In August 1975 the California gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) was designated as our official State Marine Mammal. Where do you think Sandy was at that time - at an art gallery, museum, conference, university campus, or stuck in the snow at a whaling symposium? Maybe she was celebrating with Governor Brown at the state capital? Or, perhaps she was spending time like she does now, being photographed, climbed upon and appreciated by children? That’s exactly where she was. For a decade, she traveled coast-to-coast educating thousands of people about whales and why they are important to our planet.
Let’s get back to Sandy’s story.
It’s 1974 in East Oakland and artist Larry Foster has just rolled up the five-foot door of his studio as his forty-foot dream of hard effort materialized. There she was - a lifesize, realistic sculpture of a gray whale.
The Baxter Gallery at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena soon learned of Larry’s work and contacted him about their upcoming whale exposition. The viewing coincided with the gray whales’ winter migration. In November 1974, Sandy headed south for the exhibit “Caltech Revisited.”
This was her debut. Rather than a red carpet, this 6,000-pound sculpture’s arrival was heralded with the help of a truck, forklift and crane. Whale enthusiasts viewed her close-up during their discussions, while Baja-bound gray whales passed the edge of Southern California.
From there, Larry’s company “General Whale” forged ahead co-presenting conferences, exhibits and events that expanded his mission “to provide and encourage public interest and enlightenment in whales, dolphins and porpoises.” Graphic illustrations, paintings and Sandy herself contributed content and enthusiasm for the save-the-whales movements.
In April of 1975, Boston’s Museum of Science hosted “In Celebration of the Living Whale.” Scott McVay, Chairman of Environmental Defense Fund’s Committee on Whales, moderated the event. Exhibits included historical collections, contemporary drawings and a “forty-foot long life-size model.” Later that year, “The National Whale Symposium” was held at Indiana University in Bloomington. This five day public conference focused on “the preservation of the threatened and endangered whales and the public policy initiatives undertaken as part of this effort.” The multi-disciplinary gathering brought together biologists, environmentalists, musicians and other scholars from diverse backgrounds of public, private, non-profit and impassioned individual citizens. There were lectures, panel discussions, graphics and, surprisingly, a huge whale sculpture in the snow. This was, after all, November in Indiana.
The following year “General Whale” presented at The Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon, Georgia. Graphics from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society were displayed, and this time Sandy was exhibited in a climate closer to California’s. Foster’s gift of realism was highlighted on the poster with a beautiful pencil drawing of a breaching humpback whale. His finesse captures a moment in time when you can almost hear the splash.
And now, a drum roll for an aptly titled event, “California Celebrates the Whale,” which the Office of Governor Edmund G Brown Jr. presented in November 1976. “If you want to save something you have to celebrate it,” former and current Governor Jerry Brown said at the time. Speakers included Roger Payne and John Lilly; poet Gary Snyder; and singer Jonie Mitchell and the Paul Winter Consort. Thirty-seven environmental and conservation groups participated. A picture of Sandy being used as a children’s slide appeared in a newspaper article about the celebration.
Over time, Sandy exhibited at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the New England Aquarium, Boston, Massachusetts; and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Between engagements, she spent time at beautiful Lake Elizabeth in Fremont, the San Francisco Zoo, and in Alameda where she could be seen with ‘her sister’ Pheena. Then, like now, Sandy brought smiles to children of all ages.
This year the National Marine Sanctuary is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a speaker series. We can truly celebrate the whale and how far we have come with knowledge, understanding and their protection since Sandy’s creation forty years ago.
Next time you look at Sandy and peer into those dreamy eyes, we hope you see her as an activist and an ambassador for education and conservation efforts. She certainly serves her role as California’s State Marine Mammal with honor.
Look for more of Sandy's history soon!