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My Strangest Encounter with a Person, Place, or Thing in the West view contest page »

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Blue Whale Units

by rkatz — Jul 14, 2010
116 vote
14

Apt comparisons are sometimes elusive, but comparing the size of a giant tree to a creature that lives in the ocean and is rarely seen in its entirety is not that useful. How many blue whales do "fit" in a giant Sequoia?

It looms above us, massive and humbling. Each piece of its bark is a cinderblock-sized rectangle, it's branches the size of trees so large I could not wrap my arms around them, even if I could reach. In its branches, I am imagining an entire village of Lost Boys, a Swiss Family Robinson world in which a grove is excessive.

Taking in its immensity, I think to myself, inadequately, "That is a really, really big tree." Somehow more grandiose prose escapes me and I feel even shorter than usual standing in the shadow of California's General Sherman Tree, the most gigantic of the Giant Sequoias.

Lost in thoughts lacking profundity of any sort, I give a startled jump when a park ranger sidles up behind us.

"You see that branch up there?" he asks, interrupting. He's maybe thirty, got a three-day-beard and chops. These combined with a reddish-blond tussle of hair frame a face that has more than a few freckles. His demeanor is cool, like he's about to really blow our socks off with some trivia.

At the moment the ranger arrived Cody was in the middle of figuring out a reasonable angle from which to capture the scale of this enormous creature. Respecting the ranger's presence, he stops his project and looks obediently upward. Daisy, who was blabbing away about other big trees she's seen in northern California, halts her stream-of-consciousness mid-sentence.

Following the ranger's extended arm, we all keen our heads to the side, training our focus on a branch the size of a Giant Sequoia in its own right.

Our attention correctly directed, he explains, "Well, you could hang a blue whale from that branch." His face is earnest, happy he can enrich our experience.

My brow furrows as I consider this. I look over and Alex seems equally perplexed.

No doubt, the West is bedazzled with many impressive things – rich stores of ore that changed the course of human settlement, marvels such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite's half-dome, the Sierra Nevada, the Rockies, Mount Whitney, the Great Salt Lake… The list continues, with a seemingly endless array of impressive flora, fauna, and geological features.

At 275 feet tall, with a circumference measuring 103 feet (and growing), the General Sherman tree is a true western jewel. In fact, it boasts more than just a western United States claim to fame. It is, by volume, the biggest non-clonal tree in the whole world. Pretty darn impressive. We have learned all of this from the informational plaque at the base of the tree.

And now we also know that you could hang a blue whale from its lowest branch.

The five of us are no longer preoccupied with anything other than the tree and the size of a blue whale, wondering individually and silently what exactly hanging a blue whale (definitely by the tail, I surmise) might involve and what the ability to do so means about the branch.

Our informant, clad in his green slacks and beige button-down shirt with an official-looking forest-service badge, continues unabated by our silence and quizzical expressions.

"You could actually fit two blue whales in the General Sherman tree." He says this as though remarking about his own child's straight-A report card as he hangs it on the fridge.

At this point, we are all deeply confused. Cody and Michael smirk, and appear to be suppressing laughter. Daisy looks at me, her eyebrows raised, the right one cocked. I can hear the Scooby Doo noise she is thinking but not uttering.

Finally Alex, who has been silent the entire time, just has to say something. He and his engineering mind interrogate in as geeky but kind tone manageable (the requisite shoving of thick glasses up his nose while snorting is thankfully absent), "Ummm… Excuse me…"

The ranger crosses his fingers over his small paunch and leans back to field the question.

"Is that a unit of length, volume, or strength?"

I am now pursing my lips, letting bits of air escape as I try to contain my laughter, having been troubled by more fundamental concerns than those Alex had so delicately expressed. I was wondering – how big is a blue whale? How many blue whales fit end-to-end on a football field? Or in a swimming pool? I've never see a blue whale. I mean, at the very least, hearing that this tree right in front of me was comparable in size (by some metric) to not one, but two blue whales made me realize, counterproductively, that blue whales are really big animals.

With Alex's question, my thoughts turn to the idea of how blue whales could be used to measure volume. Do they have to be blended? Can they be fit together like an MC Escher drawing? Do they put the whales in water and measure the volume before and after the whale and then put the tree in water (in contrast to the whales, this seems impractical) and do the same calculation and then compare them?

The ranger stops. His hands fall limp at his sides, his shoulders slump, and his chest is no longer in proud papa mode.

"Umm…" he stammers.

He pauses, now equally troubled by statistics he had only moments ago been spouting with gusto.

"Come to think of it," he says, "that's a really strange thing to tell people."

Whale essay
Alice Weinfurnter
Alice Weinfurnter
Jul 24, 2010 01:25 PM
Excellent piece. Enjoyed the journey through the thought process of whales and tree.
Blue whale
Saousan Khatib
Saousan Khatib
Jul 24, 2010 05:15 PM
Beautiful, Now I have to do some research to learn more of both. loved it!!
Blue Whale Units
Jim Iwakiri
Jim Iwakiri
Jul 25, 2010 04:35 PM
Loved the story, especially since the whole family saw the General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park three years ago. I remember it being described as the largest living organism on earth, which made me think of the blue whale, the largest living creature on earth.
whale story
Carol Gabler
Carol Gabler
Jul 26, 2010 07:14 AM
The details of Becca's story are terrific. The whole experience comes alive.
Carol
Blue Whale Units
Donna
Donna
Jul 26, 2010 07:17 PM
Great short!
Blue Whale Units
Steven Engel
Steven Engel
Jul 27, 2010 11:54 PM
Fun to read. I come from a perspective of having spent more time watching blue whales than giant sequoias. And also a familiarity of what "blue whale units" can mean in the context of the period of whaling involving steam powered catcher ships beginning in early 1900's...a metric of commercial productivity not unlike cow/calf units on open range land. But most of all I enjoyed the reflection on what interpretation really means to those involved, the interpreter and the "interpretees".
Blue Whale
JoAnne Evans
JoAnne Evans
Jul 28, 2010 05:53 PM
Excellent essay! I really enjoyed envisioning the it, the tree with blue whales hanging from it!
blended?
Jacqueline Cole
Jacqueline Cole
Aug 04, 2010 10:51 PM
I myself have been troubled by the comparison of blue whales and sequoia trees. This is a fun piece that puts to words why this comparison is so troublesome. Nice work!
Smug attitudes
Rob Corkran
Rob Corkran
Aug 04, 2010 11:08 PM
I did not like the smug attitude of the author's group and their glee of belittling the ranger.
Agreed
Anon
Anon
Aug 12, 2010 10:02 AM
I agree about the smug attitude. Fundamentally, the purpose of the story seemed to be boasting about making an a$$ out of a park ranger. I wondered what I would have done in that situation, and I would have indulged the ranger's comparison and taken it for what it was. I wouldn't have laughed at the guy, because that's just rude.

That said, I was initially irked by the writing style but quickly found myself drawn into the narrative and could picture everything the author spoke about. In that regard I believe she's a good writer - as for the topic, well if the comparison of whales to trees seems a little silly, wouldn't then an article highlighting that comparison also be a little silly? Either way it's drawing out the commentary :)
Why the comparison was not inappropriate.
Rob Corkran
Rob Corkran
Aug 12, 2010 05:22 PM
Blue Whales are the largest animal on the planet and the Redwoods are the largest plants on the planet so the comparison is not that bad. Maybe this comparison works better for kids or natural romantics. It is a well written story, but is it that strange?
Agreed again
Anon
Anon
Aug 12, 2010 05:46 PM
I also agree with you on that point. I really didn't take issue with the comparison either, but was playing to author's opinion of the ranger. There are lots of abstract analogies for illustrating a concept, and this was just one interpretation. That's what makes people interesting.
Forest Service Badge?
Kristina Graber
Kristina Graber
Sep 20, 2010 09:26 PM
The author was unkind in her description of the Interpretor, especially since she didn't seem to know she was in a National Park unit and not a US Forest Service unit. Or maybe the Ranger was a USFS refugee playing hookey in SNP?
Blue Whale
Becky
Becky
Aug 15, 2010 04:13 PM
I liked this essay immensely. The comparison between the inert tree and the traveling whale was wonderful. During college, I worked at an Oregon State Park in the summer months and although I was not a ranger, I find it difficult to fathom that one might find this essay offensive. Kudos to the author!