The Chase - The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare 

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

Chapter 15. The Chase

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

Job

‘Now, Philip.’

João’s command is urgent, unexpected. There is no time to get into my wet suit. I scramble to spit into my mask and jam the snorkel into my mouth. Marco stands on my fins so that I can push my feet into them. Climbing over the side of the rigid inflatable boat, I am launched into the Atlantic.

I am swimming in waters more than two miles deep. I can’t see ahead of me. Below the blue gives way to complete black, the kind of impenetrable black I only ever saw in a cave in Cheddar Gorge as a child, when the guide turned the lights out and told us that we would never experience such a profound darkness.

João shouts directions from the boat. It is getting smaller with every minute that I swim away from it, away from safety, into the unknown. I might as well be swimming into outer space.

I hardly knew it, as we hurried to leave the harbour, but the conditions were perfect. The sea’s surface was glassy, barely rippling in the summer sun. João, with his cropped hair and an orca tattooed on the calf of his leg, scanned the horizon through his sunglasses; Marco, his first mate, peering in the other direction as he hung from the superstructure of the rib, a modern-day whaleboat with a 250-horsepower engine.

As we picked up speed out of the harbour, a pod of common dolphins had zoomed out of nowhere and into our path, playing at the bow. Competing to be first, they rode so close I could easily have reached out and touched them. Steel blue and dove grey, their hour-glass, go-faster stripes were raked with each other’s teeth marks; as cute as they looked, these animals were bigger than me. They swam in water so clear that they appeared to float in a vacuum, streams of silver bubbles trailing from their blowholes. As they twisted and turned their bodies to peer up at us, it seemed as though they were escorting us to some appointed meeting, here at the end of the world.

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Then something larger loomed ahead. Even from a mile away, I knew it was a whale–albeit one unlike any other I had ever seen before. Its blow was utterly distinctive, spouting at forty-five degrees to the surface. Instantly I saw the reason for the Latin name. It really was a big-headed blower; Physeter even sounded like its bursts of exhaled breath.

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As the boat drew closer, I could make out a grey shape, lying like a pale shiny log in the water. It was difficult to tell one end from the other: which was the head and which the dorsal fin? Then, as it rose to take its breath, I saw its single nostril, wantonly lopsided. It was shockingly strange. The animal was an arrangement of sun-burnished bumps, ‘compared to little else than a dark rock, or the bole of some giant tree’, as Frederick Bennett wrote in the 1830s.

As the head lifted out of the water, I saw that it was not alone. Quietly, it became part of an assembly. Further off lay two or three animals, then yet more until, almost disguised by the waves, a group of ten or twelve sperm whales hung there, breathing in rhythm with the sea, a rhythm that caught my breath too as the boat rose and fell with the swell.

All that was five minutes ago, but it might have been a lifetime. Now I was fighting for air in the water, trying to remember to breathe through my nose and not my mouth, like them.

‘To your left, Philip!’ João called through cupped hands. I had no idea which was left and which was right. I kicked my legs furiously, but I didn’t seem to be going anywhere. The waves seemed to push me back and under. With my heart pounding in my ribs, I took a deep breath and peered beneath me, down into the unknown.

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It was as if I were looking into the universe. The blue was intangible yet distinct; untouchable and all-enveloping, like the sky. I felt like an astronaut set adrift, the world falling away beneath me. Floating in and out of focus before my eyes were a myriad of miniature planets or asteroids, some elliptical, some perfect spheres. Set sharply against the blue, the glaucous, gelatinous micro-animals and what seemed to be fish roe moved in a firmament of their own, both within and beyond my perception.

I was moving through another dimension, suspended in salt water, held over an earth that had disappeared far below. I could see nothing ahead. The rich soup on which those same tiny organisms fed combined to defeat my sight, reducing lateral visibility as they drifted like dust motes caught in the sunlight.

Then, suddenly, there it was.

Ahead, taking shape out of the darkness, was an outline familiar from words and pictures and books and films but which had never seemed real; an image I might have invented out of my childhood nightmares, a recollection of something impossible. Something so huge I could not see it, yet which now resolved itself into reality.

A sperm whale, hanging at the surface. I was less than thirty feet away before I saw it, before its blunt head, connected by muscular flanks to its infinite, slowly swaying flukes, filled my field of vision.

In a moment that seemed to go on for ever–catching my breath in my perspex mask, my limbs frozen with panic and excitement, my body held in suspense, not wanting to go forward but never wanting to go back–the distance between us closed.

Its great grey head turned towards me, looking like an upright block of granite, overwhelmingly monumental. Its entirety was my own. That was all I could see: far taller and wider than me, the front end of an animal which, it suddenly occurred to me, had one major disadvantage over the puny human swimming towards it. It could not see me. Its eyes could not take me in. I was approaching the whale from its blind spot. And it was coming closer.

What if it just kept on coming? The head bent down, bringing its ponderous dome to bear in my direction. Then I began to hear it.

Click-click-click, click-click-click, click-click-click.

A rapid series of sounds, creaking. I felt them, rather than heard them, in my breastbone; my ribcage had become a sound box. The whale was creating its own picture of me in its head; an MRI scan of the intruder, an outline of an alien in its world.

I felt my body let go, and peed into the water. A ridiculous thought passed through my mind: I had arrived unannounced, only to lose control of my bodily functions and piss on my host’s doormat. Then, at the crucial moment, the head turned, bowing slightly, as if in identification. Not edible. Not interesting.

From sheer fear the moment turned into something else. I realized that this was a female. A great mother hanging before me, intensely alive. For all her disinterest, it seemed there was an invisible umbilical between us. Mammal to mammal; her huge greyness, my unmothered paleness. Lost and found. Another orphan.

I could not believe that something so big could be so silent. Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant, and yet not quite. Recreated in her own dimension, in the dimension of the sea, I was taken into her otherness, my image in her head. As the whale turned past me, I saw her eye, grey, veiled, sentient; set in her side, the centre of her consciousness. Behind it lay only muscle, moving without effort. The moment lasted for ever, and for seconds. Both of us in our naked entirety, nothing between us but illimitable ocean.

Then she was gone, plunging soundlessly into the black, silhouetted against the blue, her shape so graphic it might have been created by computer, a CGI image set against a cinematic matt. Only as the distance between us increased–as the silence of her descent became hypnotic–was her ancient enormity revealed; something I had seen, and yet which I could not quite comprehend.

Back at the boat, Marco hauled me out of the water, and João smiled, shaking my hand and saying solemnly: ‘You are a lucky man.’

Over the next few days, I spent all my time at sea, beyond the land. I didn’t need my credit card or my keys. While people were shopping, eating, talking, waking, sleeping, I swam with whales.

Often I could not see the whales as I entered the water, and had to trust entirely in João’s shouted directions. Sometimes the animals would move so fast that they vanished before I could swim within sight. I watched their diminishing shapes, a trio of whales with their tails moving almost imperceptibly, powering them into the blue. But sometimes I found myself closing in, moving towards huge heads rising rhythmically with each blow as I blew air out of my own snorkel. I saw them on their level, rather than from above, as the great flukes rose on tails drawn vertically out of the waves–the hand of God so feared by the whalers–before plummeting with immense grandeur into the deep. I was within their world, rather than outside it; looking into it, rather than merely looking on.

Then the bad weather rolled in, and for days the seas lashed Pico, smashing white against the black rocky shores. The boats lay tied up in the harbour. At night, the Cory’s shearwaters, which by day followed the whales like courtiers, came in to roost, their ghostly shapes circling over the darkened harbour, singing almost comically, ‘sqwhack, sqwhack, sqwhaaackkk’.

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I lay in bed, unable to close my eyes. Every time I did, I would see the whale. All my life I had dreamed about whales. Now the void had been filled; or rather, I had been taken into it. What was I trying to prove? All my fears of loss and abandonment and being left behind seemed to be summed up in this confrontation, so extreme that it induced a state of suspended hallucination. As I lay sleepless in a hired bed, I thought I might lose my senses entirely, in the early hours of the morning, the same time when I had lain on the floor in the hospital ward, listening to the breath that had brought me into the world slowing to a halt.

Then, in the seeping light of morning, with the volcano looming out of the dawn beyond my window, the sea abruptly calmed, like a hand stretched over its surface.

Lowering the hydrophone over the side, João listened intently to the clicks echoing over the ocean. Beneath us, under the thin floor of the boat, the whales announced their position, the clicks increasing in intensity, in patterns I could not discern–

click–click–click ~ click-click-click ~ click-click-click

–accelerating ever closer, entirely in charge of a world over which we floated. It was as if they were resounding miles below, even as they radioed their presence to other whales miles apart. Tuned in to some unseen circuit of food and communal intent, they knew instinctively where they were, while we wonder constantly what on earth we are doing.

A smooth rounded shape ploughed through the water towards us, its melon and pointed beak the unmistakable form of a beaked whale. ‘For me, it was a Sowerby’s,’ said João. It was a species I knew only as a model in the museum or a picture in my handbook: ‘Mesoplodon bidens. Status: unknown; Population: unknown; Threats: unknown’.

The seas were alive off this island of rarities. Suddenly, animals were everywhere, conjured up out of the otherwise empty sea, as though one of my manuals had come to life. The sheer variety was astounding. Pods of oceanic striped and spotted dolphin raced past, their markings like fine china, followed by a school of short-finned pilot whales, calves swimming so close to their mothers’ sides that they seemed attached by invisible strings. A manta ray swam under our keel, like a great bat. Marco picked up a passing hawksbill turtle. It eyed us suspiciously before being released back to the sea, where it paddled incongruously like an overgrown tortoise.

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The life leapt out of the ocean: as we sped past the vertical cliffs on which the vigia stood, something butterfly-like shot out of the waves, level with my eyes–a flying fish with rainbow wings, an unreal, glittering invention like some fantastical clockwork toy. Even the sea’s surface was decorated with drifting Portuguese men o’ war, their inflated bladders edged with a fluorescent pink frill, trailing colonies of magenta and purple tentacles, each an animal in its own right. I wanted to reach out and right the aimless creatures as they were blown over by the wind like lost balloons, although I knew my reward would be a potentially lethal sting.

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Ahead, there were blows. The whales had returned, drawing deep breaths on long dives in search of food. As they passed us, a red, ragged lump floated to the surface: a giant chunk of leftover squid, its tentacles torn like meat fed to lions in a game park.

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One whale lunged on its side, close to starboard, its pale speckled jaw visible through the water. Another slowly raised its squared-off snout as it spy-hopped, bringing its eyes level to look at us, even as we looked at it; at that moment, the entire animal was hanging vertically in the ocean, perpendicular to the surface.

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These details were lessons in the natural history of sperm whales; I was being given a personal crash-course in practical cetology. Often I saw the animals’ wrinkled flanks, bark-like creases running from head to tail, bodies puckered as though they had spent too long in the water. Coming upon a group of three females, the adults dived in sequence, leaving their calf behind as if we were baby-sitters. When they resurfaced–a grey flotilla with heads rising as prows–to collect their charge, it seemed we had got too close, and the nearest adult slapped the surface sharply with her flukes, warning us to keep our distance.

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These waters were their home: their nursery, their living space, their dining room. One whale raised its flukes and squirted out a cloud of reddish poo, rank with the odour and colour of digested squid. Another left behind a sliver of sloughed skin. João scooped it up out of the water and gave it to me. It had the same colour as the whale, but was gossamer-thin, lying like skein of grey snot in my hand. Later, I laid it on a page of my journal, where it dried to a tissue yet smelled as strong as ever–the ‘peculiar and very strong odour’ which impressed Beale, and which Ishmael could smell from miles away, ‘that peculiar odor, sometimes to a great distance given forth by the living sperm whale, was palpable to all the watch’. It was also deeply male and musky, strangely sexual and arousing, like the little bottle of sperm oil I found on a shelf at Arrowhead.

…you may scrape off with your hand an infinitely thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds of isinglass, only it is almost as flexible and soft as satin; that is, previous to being dried, when it not only contracts and thickens, but becomes rather hard and brittle. I have several such bits, which I use for marks in my whale-books. It is transparent, as I said before; and being laid upon the printed page, I have sometimes pleased myself with fancying it exerted a magnifying influence. At any rate, it is pleasant to read about whales through their own spectacles.

The Blanket, Moby-Dick

I never failed to thrill to the appearance of the whales in those days at sea. Falling in synch with their cycle, with the swell of the sea, I came to know when to expect their arrival, and when they were about to leave. Hour after hour we would wait for them to surface; sometimes I would lie in the prow of the boat, from sheer exhaustion, falling asleep in the sun–only to be roused by the appearance of another animal: the plosive announcement as it arrived, its rounded head breaking the surface; the minutes it spent ‘rafting’, lying like a panting dog catching its breath after a run. Then the head would rise as it took its last breath, the body straightening briefly before the back arched, the great ridge of knuckles flexing beneath the taut skin like a resurgent mountain range. Finally, the animal pulled up its tail and levered itself into the ocean.

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This announced sequence, invariable and majestic–the muscular tail, so much more upright than any other whale I had ever seen, like some vast grey tree trunk; the powerful backbones exposed, just as the colour of your bones is revealed when you clench your hand to make a fist; the trailing edge which announced the individual’s identity–all this was constantly strange and exciting. It induced a state of perpetual nerves: to be witness to this repeated beauty was almost too much. Yet there was also something immemorial about the articulate right-angledness of its leaving, the flexibility of something so huge–the presentation of the distinctive shape of its flukes which marked it out, their geographic lines echoing the island on the distant horizon–before vanishing with barely a ripple, so sublime was the animal’s re-entry. It was at this moment that the whales seemed at their most dinosaurian, most prehistoric; it was easy to believe, at such times, that these creatures were older than any other. Then the waiting began all over again.

Ah the world, oh the whale.

All day I sat in my wet suit, as rubbery as the side of the rib, nervous, ready. Two or three times there were false alarms as João could not get his boat ahead of the whales; to approach from any other angle would be futile, as his predecessors knew.

The sun beat down, turning my body brown, tattooing my neck and wrists with tidelines to remind me of my encounter. The waves lapped languorously at my feet as I dangled them over the side. I wanted to get back in.

‘Let’s go.’

This time I was ready, protected against the deceptive chill of the sea; insulated, like the whale. I dropped over the side, fingertips leaving go, letting my body bob in the water and find its own buoyancy. João’s shouted directions drifted away with the boat. I was left alone, moving steadily towards the whale.

It was a juvenile, about ten years old–João said later–and its pronounced melon meant it was a male; I had learned that the older the animals, the paler they became. But he was still bigger than our boat as he lay there, his greyness shining in the sun.

This time, as the whale came into view underwater, the fear in me subsided as I took in his unbelievable beauty. Forcing my body down, I felt oddly calm. I relaxed; my heart rate began to slow, and I tried to open my eyes wider, to optimize what I could see. Looking into the water, through the sun’s rays that played on it from above, I concentrated, committing to memory, even as I saw them, the elements of the whale.

The colour and texture of his skin, shading from smoothness into wrinkled flanks. The rippling muscles, the slatted flukes like an aeroplane’s tailfins. His tightly clamped jaw merely made him more placid, playful, even. He did not seem in any hurry to leave. He hung there. And then he turned towards me.

I knew now that the whales had the measure of me; that they knew what I was, even if I could not comprehend them; that I was an object in a four-dimensional map, appraised in six senses. Every nuance of their movement took account of mine. Where I struggled to maintain my balance, to remain part of the encounter, they entirely controlled its choreography.

The young whale moved alongside. Noiselessly, for minutes that seemed like hours, we swam together, eye to eye, fin to fin, fluke to fluke. His movements mirrored my own as we moved in parallel. Black neoprene and grey blubber. Scrawny human and muscled whale. I wasn’t afraid any more.

Back in the boat, I watched as the whale turned in a circle. Raising his head one last time, he dipped down, then lifted his flukes, and was gone.

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