It wasn’t an unusual day on the water. The sun glistened on the tips of the waves as they rose and fell and rhythmically rocked the simple skiff. Sea birds flew across the blue bay on bluer breezes, and followed us as we headed steadily out to the open sea. Skims of fish surfaced in small silvery flurries here…and then there, indicating that they were dealing with something more serious below than what casually met the eye and ear on our side of the watery surface. We hardly took notice, lulled by the warmth of the sun and wind and the slap and sway of waves. The depths beneath us seemed unimaginable, conveniently forgettable. We hadn’t come to plumb the depths, nor even to fish. What we sought would surface to us… eventually. Still waters run deep.
The cinnamon-skinned skipper spoke not a word of English, but revealed a wonderful mix of youthful enthusiasm and clear-eyed composure with his manner and in his sparing words of rolling Mexican Spanish. Above and below, this 500 square miles of temperamental Pacifica was his familiar domain. It was still a foreign world to us, suspended so trustingly between sea and sky on his slip of a boat.
The boat turned almost imperceptibly, but it was clear that something had caught the experienced eye of our guide. We looked ahead of the bow and at first, saw nothing more that the smooth line of the horizon and the gradually smoother detail of the waters that blended into it. I kept up the watch for a long minute. The sky that came right down to the line was colorless and without the hint of cloud. Then a tiny, momentary motion caught my eye to the left of the bow, as if the sky had overstepped the boundary and erased a spot on the vast horizon. This was followed by a single blink of reflected sunlight, and the line rejoined, un-fazed. Had we not known where to look, none of us but the guide would have even seen it, or known what it was. “Ballena” he pointed, noticing that we had finally noticed. Whale! All attention was suddenly riveted forward.
Another spout broke the horizon line and those of us who saw it, pointed. The two young couples huddled, heads together behind a single pointed arm, then shaded their eyes to scout it out for themselves. This time, the ephemeral sign appeared as two closely sequenced billows of mist that parted the far waters, one lingering perceptibly longer and larger that the other, but clearly closer to us than the horizon. In a moment’s time, two white glints flashed off two black backs that had arched briefly skyward, one noticeably smaller. As we approached, the boatman respectfully slowed the motor from a frantic hum to a mumble. The mother and calf surfaced in synchrony, and then the calf alone, a few times; its shorter sips of air needing to be refreshed long before its immense mother’s. They were not in any hurry, lingering larger than life, close to each other, as if savoring their loving bond in a graceful, endlessly patient, slow-motion dance.
The calf was a yearling, nearly half the size of its mother. It rose, lolled on one side, raised one fin and repeatedly splashed it playfully on the waves. It moved on to slapping its tail with resounding wallop over and over again. Then back to the fin. The surface seemed its ever-present toy; one other ever-present and tangible companion beside its mother. This surface was one of the solidest things that the calf would encounter in life. Its character was set by the fundamental nature of air and water, the other two fluid elements that would sustain this mammal’s life after it was weaned. Negotiating this boundary would occupy a minor part of every quarter of an hour, for the rest of its life. For now, it was fun to flap and flop, and feel something pushing back. Play is, after all, the primary job of any child, and an indispensable preparation for adulthood.
As children or adults, some of us are characteristically impatient, wishing always to control our interaction with the world. Lingering becomes languorous when we have gleaned what comes easily from an experience. It was this impatience that turned some eyes on the boat toward other horizons. Fortunately…because half a mile away seaward, a great plume once more cleaved the horizon. Then another, and another closely following. Three, four, no, five black backs arched and consecutively submerged in a group. Our boatman took in our distraction, and gradually got the skiff up to speed in their direction. Coming directly toward us, I could see the broad beam of their backs as they emerged above the waves. We deftly skirted them and slowed as they passed. This group exuded power and visceral drive, rising, huffing and falling, weaving and dodging like a horizontal hustle of whale-sized basketball players inside an invisible foul line. At times one would raise his whole, nobly face and stretch his smooth, seemingly endless back above the surface before the dorsal fin even appeared. Then, flukes up one after the next, and… nothing…
The waters closed in a series of great roiling slicks where our boisterous boys had disappeared. Silence…only the waves lapping again against the side of the boat, the rhythmical rocking, the birds overhead, the soundless sun and the sky. In the quiet, I gradually became aware of a fluid, swooping tone, seemingly from deep within me and certainly not from any earthy realm I had known hitherto. In its scaleless slide through all tones, no note stood out as a fundamental key to anchor the melody. It filled my being with an unsettled yearning and spoke to me of the unfathomable deep from which it came. Another. A response. A soprano chirrup, soaring into the inaudible, then sweeping down through tenor, baritone and a sub-human bass that rattled in my lungs and solar plexus more than it was heard. We all looked overboard simultaneously, eyes wide, heads cocked and frames frozen. As the melancholy music and the minutes passed, some spoke in a whisper, as if not to break the spell.
The waters parted no more than twenty meters from the side of the boat where we all sat stunned. Up rose a warty snout! Up! Up! Slowly, almost impossibly slowly. Up! Until it was followed by a fin like a wing, and another on the other side of a ponderous belly. Up! It kept coming until its immense outline slimmed down, then expanded terminally into broad, flat flukes. Sheer physical power, animated, overarching will-in-motion rising irrefutably out of its watery world. Poised for more than a moment, mid air, long enough for us to notice the water on its belly collecting in its corrugations and cascading off in rivulets even before the whale itself started its own decent. Thud, Cra-a-a-sshh! White everywhere! And then the reverberation of the water as it closed in above the behemoth. An out-bounding wake of waves broadsided the boat moments later and brought our minds back to how close we had come to being part of this giant’s underwater realm. Mega-aptera; “huge winged”, is the Linnaean name for this leviathan. As if it considered flying to be its joy and its long-forsaken birthright.
A hundred yards away, another one of the pod breached with somewhat less vigor. The splash went sideways in the direction of the distant mother and calf. Though easily a half a mile apart, both groupings were involved in the display. We forget that distance is dwarfed by the scale of these colossal creatures, the vastness of their environment and by their unhurried and unstoppable determination. “Life is Great” takes on a new meaning in this setting. We waited, watching the surface, iPhones poised to snap at a moments notice, more to capture proof that we had really been witnesses at the scene, than to “capture” even an inkling of the phenomenon itself. One more close breach, as long and large as the first, was followed by a descending cascade of trials and ever “feebler” efforts by the other whales. Apparently tiring of their amorous antics, the ‘boys’ eventually disappeared below the waves, leaving me with more questions about their experience during the last half hour than that of my own.
As we headed back to shore, a look behind caught the glimpse of another splash, this time in the direction of the distant mother and calf. A few moments later, the calf rose fully out of the water and crashed in a spray of white foam. No sooner than the water had settled, but it breached again. Then again. All the way back we counted twenty three breaches until we were out of sight around a point of land near the small fishing village from which we had embarked.
Imitation is everywhere the sincerest form of play and praise, it would seem. The calf was soon to breach the boundary between the two worlds of his species. What was slapping one’s tail and fins compared to the joyous sense of self and surface that arises when we slam into something abundantly close and familiar, and yet so vastly beyond our experience.