This memory begins with a day out at sea. We were sailing from South Carolina up the east coast to Halifax, bringing Into The Blue back after an abortive attempt to sail south. It was sunny, there was not much wind, we were moving very slowly and glad to be moving at all. The only engine we had was an outboard we could not use at sea so it was the wind, or nothing, that propelled us.
We might not be moving much, but other creatures were. In the distance we could see birds circling, and the shimmer of breath as dolphins broke the surface. At least we thought they were dolphins – it was hard to tell at that distance.
It had been a long journey, full of waits for bad weather to pass. I was tired now and I wanted to be moving along, making good progress on our way home. I wanted to know that soon we would be at our mooring, and could rest easy knowing that we had made it safely there. I loved being at sea, but there was somewhere else we needed to be – and should have been weeks ago. After all the waits and worrying I wanted quiet, stability, real rest after the night watches and storm watches and treks up inlets to safe harbours and finding ourselves in strange places we needed to find our way around.
The great dark head, spotted with grey, broke the surface not far from the boat. A small beady eye seemed to peer at me, I could smell the wet breath. After a moment the right whale opened its huge mouth, and I could see the baleen filling it. It seemed to lie at the surface for minutes. Then it dived and was gone.
I was completely surprised. I stood braced, a knee on the cockpit seat, tense, my heart beating hard. My eyes strained to catch every detail. In that instant I wanted to understand and remember what was happening. My ears were alert for odd sounds, the sudden catch of breath – the whale’s and my own. I held tight to the lifelines and just stared.
Richard was off-watch, down in the cabin. I finally pulled myself together to call to him, but by then all that was left was the turbulence in the water – the whale was gone. He came hurrying up into the cockpit at the sound of my voice, alert and ready to deal with whatever situation had arisen.
“What is it?”
“A whale? Where?”
“Gone. Already gone.” I pointed to where it had been. “It was huge!”
“It must have been a right whale. I think.”
My heart was still beating hard. It took a while to calm down. If I’m really honest I would tell you that this was one of those situations that I had always dreaded. I could not imagine how I would deal with the sudden appearance of a whale larger than we were close to the boat. What would I think, how would I feel, what would I do. Drifting along with no way to change direction was my particular fear – what if the great creature should be there, right in front of us, and we could not avoid it?
I need not have worried. Looking back on this memory now I can see that I never realized until I actually met a whale how strongly I would feel a kinship to them. There is an intelligence in their eyes, an evaluation of you as you are gazing at them, a sense that you do not want to be found wanting. Their size is intimidating, but their intelligence offers a way to come to know them in their natural habitat as you never could by reading or studying.
A sense that grew even stronger when we were visited just a little later by a pod of orcas on their way to join the birds and dolphins feeding in the distance. When an orca looks at you feel you have been examined and evaluated, that they really are considering what you might be…
Written by Margaret Mair
Pictures courtesy of:
Orca: Christopher Michel [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Right whales: United States Federal Government (This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. See Copyright.)