It's true. In the eastern North Pacific population of blue whales—the group that summers mostly off California and whose migration we were following south—there is a white blue whale, maybe an albino. An inflatable skiff from Pacific Storm had satellite tagged this whale off Santa Barbara four months before, but his tag, number 4172, had ceased transmitting a few weeks after implantation, and now his whereabouts were a mystery. The sun-synchronous, polar-orbiting TIROS N satellites could no longer track him, but he was one of the animals we hoped to see off Central America.
When we had settled in on Pacific Storm, Nicklin, cross-legged on his bunk, set up his Nikon D200, with its Sea & Sea underwater dome. He squeezed a dab of silicone grease from a small tube onto his fingertip and ran it around the rim of the dome's blue O-ring. He opened the back of the camera and gave a similar treatment to the O-ring at the stern. Nicklin is a new kind of whaler. His job is not to render the oil, but to capture the essence of cetaceans, and the Nikon is his favorite harpoon.
Pacific Storm put to sea. We sailed a leg due south to avoid the Tehuantepec winds along the eastward bend of Central America, then turned southwest toward the temperature anomaly that was our destination.
The Costa Rica Dome is an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water generated by a meeting of winds and currents west of Central America. The location is not fixed; it meanders a bit, but the dome is reliably encountered somewhere between 300 and 500 miles offshore. The upwelling brings the thermocline—the boundary layer between deep, cold water and the warm water of the surface—up as high as 30 feet from the top. Upwelling with the cold, oxygen-poor water from the depths come nitrate, phosphate, silicate, and other nutrients. This manna, or anti-manna—a gift not from heaven but from the deep—makes for an oasis in the sea. The upwelling nutrients of the dome fertilize the tiny plants of the phytoplankton, which feed the tiny animals of the zooplankton, which bring bigger animals, some of which are very big indeed.
The blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, is the largest creature ever to live. Linnaeus derived the genus name from the Latin balaena, "whale," and the Greek pteron, "fin" or "wing." His species name, musculus, is the diminutive of the Latin mus, "mouse"—apparently a Linnaean joke. The "little mouse whale" can grow to 200 tons and 100 feet long. A single little mouse whale weighs as much as the entire National Football League. Just as an elephant might pick up a little mouse in its trunk, so the elephant, in its turn, might be taken up by a blue whale and carried along on the colossal tongue. Had Jonah been injected intravenously, instead of swallowed, he could have swum the arterial vessels of this whale, boosted along every ten seconds or so by the slow, godlike pulse.