocks--one outside the other--can be seen from here out in the ocean. On an earlier trip here, I had a vision during meditation here that those two rocks formed the Chumash Indians' mystical "Western Gate."

This coast's original inhabitants, the Chumash believed this point was their most holy spot, their gateway to life after death.

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