On being looked at by a whale

The eye was in the wrong place. Everything else was right - the arched back, the gently curved flukes. Granted, it was a folk-art piece, a contemporary copy of a primitive. And I rather liked the color - soft blue gray with whimsical white speckles. But as far as I'm concerned the location of a whale's eye is not a matter open to interpretation. It was obvious this artist had never seen a whale face to face.

It's true I'd only seen live whales twice myself. But ever since the first time, I'd been looking for a photograph or sculpture or some sort of representation that caught the spirit of that encounter. I did like the brass whale weather vane I'd seen on the steeple of a Colonial church north of Boston. But needless to say, it was out of reach.

And I saw another weather vane in an antique shop - an original primitive carved out of wood. It was flat and black - the silhouette of a sperm whale. It was obviously the work of someone who'd endlessly watched whales from a ship's crow's-nest. Or someone who'd watched the harbor from a widow's walk, waiting for the whalers to return.

Unfortunately, that weather vane was out of reach, too - this time financially. So I decided to buy the primitive with the wrong eye and paint the whole thing black. It would do until I could afford another whale - one from an experienced whale-watcher.

I haven't always felt experience mattered where whales were concerned. Like every other American-literature major, I've written my share of papers on Herman Melville's ''Moby Dick.'' And it never occurred to me that it was presumptuous to discuss whales when no one in my classes, including the professors, had ever seen one. After all, we were dealing with symbolism, universal types. Literature establishes its own traditions, which don't have to jibe with ordinary reality.

In those days I thought of whaling as a symbol of man's romantic, if cruel, struggle against the forces of nature. The search and the courage were what counted. And the whale, he was a symbol, too, the stuff of which doctoral dissertations are made.

Then a little over 15 years after I first read ''Moby Dick,'' I went whale-watching. There were 25 of us on the tug-size boat that doubled at night as a game fishermen's charter. For the first 30 minutes after we sailed out of Gloucester, Mass., we ran alongside sailboats and rode choppy water, pulling on our extra sweaters against the sea breeze. We talked among ourselves and tried to eat our lunches, now slightly damp from the spray.

I met some amateur naturalists who'd been on the trip a couple of times and a photographer who said he'd gotten so fond of the whales he'd hired on so he could go as often as he wanted. The rest of us were first-timers, hanging on the guide's words barely audible above the sound of the engines and passing around a two-foot-long whale baleen the way we'd passed around specimen beetles in high school biology class.

It was, to all appearances, a tame start, but maybe the rest of the group wasn't expecting to see Moby Dick. So when we sighted whales blowing on the horizon and could yell, ''Spout, 3 o'clock,'' I might as well have been the lookout for the Pequod.

In the next hour, we probably saw a total of 25 whales. In the beginning, we only caught sight of their slick backs arching slightly above the ocean surface as they dived. But, in the course of the hour we saw what the naturalist kept calling ''good examples of behavior'' - whales tailbreaching, making spectacular dives, swimming with schools of porpoises. The naturalist also showed us several patches of green churning waters that signaled whales bubble-feeding, diving under a school of fish and blowing out through their blowhole to push the fish up for easy feeding.

About 20 minutes before we were to head back to land, the guide spotted a mother with her calf. We steamed over in their direction, then cut the engines. We were fairly close - closer than for any other of our sightings. Next to these two sleek black swimmers our boat seemed oafish.

The mother stayed about 10 feet away. But the young one began to dive back and forth underneath us. He would surface alongside the bow,breathing a sea breath on the photographers who'd rushed there to get a good vantage point.

No matter how I pushed, I could never get beyond the edge of the crowd, so I finally went aft, hoping to lean out a bit for a better view. Each time the calf dived, everyone would rush to the opposite side to be the first to see him surfacing. After several dives, instead of coming up again on the bow, the calf came up next to where I was standing.

As he pushed through the surface, I saw his eye come out of the water. It was quite an effort for him, since his eye was better positioned to watch schools of fish swimming below him than to peer into boats. We exchanged a glance.

''He's one curious calf,'' the guide shouted. ''He's trying to get a look at us.''

An exchange of looks between human being and whale has no doubt happened many times before. Too often the exchange may have been preceded or followed by a harpoon. I realize that most whalers are not Ahabs driven by some mad quest. After all, Ahab was as much a symbol as his great fish - a symbol of what puts us at odds with life, a sign that whatever reduces the great leviathan to mere flesh and blood also reduces us.

But this calf was no symbol. Yet he had a quest - if it can be called that. And in that quest, he was more like humanity than Ahab, and perhaps more like the natural world than Moby Dick.

Although he was enormous, there was nothing of the behemoth in him. He was a child standing on tiptoe, looking over the fence at the neighbors or peeking over the restaurant booth at the people at the next table. Perhaps he was unusual, although our guide told of other encounters he'd had, though none so spectacular as this. What the calf did was so deliberate that it had to have been more than a ''behavior.'' Maybe it was play; maybe it was research.

Whatever it was, I felt a very inadequate specimen for a whale's study. I'd had no time to prepare my case, to explain our traditions or symbols, or distinguish them from reality. I could only hope I'd returned something of what he'd offered us - the unjudging eye of a child.

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