Forty feet, forty tons, one ton per foot, half ton of herring per day each carrying as much fat as a Big Mac. For three summers I handed out quantitative factoids like science flavored tic tacs, sometimes three times a day with my brain sliding into auto pilot. I’d try to encompass the life history of a humpback whale before the engines roared above 3,000 RPMs, drowning out my voice.
And yet, there is a detached feeling from the bow of a boat, the railing a secure barrier between man and whale. You see them, hear them, hell, sometimes you can even smell them, the rotten smell of herring or the curiously enjoyable scent of cucumbers after they’ve been scarfing capelin. But you are separated, protected by that steel hull, the constant grumble of the boat engines. Yet the safety comes at the price of intimacy. There are memorable moments of course, the alarming sight of basketball sized bubbles encircling the boat, the high pitched scream of the feeding calls reverberating through my boots.
“John! We’re in the net!”
“Oh my,” the captain answered, sliding the boat smoothly into reverse, clearing the net just as ten mouths break the surface, herring and saltwater running down their throats.
But nothing compares to a humpback at sea level, from the seat of your kayak. With nowhere to run or hide, the whale in complete control of the encounter. The extraordinary recipe of fear, excitement, and pleasure as the tail rises, vanishes, and you realize that its pointed directly at you. Do you go forward? Backward? Turn towards or away? Is the whale going to swim straight or zig zag? Your mind pulls you deeper into the wormhole. Is it feeding? Lunging? Your stomach tightens, what if it lunges, you glance shiftily in the water below your boat, here? In your mind you see the massive maw, rocketing through the column like a rocket. There are no engines, no barriers, you are completely and entirely in their territory. What happens next is up to them.
“It’s not that I think they’d try to hurt me.” I explain, “it’s that they don’t have to try, all they have to do is shrug their shoulders and… you’re airborne.”
So you just bob in the currents, eyes shooting back and forth. You have five to ten long, spell binding, exhilarating minutes, like a drawn out suspense scene in a Hitchcock film, waiting. “You gotta breathe,” you whisper into the silence. No matter where the whale surfaces you just want it to happen, to break the tension.
On calm days you can see the shadow first, than a bulbous bulb of water as the whale rises, the water’s surface tension covering the body like cellophane. Until finally it breaks the surface, spent air shooting into the air like a volcano, the bass of the exhalation resonating in your chest.
And so a stupid grin spreads over your face, soft exclamations escape your lips as you sit under its spell until the back arches towards the sun, the tail hovers parallel to the sea for a brief moment, water dripping from the trailing edge, and finally vanishes, into the world that we cannot follow. For a few moments you bob in the whale’s wake, your heart pounding, fingers tingling, adrenaline coursing. And than you start to wonder… should I go forward? backward? The curtain has fallen, the next show will begin in ten minutes. Try to find something pretty to look at while you wait