Dances With Whales – July 20, 1999
July 16 was my 50th birthday – and Mother Nature delivered the most wonderful present.
Even as Tribe cleared the river, we didn’t know whether we would turn left to our familiar islands or go straight out into the open sea. It was a mere three-day summer cruise, and the weather had been really hot. The original idea had been to sail across the Gulf of Maine to Cape Cod, to give my daughter Mistral – at 12, leaving childhood – on an overnight sail. I had thought the nightly denizens of Provincetown might serve as a treat at the end of all this sailing, which she doesn’t like as much as I do, but I was dubious about putting her through such a long trip. At the point of decision, northwest winds were pushing us toward the Cape, and we decided to stick to the original plan. It turned out to be a life-changer.
Thunder and ominous clouds pursued us, creating a postcard sunset, but in the end we had only a few minutes of rain before the wind began in earnest, allowing us to carve a gentle parenthesis on our GPS from Pemaquid Point to the hook of Cape Cod.
A night sail – Annie – my sailing buddy, friend, and bodywork colleague for many years – hadn’t done one since she crewed the Bermuda race, I hadn’t since my Atlantic crossing, Felicity – my sister, a rapier punster and ardent sailor – hadn’t been out at night for years either, and Mistral never had. And what a night sail! The wind bullied the clouds out from over our heads. We were following a brilliant trail of the Milky Way down into Scorpio, treated occasionally to streaking meteors.
Watches were irregular. When Mistral was awakened at 1:30 she brought a blanket out onto the deck. After a few minutes of steering and drinking tea, she fell half asleep under it. We were harnessed in for safety, but the sea was unnaturally calm, and under a bowl of stars the boat cantered gently and steadily south, phosphorescence trailing off the lee edge. So I stood this middle watch, feeling privileged to be allowed to be here: calm seas, a balmy breeze, good friends asleep below. I talked to MisteL occasionally in her drowse, her replies going from bright and vertical to perfunctory horizontal murmurs “Yes, Dad”, “Yeah, Dad”, “Mm-mm”, and then I was alone.
Tribe, the other player in this drama, is a 35’ Bristol yawl, the one indulgence I cannot live without. She is an able, simple boat who will win no beauty prizes and few races, but I love her anyway. What a balanced woman Tribe is – by tweaking the sails I could go below and fix tea and she would still be nosing along within 5 degrees of where I left her as I put my hand to the wheel again with a steaming cuppa in the other. I waited until I was really half-asleep myself as the dawn reared up behind us like a yellow dragon blowing the the stars out one-by-one, then I woke Felicity up. A sailor and a Myers, she turned to without complaint.
Felicity was at the helm as we crossed the famous Georges Banks fishing ground. From an empty open sea, we crept up on a little ‘city’ of lights – about a dozen fishing boats working the banks at night, their decks all lit up, strangely quiet.
Morning brought haze and stillness, and we were almost drifting across the Boston shipping lanes onto the Stellwagen Banks by around 9 o’clock. We knew that whales could often be found here – Annie had once taken the whaleboat ride from Newburyport – and we hoped for a sighting.
When the fathometer registered that we were over the banks, we squinted out into the uncertain horizon of a hazy day. We saw a few birds, ripples we thought might be whales, but – nothing. I was just on the point of saying, “Well, let’s go on…” – it was burning sun and no wind at all, so we needed the motor – when we heard a cannon. Now, we’re out of sight of land – who could be firing a cannon? We pulled out the binoculars, and there about a mile away was a humpback whale, slapping the water with her tail flukes, creating this amazing booming sound.
This big one – we’ll call her “Mama” – started slapping the water with her tail, the cannon sound reaching us a few seconds later. Whatever the purpose – it sounded like Calling All Whales… but who knows? – she did it about a dozen times, appearing to dive, then lifting up her huge flukes and hitting the water hard enough to turn it white with spume. Another, smaller whale (Mama’s calf?) was swimming on his side, slapping the water with his paddle-like fin, its undersurface creamy white. Then “Junior 2” (we couldn’t distinguish between the two) started breaching, rising up and falling on his side into the water again and again, sometimes with a half-twist, creating a huge white splash each time.
We were still motoring gently towards them, and so, unfortunately, was a whaleboat, who had spotted the tail-slapping (it does compel your attention). Since the whaleboat went straight for the one doing the tail slapping, we turned off our motor and drifted toward the two smaller ones, who were now resting on the surface. Since our boat was silent we got closer and closer, until one was just 10-15 feet off our bow, its characteristic two-holed snout just breaking the surface, the rest of him lightly traced in greenish-white under water. We were all up at the bow, whooping, hanging almost right over them, calling them as if they were kittens. I started singing to them, repeating a long Hindu chant I knew, a song to the god of the sea, again and again. “Artana martiham taram…” He seemed to hear, but who knew?
Suddenly Mama, who had finished her show for the whaleboat (and the whaleboat, thankfully, had grumbled off somewhere else), saw this strange object near her babies – all surmise, but this is how it felt – and steamed over toward us, on her side, holding her flipper up and at the ready, the grooves on her white underbelly shining in the sun. She headed right amidships, and I told Misty to hold onto something, afraid we might be in for a Pequod-like ramming, but when she reached us she dove under the boat – her white belly turned green – and came up on the other side to gather her babies and swirl them away.
They went off a little to play and fish. We were well-satisfied – indeed, elated – with our encounter. We commenced cooling off by swimming around the boat, which was gently drifting along in the tide, and making ourselves some breakfast. The two calves were again basking on the surface, quite a way off from the boat. “Why don’t you swim after them?” Felicity teased.
“Yeah, Dad, go for it” echoed MistRAL, clearly hoping for some drama. Annie looked up from her coffee with a slightly hairy eyeball – she knows what happens when I’m challenged.
More as a joke, I started. The water was warm, the exercise pleasant. It was a bit eerie to watch the boat get smaller and smaller in the middle of nothing but water. I could hear the whales breathing, but could rarely see them, even in the calm waters – either I was in a trough, or they were, at any given time. I was well away from the boat, and about ready to give up – they seemed to be moving away from me at the same rate I was swimming – when I heard their breath ahead of me, and not far. I swam in toward these gigantic forms, their backs gray-black, slightly mottled, silky smooth.
They were back to me, and I confess to a certain reluctance, weak swimmer and general wimp that I am, to approach two pickup-sized humpbacks, to whom I had not been properly introduced, from the rear. I did not want to surprise them. Accordingly, I started to sing my Hindu sea chant again, coming up between them, fool that I am, breathlessly trying to get ahead of both tails.
I made it past one tail and got in between them, within 5 feet of one’s side and reaching out to touch him, before he suddenly became aware of my presence, or so it seemed, and they were clearly startled. You could almost hear them say, “What the…?” They arched, dove with water swirling around the dorsal fins, and took off in a tight curve around me. (That’s the moment the accompanying photo was taken.)
I risked losing my contacts to open my eyes under water. There they were beneath me, rolled on their sides, their white bellies emerald green at that depth, looking up at me with those huge liquid eyes as I looked down at them, watching them as they watched me, no question as to the conscious connection between us. I was lifted by the pressure of those huge bodies passing under me, and surrounded by the surface boils from their tails. I was suddenly bathed in colder, deeper water.
I could see them head back for the boat, so I started swimming back as well – grateful, uplifted, transformed. Suddenly Mama, snorting and grunting, was steaming toward me with a strong intent. Clearly they had told her, “Something scared us in the water…” I was scared too, and started singing again, more for myself than her. She steamed around me, a full 360 to check me out, a graceful freight car – she was close, and she was unbelievably fast, and she was big. Then she disappeared. I thought, “The next thing you feel will be her jaws closing around you as she comes up beneath.” My rear end tightened in anticipation, and I was in one of these dreams where you can’t get anywhere, but instead of running, I was swimming.
But I was not butted or swallowed like Jonah, and my ur-fear faded. After she checked me out, she correctly judged that I was Tom the Small and Meek, and she left. While I was swimming back, my muscles were like springs, the water parted before me, I reached into its coolness with ease, and sang for pure joy. The two juniors had gone over to the boat and were playing around it, swooping under it, and circling it, less than 10 feet away from the three women. I could see them running from one side of the boat to the other. Mama joined them and was also going under the boat, and playing around. They stayed with us for a while after I regained the boat. I was glad to be alive and sound, but my heart was also at least 3 inches higher in my chest. We were all exhilarated and giddy.
As a side show, as if we needed one, a baby seal had come, while I was off chasing the juniors, and started swimming purposefully around us, staring very fixedly at the boat and particularly at the people on it. She apparently decided that the little rubber Zodiac dinghy we towed was her mother (the mothers leave them to go fishing, puir wee ones), and tried to clamber aboard it, shimmying up the side in a vain attempt to get in. She was still there when I got back – you could see her sleek form traversing the water, sliding away but coming back again and again to look at us. We took pictures, and Misty tried to feed it some butter – “Here, little one…” – but she was too wild despite her scare.
Finally, two hours since we had first spotted them, with a last snort of goodbye, the three whales took off to the north.
We eyed the line of dark clouds off to the southwest – “Let’s go, folks”. We couldn’t bear to turn on the engine, so we set a course for Provincetown and glided off. Just as we got under way, we saw another fin, saying, “Look, another whale” but this fin was triangular, about a foot high, and it just stayed on the surface to the accompaniment of bass viols: it came right by us; it was a 12-foot shark! It was a basking shark, a plankton eater who wouldn’t have hurt any of us (it might have gummed me), but I am glad I did not spot that fin when I was still a quarter-mile away from the boat.
As the wind picked up ahead of the thunderstorm front, and we started to skim along the edge of the banks, we kept spotting more whales – “Look, there, that’s the biggest, surely.” One, however, was stirring up a bunch of fish – there was as many gulls circling over him as over a fishing boat. He came right up out of the water 20 yards behind us, so that we could see his huge pink mouth, funnily placed at the top of his face. It was a reminder that these are not baleen whales, and I could easily have been a Jonah or a plaything. I shivered to look inside that maw, and wondered if humpbacks have different personalities, if this one was mean, while ‘Mama’ was more of a soccer mom, and I had been lucky.
I later found out it is a felony to swim with wild whales, and I can see the point, though I wouldn’t have missed this experience for anything.
Then the storm broke over us, with plenty of wind and tons of rain. High as kites and feeling totally protected and invulnerable, we rode the waves as we bore in on Provincetown, laid on our side, with lightning streaking and cracking into the water on all sides. As we closed with Long Point, first one, then four, then thirty boats appeared out of the thick rain, brightly-colored spinnakers flying on a run from the Canal, all converging: we had chosen to come to P’town on the same night as 160 boats of the New York Yacht Club. Shaving the point to get ahead of the pack, and appealing to the New England sensibilities of the local mooring keeper on the VHF radio, we managed to get a mooring for the night.
But the countercultural charms of Provincetown – Ginger Vitis, Peaches Toots, and the other cross-dressing strippers – would have to wait for our next trip: we were so full and tired that we cooked up simple corn and Swiss chard, hugged each other, bundled some blankets around ourselves, and fell fast asleep. The images were all burned so strongly that we all dreamed of whales. Just like our boat, they dance between the air they have to breathe and the water they live in.
You cannot tell me they are not intelligent, though an intelligence far different from ours. Our intelligence is so linked to our hands, which they do not have, so theirs reaches mind to mind, I am sure of it, as sure as I can be with no ‘proof’, and I can say so, for I have swum with them, wild and free.
— Tom Myers, Walpole Maine