I’d always thought that people who went on whale watches were suckers: inexplicably compelled to pay twice the cost of zoo admission, just to see one lousy animal. And not even the animal in its entirety, just whatever the damn tease chose to show — the arch of the back, a flip of the tail.
No thank you, I thought. I’ll take my twenty-five dollars and make one hundred quarters, to put into the feed dispensers for the goats at the petting zoo.
Oddly enough, all it took to change my mind was the sound of them: that mournful bass echoing through a thick sea. I first heard it in a radio piece about Humpback Whales a few months ago, and actually had what they call (and, for the record, have copyrighted) “a driveway moment” in front of my desk. I sat there with headphones on, staring at my computer screen with unseeing eyes. The sound conveyed such massive power and sadness! I imagined a forty-foot long shimmering grey mass of flesh gliding evenly beneath endless seawater, the small grey eyes heavy-lidded and unfocused, as its giant pink maw floated open soundlessly. What could it capture in such a thing?
Two summers ago, I’d been on a sailboat on my way to Cape Cod, and I’d never even thought of them. We’d spit cherry seeds over the side of that tiny, rocking boat, and their red meaty shells had drifted slowly down, down. Maybe one of them had bonked a whale in the head. If the whale had noticed, and had become angry, maybe it could have torpedoed its way up from the dark cobalt waters in a whirlwind of destruction, soundlessly open that maw, and chomp! Our tiny sailboat gone, as if it had never existed. Somewhere unseen, a seagull would caw in our memory.
Adventure! Intrigue! I made it my mission to go on a whale watch as soon as possible.
We wound up going on a hot day in July. I’d eagerly packed my camera and new lens — it had more zooming power, and I carefully planned my outfit. It would be unbearably warm and stuffy on the subway, near-fainting conditions on the pier, and then unforgivably cold and windy once we left shore. Also, I thought inexplicably, I need to be prepared in case the boat capsizes. Lightweight clothing for that. Layers. And Dramamine: the last time I was on a big boat in the middle of the ocean I was twelve, and slept on its bathroom floor. (I mostly blamed the massive buckets of chum, scattered on the deck like strands of persistent Christmas lights, for that. But you can never be too sure, and I didn’t want to mess this one up.)
It took two and a half hours of blank, meaningless sea travel to get to the right spot. We stood at the front of the boat with the salty wind in our hair, bags of popcorn in our hands. Every now and then the wind would take a few kernels, so that they would seem to jump out of the bag and throw themselves to certain death. Kids weaseled their way to the front and attempted to spit over the side: the wind grabbed that too, and a glob landed on my boyfriend’s face.
“Hey!” he called. “Do. Not. Do that.”
We traveled up the stairs to the second floor, down the stairs to the first floor, into the first floor lounge, up the stairs to the third floor, pressed ourselves against plexiglass and took pictures of one another taking pictures. There was a sense of comraderie on the entire boat, everyone with their cameras, snapping pictures of the grey sea under the grey sky. Babies fell asleep in strollers. Teenagers curled up in secretive corners, whispering to one another. It seemed we had almost forgot why we had come.
Then, the boat slowed to a halt. “Attention ladies and gentlemen,” the captain rasped through the speakers, “but we have arrived at our viewing location. The boat before us has reported back, and they say that there are quite a few whales in this area today.”
Suddenly, everyone snapped to attention, pushing to the catamaran’s edge, peering desperately into the skyline. I happened to be standing near the front at the time, and grasped the guardrail in front of me, breathless.
“You may think that we use sophisticated tracking technology to find the whales,” the captain continued jovially, “but actually, we don’t! We just talk to other boats about what they’re seeing.”
The water under the boat was turning a pale, eerie blue: milky with air bubbles and movement. Oh my God, I thought, the whales are under the boat right now. And nobody knows yet but me. I saw an erratic squiggle of white: the top, I thought certainly, of a scarred and massive sea monster.
Here is what would happen. The whales would converge beneath the boat, lifting the frail tracks of the catamaran so that the boat rocked back and forth, nightmarishly off-balance. It would be play for them — each taking its turn to push us higher into the air, flicking its tail with every plunge back into the sea. The boat would split down the middle with a pathetic crack, and passengers slowly tumbling into the blue chaos. Screaming, grasping at rails. I am suddenly submerged in water.
Then, that gigantic pink maw, soundlessly opening and I am inside it, as he torpedoes back down into the sea.
What would it be like to live with the whales? I realized that I actually didn’t know a single thing about them. I’d been so enchanted with their hollow song that I hadn’t paid any attention to any of the technical information in that radio piece, so many months ago. I’d briefly skimmed some Wikipedia articles, but mostly just for pictures: the main thing that had concerned me at the time was how large and terrifying they were. How many cars could a whale swallow? How would my hand compare to one of its teeth?
I decided that the whales lived in caves, deep in the ocean, but not so deep that there wasn’t any light: the water would glow like a sapphire around them constantly, and there would be bright bubblegum corals, fish the color of highlighting pens. They would place me in one of their caves and I would learn to breathe under water like Kevin Costner in Waterworld. Every now and then one of them would take me inside of its massive pink maw and torpedo back to the ocean’s surface — as if to have me look around one more time, make certain that I was happy and did not want to go back.
“No,” I would say, and crawl back between its ivory teeth.
I would swim with the octopuses, flounder, and jellyfish, and nothing would ever want to eat me. My hands would become like starfish. My hair would be seaweed. Life from then on would be endless and blue, glowing and fluid.
At some point I realized that the milky aquamarine water I was staring at so intently beneath the boat was caused by the slow churning of the motor, as it fought against the waves to stay in place. The occasional white squiggles were not the scars of emerging monsters, but of tiny eddies rising to the surface. And I didn’t know it then, but it would be some time before we would see a whale at all, and even then it would be far away from us, the flick of a tail, the curve of a back against the grey sky.
I leaned down over the rail, looking deep into the deceptive moving water, and took a picture anyway.