The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare (2010)

Chapter 13. The Whale Watch

Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

At Macmillan Wharf, the boat is ready for her first whale watch of the day. Dennis Minsky, the naturalist, is looking over yesterday’s survey, photocopied forms clipped to a board. He brushes his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair and smooths his moustache. Today he will compile another sheaf of data to be duly processed, pieces in a jigsaw that will never be completed.

Captain Mark Delumba stubs out his cigarette in a used coffee cup, then sets a course that is always the same but ever changing. As we lose sight of the Pilgrim Monument to thick mist, the sun disappears; all sound is muffled as the land falls away to the sound of a foghorn. We are the pioneers of the day; in our watery tracks the other boats will follow, bearing a mixture of children and parents, lovers and loners, the lost and the found, all looking for something.

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It is a familiar sequence: the guano-spotted breakwater surmounted by heraldic cormorants and a lounging harbour seal, followed by a procession of lighthouses which mark our leaving of land’s end: Long Point, where the sandy spit drops abruptly to one hundred and forty feet; Wood End, where a satellite of Provincetown once stood; and Race Point, where the water turns rough close to the deceptive green shallows of the shore. Vessels are often turned back here; to make it this far is an achievement. In the bay, the sea may be merely ruffled by the wind. Beyond the point, it can throw our hundred-foot boat about like a baby’s bath-time toy.

The wind picks up as we pass into the open ocean. The depth gauge falls to eighty, seventy, sixty feet, indicating the rising presence of Stellwagen Bank below us, its shape a submerged echo of the Cape. This underwater plateau, an Atlantic Serengeti, is the epicentre of the food cycle that summons the whales, animals as migratory as any bird in your garden, Dennis tells the passengers.

It is a striking comparison: the airy bones of a flock of swallows, and the oil-rich bodies of a school of whales. Both travel equally vast distances, and this summer the returning whales are doing well. Sixty-eight cow-calf pairs have been identified, adding to some two thousand known individual humpbacks, testament to the wealth of these waters. None the less, they remain endangered: these animals’ own ancestors were harpooned by whaling ships in the last century, and some may yet become targets themselves.

As the sea-bed is warmed by the sun, sand eels or lances wriggle out of their burrows towards the light. On the upper deck, Dennis shows his audience a rubber version of the same fish while his assistant holds up a series of instructive but rather heavy boards showing them what they might expect to see. The children squeal as Dennis passes the fish around, followed by a tiny specimen jar of sea water containing countless minute copepods. His final exhibit is an ancient clutch of baleen plates, fringed and brown and brittle, the colour and texture of horses’ hooves.

Five years after I first boarded this boat, I have a different role. Now I’m part of the whale watch, rather than a mere observer. Through my field glasses, I loosen my eyes, letting them ride over the horizon. It is ever a nervous quest. I look for anything to indicate the presence of whales: subtle, hypnotic changes in the sea’s surface which mark the meeting of currents; a flurry of gulls in search of a free meal; any little anomaly to break the monotonous view.

The boat ploughs ahead. Greater shearwaters, no bird ever so aptly named, tip their wings until they almost touch the waves, playing daredevil with the ocean; like Wilson’s storm petrels, they are pelagic birds, spending all their lives at sea. Dennis quotes Aldo Leopold on how animals imply a landscape. Our captain swears loudly about the lack of fucking whales. Then, with eyesight sharper than my borrowed binoculars, he sees a distant blow. And with that, everything changes.

To a landsman, no whale, nor any sign of a herring, would have been visible at that moment; nothing but a troubled bit of greenish white water, and thin scattered puffs of vapour hovering over it, and suffusingly blowing off to leeward, like the confused scud from white rolling billows.

The First Lowering, Moby-Dick

There are strict regulations governing the approach of whales. From two miles away, speed must be reduced to thirteen, then ten, then seven knots; six hundred feet from the animal is the statutory stand-by zone. Even aircraft must maintain a minimum altitude of one thousand feet; John Waters quips that the whales are more demanding than Hollywood stars in their requirements for respectful distance.

In the wheelhouse, activity accelerates as the boat shudders to a halt. We bundle up cameras and clipboards to climb the ladder to the roof, where the captain takes control. As we glide towards the blow, the passengers let out their own gasps of excitement. Cameras click in a digital fusillade, but their lenses reveal only second-hand images of what their owners’ eyes witness: creatures out of all scale with our world; animals so strange that sometimes it seems as if we hadn’t seen them at all.

BE (Boston Entry) Buoy, 42º.14.88 N, 70º.17.45 W

The arrival of the leviathan is all the more surprising for its unassuming manner. As it rises, rivulets run off its graphite-black back like threads of quicksilver; huge pectoral fins glow below the surface, turned luminous green by suspended plankton. Slyly, it even shapes the sea in which it swims. The whale’s mountainous body creates its own valley as it bobs in the ocean; while the pull of its tail leaves a slick of flat water as still as a pond even in rough seas. This flukeprint, the spoor by which its route can be traced, was believed by whalers to be oil or ‘glip’ washed off the whale as it dived; they would not cross it for fear of gallying their prey. The Inuit, too, decline to break its spell; but they do so out of respect, seeing this qaala–‘the path of the unseen whale’–as the animal’s mirror into our world, and our mirror into its own.

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Finback blow

As massive as it may be, a whale may be identified by its misty blow: the tall columnar geyser of a finback; the brief, staccato snort of a minke; the bushy blow of a humpback, the steam-engine of the sea sometimes turned into an indignant-sounding elephant trumpet; and the distinctive v-shaped spout of a right whale–for many whale watchers, the nearest they will ever get to seeing such rare animals. These are iridescent, airy signifiers of something so huge. They are also–as I discover only after I have been serially sprayed–capable of conducting ’flu-like infection. Little wonder that Tom, our videographer, turns his face away as the whale exhales again.

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Humpback blow

Other, more physical clues to the species are as subtle. The finback, for instance, is the only cetacean–indeed, the only mammal–with asymmetrical markings: one half dove grey, the other albatross white, an elegant division that extends even to its baleen, and which seems somehow to camouflage it in the ever changing light and shade of the sea. Its flukes, angular and sharply defined, are seen only when the animal lunge-feeds, moving on its side through a food source as it uses the white of its jaw to flash the fish into submission. Although their muscular backs are emblazoned with subtle swirls and chevrons, individual fin whales are usually recognized only from ship-strike scars; they are known by humans only by what humans have done to them. One animal, Braid, has what looks like tractor tracks across its back, result of an encounter with a propeller; perhaps Branded would be a better name. Another, Loon, has a white scar reminiscent of a bird with a fish in its beak. As they surge through the water, their sheer length takes your breath away; a magnificence measured by the amount of time it takes for their never-ending bodies to slice through the surface. They are truly the athletes of the sea.

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Humpbacks present a readier target, not least because they spend more time at the surface than almost any other whale. The underside of their flukes bears black and white patterns–partly a birthright, but often with notches and scars acquired during their lives at sea. By these marks, as distinctive as any human fingerprint, individuals are recognized on their return. New identifications are made as females bring their calves back to learn how to feed; only two years after it is first seen–time enough to survive long migrations, disease, or attacks by orcas–is a young whale given a name, inspired by the complex riffs and streaks on its flukes into which shapes are read like faces in flames or countries in clouds; a game which would no doubt appeal to the Prince of Denmark.

Added to these are other observations, such as dorsal fins spattered with white or extravagantly falcate–that is, sickle-shaped or tall enough to tremble as their owner moves through the water. Sexing the whale is quite another matter. The most obvious clue is the presence of a calf. Otherwise, only when glimpsed in a breach, or lying on its back like a sea lion lazily slapping its flippers from side to side, will a female reveal the gibbous swelling at its genitals; a male merely boasts a slit in which it stows its penis for hydrodynamics’ sake. All these signs make a composite picture, assembled from snatched glimpses seen in or through the water as though through smeary glass, never quite complete.

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Down below on the lower deck, passengers thrill to every fluke. Up above the wheelhouse, furious activity is under way. The crucial moment in a naturalist’s encounter with a whale is, paradoxically, its departure. Abruptly and without warning, the humpback flexes its back and, deploying its massive muscles to lever its weight downwards, dives below. The movement is fluid, sinuous, of a piece: the rising and falling rostrum; the arching back and dorsal fin; the curving, sinewy tail and broad flukes, water dripping from their trailing edge, a diamond curtain glittering in the sunlight. The whale is freeze-framed in the act, caught at this tipping point between its world and ours.

At that instant of leave-taking, the animal presents its graphic ID, the markings on the underside of its flukes. If the view proves elusive, there follows a debate that can last for hours, perhaps even days. The captain is often the first to call a whale. After two decades at sea, Mark Delumba prides himself–despite his phlegmatic manner–on his ability to identify individuals, even at a distance. The Center’s naturalist may be more circumspect. She or he will consult the onboard catalogue, a three-inch-thick file illustrating the flukes of every humpback known here, arranged from mostly white to largely black in an abstract index of archipelagos and deltas and scars.

Back in the wheelhouse, the plastic-coated pages are scanned like a cop running a check on a young offender. The arguments continue until someone triumphantly stabs a fluke shot and calls out any one of a thousand exotic names: Ganesh, with a white patch resembling the elephant-headed Hindu god; Cygnus–a floppy, lopsided dorsal; or Colt, with her own pronounced fin and a habit of ‘mugging’ boats, remaining alongside for so long that captains call for other boats to lure the whale away so they can take their passengers home. Coral has the regular marks of orca teeth on her flukes, and a regular predilection for breaching and lob-tailing; Agassi has white spots on her fin, while Glostick boasts one white line on a mostly black fluke. Anchor has an eponymous anchor mark on the right-hand fluke; Midnight, a self-descriptively dark tail. Some whales, such as Stubb, Valley and Fulcrum, barely have dorsal fins at all, sliced off in inadvertent encounters with ships; Nile, survivor of a brush with fishing line, has the white marks around her tail stock to prove it, while Meteor’s right-hand fluke is ripped like a piece of paper torn to mark a page. It is salutary to see, after my years of watching these animals, how many of them bear such scars.

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Most famous of all is Salt, the first of Cape Cod’s whales to be named by Al Avellar, founder of whale watching in Provincetown, and known by her dorsal which looks as though it was sprinkled with the condiment. She is still bearing calves–humpbacks remain fertile all their lives–and is now a great-great-grandmother, with a family tree to rival any out of the Almanac de Gotha. Anchor’s calf twists like an acrobat in the air, riding the wind as it rises from the sea, as if using its white pleated belly as a sail. Another, as yet unidentified, whale slaps its flippers so hard that it draws blood on the white skin where it has dislodged irritating barnacles. I can see the pink creases under its armpits, as if the animal were glowing from within. Such gestures seem almost lazy, but some researchers believe them to be acts of aggression.

Others clearly are not. Ventisca, notorious for her close boat approaches, rolls over and over on her back, flippers splashing me in the face; every ventral pleat is evident, running right down to her umbilical. When Nile sounds close to the boat, her sublime undercurve reveals a large melon-like lump; and as a young male swims by belly up, its genital slit is clearly displayed.

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It is almost indecent to see the whales in such detail. I wonder, guiltily, if I ought to avert my eyes for fear of finding them too sensual–just as I admit that sometimes whales have the capacity to revolt me with their serpentine animalness, and I question why I invest so much of myself in them. Even now, I cannot reconcile myself to their corporeality. Then there are days when they seem all the more pristine for their appearance out of water, as if newborn. One afternoon, an unnamed yearling presented pure white patches on its upper flukes, its chin and over its eye, so sharply contrasted, one eyelid black, the other white. For a few seconds–it cannot have been longer, although it seemed so–its eye met mine. Far from the dumb insolence of a horse or a dog’s pleading fidelity, it fixed me with a stare which I found, and still find, disconcerting.

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As three humpbacks travel across our bow, one is identified as Sockeye; it has a pronounced overbite resembling a salmon’s. As it passes again, I notice a rope trailing from the animal’s mouth, snagged in the baleen like a piece of floss; and as it sounds, I see that the line extends all the way back to its tail. It is entangled, a dog caught in its own lead without the wherewithal to free itself.

The passengers applaud the crew for choreographing them such a close encounter, but aloft the atmosphere changes. Karen Rankin, the naturalist, has already called the Center’s disentanglement team, and as we return to Provincetown, the Ibis speeds out of the harbour, radioing us for details. I tell Scott Landry what I saw. Out at sea, the three whales surface close enough to allow the team to attach a grapple and slow Sockeye’s progress, before cutting away ninety metres of gill net. In the process, the whale loses a tubercle–one of the sensitive, hairy nodes on its head–but it is a small price to pay for its liberty.

These are the new dangers the whales must face. At the peak of summer, there are near-misses with leisure craft. At one point, three finbacks are forced to dive abruptly under a cruiser that has drifted across their path. Karen issues a reprimand over our sound system; the offenders are lucky that Captain Joe Bones’s decidedly less polite comments are not similarly broadcast.

A SELECT WHALE-WATCHING CAPTAIN’S GLOSSARY

Cameras!: Captain’s exclamation on encountering good whales

Dutch boys: unexciting whales (as in watching paint dry)

Finback Alley: a stretch of water from Race Point to Peaked Hill, often frequented by Balænoptera physalus

Flashing: sight of the belly of a breaching whale

Hail Mary: a breaching whale

Lag: Atlantic white-sided dolphin (as in Lagenorhyncus acutus)

Mosquito: annoying civilian craft which tail the whale-watch boats

Mugger: close approaching whale

Old Bag: Salt, grande dame of these waters

Old Reliable: Loon, distinctively marked & frequently seen ‘finner’

Pick my pocket: a whale stolen by another boat

Plastic: small boats, irritants (see also Mosquito)

Poison breach: a whale that breaches only once

Skunked: the condition of seeing no whales

Provincetowners all have their whale tales. Mary Martin, staying in an isolated dune shack, swam off Race Point one afternoon to find herself joined by a finback a hundred yards away. Jody Melander, driving on the winter beach in her truck, often sees right whales so close to the shore that she could easily join them, too. Some years ago a stray and possibly disorientated beluga appeared in the harbour, nudging curiously and dangerously around the boats’ propellers. And in the summer of ’82 a fifteen-foot female orca took up residency in the bay, its tameness indicating previous contact with man; some thought it an escaped navy trainee, used for military purposes. Pat de Groot kayaked out to sketch the animal, bobbing alongside it in her slender canoe, feeding it flounder–the fact that it took dead fish was a sign of its habituation towards humans–unafraid of its neat, regular, deadly teeth. Back in her beachside studio, she painted it again and again, in ink on flat grey stones. The whale stayed around, till one day someone decided that it needed a drink and poured whisky in its blowhole. It wasn’t seen again.

The sea is the colour of steel and the sky. Peering over the prow, I see sand lances erupting at the surface, their dancing, silvery bodies punctuating the water like localized rain. Below them swims a school of bluefin, turquoise torpedoes darting this way and that, mouths open, voraciously.

Suddenly, a humpback swims under them all. Seen against its pale belly, the tuna seem minnows in comparison. The sand lances scatter like gnats. It is an animated lesson in the food chain. The whales distend their accordion pleats to swallow a ton of fish each day, even as daredevil gulls dive into their open mouths, or stride cockily up and down the whale’s rostrum as if they were perched on a barnacled rock.

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The ocean seems alive in these last days of summer. Three basking sharks swim by in silent convoy, their broad dorsal fins and razor tails swishing side to side, so different from cetaceans (it is part of the whale’s essential unfishiness that its tail moves in the mammalian tradition). The sharks gape blindly as they feed on unseen plankton, their bodies browny yellow and mottled, almost reptilian, a mark of their own ancientness. A mola mola drifts along, a rudderless pancake of a fish, carried by the currents, warming its great flat body at the surface, its mouth opening and shutting as it gathers its food. White-sided dolphin, fleet and sleek, weave through the waves, a collective intelligence hoovering up the bait. Leaping high out of the water like competitive hurdlers, their teal and beige markings glisten in the sun.

The scene turns into a feeding frenzy, a sustained symphony of ecstasy. Humpbacks take great mouthfuls of fish which ripple across the surface in a futile attempt to escape. Finbacks lunge on their sides, flashing their prey with their white jaws. Minkes scissor through the same source, outriders to the greater whales. All around me is action, hunger, life and death, the entire natural cycle accelerated in a headlong dash for survival and sustenance.

The humpbacks gather below, blowing rings of bubbles in fine calibrations, their spiralling ascent announced by a bracelet of green clouds bursting at the surface. It is an unbelievably exciting moment, precisely because I know what is about to happen, announced by the changing colour of the sea, by the boiling cauldron of fish, and by the rousing whoosh! as the whales break through, mouths gaping like giant crows, close enough to see their bristly baleen and smell their fishy breath.

One afternoon I saw sixty or seventy of these animals gathered in a three-mile circle around us, a forest of blows and bubble-nets, some five or six animals in each group, each group multiplied by ten, and each surrounded by its own cloud of squawking gulls. Some were kick-feeding, a technique unique to Gulf of Maine whales, flexing and bucking their tails at the surface, smacking the fish into submission. The ocean itself seemed to be exploding. Our puny craft was completely diminished by the spectacle, a performance played out to a soundtrack of itself: a symphony of cetaceans, rising and falling with their own rhythms and unconscious beauty, repeated over and again in arpeggios of flukes and sinews and swollen throats so close together that they might push each other out of the water in their frantic efforts to feed.

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Belly to belly, head to head, they were gathering up the bait as if they were afraid the food might run out. I could even see the sand lances leaping out of their mouths, in a futile bid for freedom. Delumba’s father, who has fished these waters for forty years and has the missing digits to prove it, had never seen so many whales, too many to count or record. All we could do was to stand and stare as flukes broke the surface in every direction, leaving no square metre of ocean untenanted by a whale, each animal moving independently and yet in unison.

What struck me then, and does so even more as I try to reimagine what I saw, was the surroundness of it all; the fact that we were incidental to this act of ancient choreography; not so much spectators as prisoners, unable to move as we were encircled by the whales and their proprietorial blows. It was as if humans had never happened, as if the ocean had reverted to another Eden. We had to wait while they got on with the business of eating, of laying comprehensive claim to the world on which we merely floated. In their rising breath and dying fall all the power and poignancy of life seemed wrapped, fraught with dramatic suspension; an exchange of exhalation and inhalation which scares me to think of it. Yet that sound, which I can replay in my head even as I write, is also oddly consoling, a reminder of our common ground, a reassurance that everything will be all right, even if it will not. Perhaps whales will teach me how to live, just as my mother taught me how to die.

The same symmetry that had drawn me out of the city and back to where I was born had drawn the circle to a close: from the then when I needed my mother, to the now when she needed me; although she would never admit that she did, not in public, anyhow. She was fiercely independent, and would never submit. But I heard her on the phone to my sister, bemoaning her situation, and as creeping arthritis, which no amount of whale medicine would mend, added to her long list of ailments and her retreating senses, its crippling lock took hold of her legs and her fingers and her spine–even as I felt it in my own fingers. I overheard her, lying alone in bed, telling herself she would never walk again. She had always told me that at the end, when she was no longer needed, she would go down to Weston Shore, and just keep on walking. Now she couldn’t even do that.

That September, soon after I had returned from the Cape, I was summoned by an early morning phone call to the hospital. My mother had suffered a severe heart attack. For a week, she lay there, slowly ebbing away on a hospital bed, with her family around her. At one point, I followed her as she was wheeled into intensive care, an air-locked, semi-darkened chamber where the blips and beeps of the other souls caught in limbo lay between life and death, emitting their own forlorn sonar. Only weeks before, I was a patient here, albeit for only an hour, my body sent through the claustrophobic scanner which knocked loudly like a poltergeist as it analysed my brain, trying to find the source of the eternal ringing in my ears, as if I were listening to some distant machinery. Now, in the same building, my mother lay wired up to her own machine, spread-eagled like an animal in an experiment, her long grey hair pulled tight by an elastic band. Her eyes never opened or closed, but she called my name.

In those days, the details of which only now seem to come back to me, I lived in the hospital, wandered its corridors, sometimes walking in the cemetery set, with shocking efficiency, across the road, where the early autumn sun shone low through the trees, their fading leaves filtering the light. Then, in the dark hours before dawn, as I awoke suddenly on the camp bed made up by her side, I heard her breath slow to an imperceptible halt, from being to not being, leaving me, another orphan. And as I bent over the bed–so quiet as if not to wake her–her mouth let out a final little gasp, just as mine gave its first fifty years ago.

For now he was awake and knew

No one is ever spared except in dreams

W. H. Auden, ‘Herman Melville’

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