A Far-Off, Mournful Song
WE know they are there, under the waters of the earth that in bright sunlight shine turquoise with streaks of violet and azure. The humpbacks return to breed in the warm waters of the Pacific each year, starting as early as November on their summer journey from the icy waters of Alaska.
My son Mark and I have caught an early commuter flight from Oahu to Maui. From the airport, we drive to Lahaina. Now, at what used to be a whaling village, ships berth in the harbor for the express purpose of taking people out to look at the whales, to marvel and feel awed by the gentle giants.
Humpbacks are huge, some as large as a bus, only heavier. A 45-foot-long humpback may weigh as much as 45 tons. Most are 35 to 45 feet in length and weigh about one ton per foot. Their flukes are as individual as a signature, the patterning and coloration providing the means of identification as the whales return year after year to these same waters to breed.
A light breeze blows off the sea, and the air smells of flowers, salt, and fresh coffee, as we walk down the quay to where our boat is moored. There are various types of vessels available for whale watching; large cruisers, sleek launches named after whiskies and offering free champagne. But these are not for us. I have come 3,000 miles to see a whale and for me, and for Mark, this is serious business. We had signed up with the Pacific Whale Foundation, a not-for-profit organization involved in the study
of marine mammals and their ocean environment. While they can offer a larger boat, we are fortunate to sign up on a 50-foot sailboat with six passengers and a crew of two.
As we board, the other passengers opt for seats under the canvas on the fantail. But Mark and I, fancying ourselves good sailors, choose to view the whales from the bow. Besides, it's the closest thing to a crow's nest, and when the first blow is sighted, I want to be the first to see it.
And we are ready. Mark carries an expensive new camera with the zoom lens, and if anyone calls out "Ishmael," I will answer.
By comparison with other whale-watching vessels, the sailboat seems small, but we sail into the wind and the only sounds we hear are the sounds of the sea and the intimate creaks and snaps of the canvases. Under the guidelines of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, you're only allowed within a specified distance of the whales and may not interfere with their actions in any way. Of course, when you realize how big they are, it seems incomprehensible that anyone in his right mind would want to interfere. And
after all, the sea is their environment. We are only privileged visitors.
Sea spray washes over the bow, and in no time, Mark and I are soaked and loving every minute of it. The wind is brisk, and the sun is warm. In deeper seas, the water is the color of Parker's blue ink and clear as glass. A pair of bottle-nose dolphins joins us, riding the bow wave. Their skin in the sunlight is the color of tarnished silver. They swim with us for a few minutes, crossing and recrossing the bow, keeping up with us and then finally swimming away toward the coastline. Our guide tells us there
are other species of dolphins in these waters; spinner dolphins, spotted dolphins, and the elusive Risso's dolphin that often travels with other species, but we see only these two on our journey.
When we're out far enough we're told that we can begin to "Look for a blow," but I am having trouble believing that I am where I am. It still seems like a dream to me, that I am on board a sailboat in what is known as the "four islands" area, where Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe drift dreamlike in the blue waters of the Pacific. Am I indeed about to "behold the leviathan?"
For years I have read about whales and talked about them. But now that I am where I can actually see these magnificent animals, I'm afraid they won't be here. That this will be the day that no whales are seen. We can come back later if we do miss them, but I want to see them now, today. And I want to see the blow, the fine spume against the horizon that marks the place where the whale will surface.
In the book of Job we're told that "By his neesings a light doth shine ... " His neesings will be the double blowhole and he will shine a light that glows across the sea to mark his coming. Humpbacks, so called because of the way they arch their bodies as they dive, bear the scientific name of Megaptera novaeangliae. Megaptera is Greek for "big wing," and the novaeangliae was given to them because they were first named in New England. Our guide tells us that we may expect to see various kinds of behavio r among the whales; breaching, tail-slapping, head-slapping, and heading. As she speaks I think how puny these descriptions are in describing this creature. Scientists may research and name them, but only poets should describe them.
SUDDENLY our skipper calls out, "A blow at 10 o'clock!" I have missed it. He saw it first. Anxiously, I search the horizon at about 11 o'clock, allowing for travel time and then, unbelievably, a pectoral fin emerges from the water. The fin, creamy underneath, reflects the color of the water, turquoise and blue. "It may be a calf," says our guide, watching the fin. "Look for the shadow below the surface of the water. That will be the mother." We look and there is a communal gasp among us. We become monosy llabic: "Look!" "Ahhhhh." "Wow!" ... are the expressions of delight of which we're capable at the moment. To look at such greatness is to be silenced. We behold the leviathan.
The mother monitors her baby as he learns to leap, breach, and to take a look above the surface of the sea, "heading" so that he knows what is going on in the world above the caverns of the deep. There is another blow and we see, following the other two whales, the midwife, the female whale who follows and keeps watch over the mother and her calf. Outlined against the sky, a pectoral fin moves with the grace and elegance of a prima ballerina. Only the music is missing, but the music belongs to the whales .
The humpback is the singer of songs, the dream weaver for those who dwell in the sea. He sings, head down, his body tilted at a 45 degree angle, just a few meters below the surface of the sea. The magnificent, snow-white flippers are raised and lowered as he sings. And oh, the song! Climbing in the denseness of the deep like the rungs of a ladder, leading upward into light, chord on chord. The whales' song takes many forms, but within each is that tender yearning, that awesome reaching for something past
attaining. This is the thing that conjures dreams, bringing them into the light of morning, transmuting them into life. This is the thing too deep for dreaming.
And then, I hear it. A song, brief and lonely, blown over the water. I look around to see if anyone else has heard it. But no one is listening. I turn back and watch until the whales disappear. We then begin to search the horizon again for that snow-white vapor that announces the whale's presence. For awhile, there is only the rush of the wind and the creaking of the sails. Conversation seems frivolous in the way it does when you're confronted with a thing awesome or terrifying.
And too, I think I have heard the song. You withdraw into yourself, holding what you've experienced private and protected. Mark and I share glances but do not talk about what we've seen. That will come later when we've assimilated what we've experienced. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, "The world is filled, and filled with the Absolute. To know this is to be made free." We have had an intimation of the Absolute.
A vapor rises, a column glows against the sky, blossoming into a gossamer spray that holds opalescent colors. I manage to point in the right direction, then find my voice. "A blow! Two o'clock!"
You feel the present of the whales before they are visible. The sea trembles and pulsates with their form; their massive configurations changing the sea around them, molding the waters to fit their own patterns.
As the whale approaches the surface of the water, the ink-blue sea ripples into silvery light. Then, the great whale rises from the water. His massive body narrows abruptly forward of the tail. His flippers, like giant angel's wings, pale and tender, are scalloped at the edges. As he rises, huge waterfalls cascade from his fins. He makes an arch with his great body, turns sideways and breaches, then crashes back into the sea with a sound like the rushing of a great wind. The flukes, deeply notched, are o utlined against the sky like a memorial to eternity.
For a moment, there is a stunned silence on board. Each one of us seems caught, captured, mesmerized by what we've witnessed. We have seen the whale, the creature that legends are made of, that men have deified and dreaded for century upon century. We have witnessed majesty. We have been privileged to behold the leviathan in all his glory and have known the presence of the Absolute.
The return to the island is calm and almost soporific. There is some light conversation. We check our cameras, then talk to the skipper and guide about the protection of the whales. Neither Mark nor I have managed to take any decent shots of the whales. When they were surfacing, we evidently were in a state of shock. Later we discover that we have only pictures of my knees and places where whales have been.
Once back in port, and the other passengers have left, I pause to ask a question of the skipper. Almost apologetically, "Is it possible to hear the whale's song above the water? Do they sometimes sing on the surface of the sea?"
"Sometimes they do," he replied. "You can hear the song if you're really lucky."
But no one else reported hearing it. Yet, I know I heard it. I've listened to recordings of whale songs and they are songs you feel as well as hear. There was no mistaking what I'd heard that morning.
That far-off, mournful singing blown back through winds was mine alone to hear. I don't know why I was so blessed. I am only grateful that it is so.