I heard the whale before I saw it. Actually, I didn’t see the whale, what I saw was the spume of its exhalation and the mist of spray which lingered before falling back into the water some hundreds of yards away. Then I heard it again, the unmistakable wheeze of a massive exhalation. This time I caught a glimpse of a tail flash and pause before sliding back into the water. Lyneita would want to see this.
We were sailing with the companionway hatch closed and drop boards in place. Not that it was really rough, but the odd wave was breaking against the side of the boat and it would spoil our day if a part of the ocean found its way into the cabin. Rule number one for cruising: (thanks Brad!) keep ALL the water on the outside.
So, I heaved forward on the heavy companionway hatch and leaned inside to see if I could get Lyneita’s attention. I didn’t have to look far because she was right there in the galley, on the port side almost under the companionway, making sandwiches for our lunch. I stopped and watched for a second admiring her ability to work in such a cramped space while the boat rolled and pitched. She had braced her back against the galley counter on one side, her two feet were spread as wide as her legs would allow, braced against the galley on one side and, clear across to the base of the navigation desk on the other. Meanwhile, she juggled a knife, slices of ham, and a couple of jars which slide back and forth on the counter top. Think: Subway meets Cirque du Soliel and you get the idea.
“Thar she blows!” I mock bellowed into the cabin.
“Whar away?” She responded putting down the mustard-loaded knife and turning to start up the ladder to the cockpit.
“Eight points off the port bow!”
Lyneita popped up through the companionway and looked to her left… to the Starboard side.
“Other side matey,” I offered helpfully. She looked the other way momentarily and then looked back to starboard.
“The ones on the other side are closer” she said in that patient tone I know so well.
And they were. Off to the right, starboard, was a pod of whales as close as I would ever want to see them, going in the opposite direction to us. The wheezing of their exhalations was quite loud now and we could clearly see their massive shapes as they surfaced and dove one by one and in pairs. They were wonderfully graceful as they seemed to pause slightly before they arched their tails high in the air and dove down into the ocean again after taking each breath. One very small tail emerged almost touching another bigger one: a calf with its mother no doubt. There seemed to be about a dozen of them lumbering their way North and we were sailing noiselessly more or less right down the middle of the bunch in the opposite direction. I was concerned that we might hit one, but they seemed to spread out to pass around us and then merge together again behind as we sailed by.
And then, the most amazing thing happened: a real monster (any creature bigger than the boat I am in qualifies for monster status in my estimation) surfaced a scant few meters away on the starboard side. Before taking its breath and diving again, this whale rolled ever so slightly and stared at me with its great eye. We made contact in this manner for only a second, but I was overwhelmed with the impression of intelligence in that brief exchange. This was no blank stare but a knowing glance. A connection between species which was enigmatic and knowing at the same time. Part greeting, possibly a warning, and then it was over. After the head submerged the huge tail seemed to hung in mid air for a longer than any of the others before disappearing…. a farewell wave…? Who knows? I don’t want to anthropomorphize the encounter and imply something which may not have been there, but… I have looked at and been looked back at by any number of animals and birds in my life and this was different.
Lyneita had witnessed this as well and we both watched mutely for some time after the last of the pod disappeared in the distance behind us. Finally, when it was apparent the last of them had gone she broke the silence.
“Do you want cheese with your ham sandwich?”