The ones that got away

by Guest Blogger

January 6, 2006

An update from Nathan

I drove the second shift of the day (so far we split the day between two groups of driver and crews); each shift thwarted the hunter for several hours until they finally exhausted the whale to the point that it was almost constantly surfacing for air. The water pump on the Billy G worked for a while this morning then had to be refueled. The harpooner makes his kill while both boats were dodging and weaving about; he shot very near the Mermaid. The whale was a small one, presumably a calf that just couldn’t escape. I was on the bridge for a bit and could finally see the Billy G in action from a distance. It’s pretty exciting to see, like a gnat on a very irritated beast.

Our experience was pretty similar to the morning crew. When we started out, the water pump belt broke on the engine and we had to shut the boat down so it wouldn’t overheat and bring it back up for repairs. Jetske in the Mermaid did a great job off the hunters’ bow until we could return and give them a break by giving the hunter a good long soaking – the harpooner got a lot of mist and had to continually wipe off his goggles and gun sight. Then we had problems with the pump (a bolt broke internally due t but the steering is highly erratic. The whale can surface within feet of your boat and the harpoon will swing around to see if he’s got a clear shot. To look up and see that grenade-tipped weapon pointed directly at your face by a guy with his hand on the trigger, seeking the shot, well: honestly, it’s startling.

While we were out there he took a shot and missed. He fired right between our boats. The boom of the explosion that propels the harpoon from the cannon is deafening and the projectile strikes the water with a violent force. It takes a minute to realize they’ve missed; even they thought they got the whale initially. At least for a brief moment, the realization that they’ve missed brings pure elation. Then they reel it back in fast and are ready to try again so you have to jump back on their bow.

Seeing that first shot close up makes you realized that to be hit with that harpoon is a no-f*king-around dangerous thing: I’m confident it would tear right through the console of the boat and anything in it’s path. I’m not trying to be too dramatic here, but it’s an odd feeling to know that the lives of you and your crew rest in the fingers of this guy up there. He’s amazing at what he does, no joke; I respect his skill immensely, but it’s a dangerous needle being threaded here…while I’ve done work for Greenpeace that I knew carried some serious risks in the worst case scenario, this literally feels like putting your life in a clear, tense danger.

For long spells of time the whale(s) would be surfacing right next to us and if we hadn’t been at the right spot it would certainly have been a kill; the boat crews did an excellent job of spotting the whales break the surface before the ship could turn to line up the shot for the harpooner. Several times we caused them to lose the whale altogether and have to find another one. I am sure of this, because of the behavior of the ship. Once they actually slowed to a crawl and wandered around in circles for Eventually he took his second shot and made the kill. The whale dove and resurfaced right in front of us, no more than a dozen feet forward of us. Blood everywhere, it’s head emerging out of the water for a second before falling back and going under. A fluke breaks the water a moment later and the harpoon cable starts reeling the whale in. It’s done. The harpoon had gone all the way through the whale; the whale appeared to be not much more than maybe fifteen feet long or so. Another young one. Science, my ass, taking down the young of the herd like that…

Then they reel the whale all the way up to below their bow and winch it to the surface and you see it: the entirety of the whale, beautiful smooth blue and white skin except where this jagged dynamite knife blew right through it, it’s cable unnaturally tugging this creature of the deep towards the sky, rolled over on it’s side, eye dead, a picture of exhaustion, beauty and shameful waste of life.

The helicopter reports later that during the chase, they could see tens of whales breaking off from the pod and getting away. THAT was most satisfying to hear because you simply cannot see that from the small boats; they’re too low in the water. On a normal day in these grounds, that hunter would have had quite a day I think; over the course of today, while we were out there, they got only a few small whales and had to go through a LOT of trouble to kill them.

So it feels odd: many got away, but we lost the last one we were fighting for, and we really tried the best we could. We KNOW that they’re going to get the whale in the end and it’s a matter of how many get away that counts, but suddenly it seems a long distance between what your head is telling you and what your heart is telling you. It’s a mixture of emotions, hard to find words for. Perhaps I shouldn’t try to write this stuff when it’s 19 hours into the day of my first up close experience of such a thstand how much we cherish them; our best way of showing it would be to leave them alone and at peace.

I stumbled across this a little while back, from my book of Emily Dickinson poems:

Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red –

And Crews – of solid Blood

Did place about the West – Tonight

As ’twere specific Ground –

And They – appointed Creatures –

In Authorized Arrays –

Due promptly – as a Drama

That bows – and disappears –

– Emily Dickinson, 1862

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