A Whale….

In October of 2013 I went back to Tahiti to visit my friends.  It was austral spring and the time when humpback whales relax in the safe waters off the Tahitian islands.  Mothers come with their calves, a pairing that reminds me of a jumbo carrying the space shuttle.  Males come alone but create an alluring ambiance with their singing.  The whale watching boat I was on had waterproof microphones which we hung over the sides to pick up the singing.  Under the canopy there were a couple of waterproof speakers, good ones so the sounds were clear and full.  While we scanned the glassy rolling water for signs of breaching whales, a mile off the eastern coast of Moorea, we listened to the echo-y sounds which I couldn’t really tell if they were very low or very high.  They just seemed to come in pulses and made me feel strange, queasy almost, as I strained to hear better, to somehow understand what was surely a language?  Where were they?  Even just a mile off shore the depths here were well over 1,000 meters and plunging fast to several thousand more meters.  So much water; so much depth; so much space for these vast creatures.  A three dimensional world to our two dimensions.  After a few minutes we saw bubbles and and then some hundred meters away a geyser of water and air.  A mother and her calf coming up to breath.  About eight of us donned masks and snorkels and slid overboard.  I swam away from the boat and looked down into the increasing blackness of the ocean.  The sky was cloudy; very different conditions from when I swam across from Tahiti to Moorea, not too far from where I was now.  Then it was sunny and my memory of the water was shafts of sunlight going down, lighting an ocean that started off crystal clear and became crystal dark, black that was still blue that vanished into nothing, no color.  Today it was cloudy and the water seemed even more massive.  When I saw the whale it was just a dark mass, maybe 50 meters below the surface…maybe more?  It was hard to tell.  Stationary.  I swam directly over the whale and held my breath, trying to breath quietly and as little as I could, gently treading the still water with my hands.  I had to blink to keep the darkness in my view, just an oval outline a little blacker than the water.  Then the mass moved and a smaller shape rose up, the calf coming straight up like a a huge rising buoy. Towards me!  Directly towards me.  Very soon I saw fins and shapeliness and then eyes and a long snout that reminded me both of bird and dog.  And it came straight to me. I slowly backed up, staring intently as the calf grew larger, rising and floating upwards.  It finally breached and as it exhaled it turned to position its eye in front of my face.  I saw in the eye no recognition, no warmth yet no coldness; I sensed a certain tracking of me.  And then the flipper rose up and slapped the surface, just in front of me, hard enough to send a wave of water over my head, but never touching me.  Then the calf went back down, to its mother who still lay suspended and unmoving below.  I was told that babies breath every ten minutes and mothers every twenty.  No longer afraid I swam directly overhead.  Any trepidation about being in the water so close to such a powerful animal had been replaced by a giddy desire to belong to the whales, to enter their world, to enter a world alien to me yet right here.  Fear comes with the knowing a bit at least of what is in store.  This was something new.  No knowledge of what was in store.  And then the dark shape moved almost as if I had willed it to rise towards me.  By now the other swimmers were close to me and my own private portal to these two whales shut down, replaced by dual awareness of my fellow swimmers, our guide telling us to move back and of course the mother whale rising up, taking on features just like the baby did, only so much bigger.  She breached close, and rolled sending walls of water over us.  We had knowledge of her awareness of us, if only because nothing she did put us in danger.  Other swimmers took pictures and broke the stillness with exclamations.  Maybe to keep the fear at bay.  After seeing a second breach by both mother and calf we swam back to our boat, our little floating capsule that while on the water felt not a part of it at all.  We motored back to the pass, replacing ocean with first the sights of Moorea, that most perfect of Islands, and her sounds of waves rising up to split apart on the reef and then the smells of earth and people.  The rest of that day I was a little bit not present, still back there in the ocean thinking about the whales.  When it got dark and knowing how utterly dark the ocean depths would be to me I could only wonder what our whales were doing.

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