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Thar she blows!…the whale…

by Guest Blogger

August 18, 2007

You are nursing a cup of coffee in the mess, the last breakfaster, late at 8:15, when First Mate Hettie tells you to get your ass up to the bridge for whale watch. You’ll be on watch from 8:30 to noon with your cabin mate Kelly, a marine biologist who is documenting whale sounds, and Willem who coordinates, well, just about everything around here. You grab a hat and jacket and water and laptop and binoculars and camera and haul your rear end to your post. Hettie says, "We expect to see whales very shortly once we’re out of the harbour", and then the Espy hauls anchor and sails out of Dutch in a sea so smooth you can barely feel the ship moving.

You don’t see much…only snow-capped mountains, their sides green with vegetation, a mossy spring green you don’t see where you come from, not on the sides of cliffs. And a layer of cloud that rolls over the edge of this landscape like a puffy white duvet…no, like a soft-serve icecream cone…oh God, the clichés get worse and worse as you try and try again to come with the right words in your tiny mind, to describe these clouds. Forget words. Here come the birds. Shearwaters, flying low across the bow, crossing the whole horizon from west to east, on and on and on in a remarkably steady stream that puts you into some kind of trance. At some point you cross to the starboard side of the deck without knowing how you got there and find yourself standing with Willem and Kieran…a writer and documentary filmmaker…in silence for what seems like an hour, just looking at the birds, and the ocean, and the sky… The boat begins to rock from bow to stern, not violently, just a little and you find you are doing Tai Chi without even trying, torso swaying like a wave, feet rooted to the deck. The seamless motion of the small black birds streaming across the bottom of the sky so close to you, without interuption, soundlessly, deepens the silence somehow and a great peace descends, around you, around all of you, and you think you will stand there like that forever, perfectly happy. And then Diek, the Second Mate, shouts: "Twelve o’clock," in Dutch-tinged English. Actually, he doesn’t shout, he is too cool to shout, only calmly announces it, as if he’s saying: "Let’s have a cup of tea", and the binocs go up and you’re all scanning like mad for blow, for surfacing, for breaching, but you don’t see anything. Then Kelly sees something at two o’clock, and you find yourself both running to starboard. A fin! You give a little shriek, which doesn’t sound cool at all. And then you see, ahead, a low dark cloud that stretches across the horizon, and coming closer you see that it is made of birds, all birds, and the fin of a humpback whale pops through the surface of the water.

You shout, despite your determination not to, and then another surfaces, and your whole body tingles. And then…Oh God! a tail. Kelly wants to find Killer Whales, not Humpbacks, and does not share your excitement…at least, not until she sees a different blow, higher and thinner then the shorter, fatter blows of the Humpbacks and even she gets quite a grin on. Is it a Fin Whale? She’s never seen one of those before, and now, Hey! HEY!, you see it too, a HUGE dark fin slashing into the air. And then a Humpback jumps into the air and crash, thumps back into the sea, sending a cloud of spray up, and Diek gets on the PA and says casually, "Whale paradise", and Raymond, the cook, gets to the bow first, in his trademark white T-shirt and blue and white checked cook’s pants, and it crosses your mind that lunch may be late today, and that no-one will care one tiny bit about LUNCH…and Penney with her blonde spiral curls zips onto the bow and so does oh, just about everybody, 20-odd of the 25 on board. And then a shoal…is that what it’s called? Kelly’s the whale expert, not you…of whales surface on starboard, and everyone runs over there, and you hear a gasp from the stern, and you all run down there, and you think it’s good the boat is so large, as otherwise it might tip over, and you’re swarming from one end of the boat to the other, one mass of beings, like the Shearwaters streaming across the bow. Kelly says to Cap’n Pete, you might want to slow down, and a whale surfaces so close you see the barnacles on it’s tail, and sunlight hits the underside of the tail and the white underside glows gold-tinged and pale orange as a streak of sunlight flashes over it.

The whales are making a sound something between a growl and a fart, and you hear Penney and Clive, the ship’s doctor, talking about how lovely it was to see that first blow, awhile back, with that rainbow in it, the sun striking it just so, and you say, "Really? A rainbow?" and they nod solemnly. You’re remembering how Bob Hunter, now passed away, always seemed to see rainbows when something special was about to happen on a ship, and how you were a bit skeptical about that, and what an idiot you are, and you look up at the rainbow painted on the portside funnel, and above that, on the roof of the heli-hanger, is George Pletnikoff, his tall heft silhouetted against a phenomenally blue sky, and you feel an embarrassing, terrible warm mushy feeling, like you might just hug everybody. But at the same time you don’t want to hug anyone and if someone hugged you right here, right now, you’d probably punch them, and besides, fortunately there is no time for hugging, just as there has been no time to take a sip of water or use the W.C. or do anything for three hours now, because of the damn whales and their damn beauty! Not to mention the Tufted Puffins with their orange beaks, the Glaucous-winged gulls, and you are so cold your fingers can hardly hold the binocs and just when you firmly decide to stop, to go inside, here comes ANOTHER great mass of birds up ahead, and the whales are blowing and surfacing and growling and farting and blasting into the air and you wonder if besides coming here for the fish, if maybe they know. Maybe they know by now, the whales. Maybe word has gotten around. Maybe when they see that rainbow on the ship they know it stands for love, and maybe, just maybe, they have come to say hello, our friends.

Over lunch…finally the whales have disappeared…for the moment, anyway…Clive talks about how a whale, shot dead in the Arctic by some whalers, had a spearhead embedded in its neck, and archeologists dated the spearhead back 130 years, and how a longevity of 130 years has brought all previous estimates into question. And you look at all the whales painted all over the ship, in the corridors and on drawer handles in the Wet Room and in the metal shop and even on the walls of the W.C. and you wonder if these paintings have somehow called the whales, like an incantation, a prayer, and you think you will dream tonight of being a whale in the Bering Sea, travelling through the green blue ocean with your whale mates, growling and farting and calling and loving and eating and all the things whales do.

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