We bounced along, and John talked about his early days working on sonar, back in the 1970s. He recalled slapping crude time-depth recorders made from kitchen timers on fin whales. “We were trying to infer the effects of sonar from the dive patterns of a single whale,” he said. “And we weren’t even sure that the whale could hear the sonar.” It was a crazy, almost desperate time. Everyone was groping in the dark.
We had been running fast for a while when John slowed the boat. “Oh, look at that,” he said. “Company.” By then, my glasses were so spattered I could barely see, but I could hear: the plosive breathing of what sounded like several large whales.
“Looks like a blue and four or five fins,” John said as I scrambled up to the heaving bow platform. The lone blue whale was a few hundred yards away, but the fin whales were clustered very near, feeding. I followed their progress by watching for the oil-slick-like impressions, called fluke prints, left behind whenever they pumped their tails. A whale would breathe and dive, and calm patches of water would bloom in its wake, as if the whale were somehow soothing the sea.
Then a juvenile fin whale broke away and swam toward us with mysterious intent. It circled the boat slowly and deliberately, and then turned and made straight for us. I worried it might ram us, but when it was thirty feet away it evacuated its lungs in a geyser of spray and slid into the water.
“It’s going under us now,” John said mildly, and I leaned as far out as I could over the bow platform, frantic to see the young whale, a “mere” fifty feet long, swimming beneath the bow, perhaps six or eight feet away. As it passed — it seemed to pass forever — it was so close that I could make out every detail of its radiant body: the tapered head, the blowholes clamped shut, the dark-light flesh of its flippers, the flex of its back, its sharp dorsal fin, the power of its tail. If I had fallen overboard, which I was dangerously close to doing — which in a secret way I wanted to do, what an “accident” that would have been—I might have landed on its back. That the sea could hold such things, at once so near and so far away.
Once past us, the whale surfaced and swam off to rejoin its group. John noted the sinking sun. If we were to get back to Long Beach before dark, we had to get moving. As the Ziphid bounded toward the coast, I asked what the behavior meant. “I’m not sure,” John said. “Juveniles just do that sometimes.” He didn’t know whether it was out of curiosity, or youthful piss and vinegar, but whatever it was, such impulses would be drummed out of the young whale by the time it reached adulthood.
The sun was almost level with the horizon. Nary a beaked whale to be seen. John pressed the throttle forward as far as it would go. The Ziphid flew, and I closed my eyes against the stinging spray and warm whip of wind. Against the roar of the engine, I thought of that space peculiar to natural history, where what is formally known about an animal blurs with what is informally felt, and knowledge can become something like grace. Left to their private lives, John had said earlier, even the most common animals can still surprise us. Probably I already knew that. But it was nice to be reminded.
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Eric Wagner lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in High Country News, Scientific American, Smithsonian, Audubon, Slate and elsewhere.
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Originally published in Orion magazine, July/August 2015. Subscribe or sign up for a free trial issue.