Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Remembering Virginia and the Whales

In 2005, at just about this time of year, I went to Baja California with Virginia and another friend to visit the gray whales in Scammons Lagoon.  Last week, Virginia died.  I know she would agree that we spent one afternoon in Paradise with the whales.  Here is the way it happened.

I've made it once again to another place where I know there are whales.  But I've never been able to actually see one in the wild.  The day is beautiful - warm and sunny.  The large lagoon is quite pretty with it's fringe of white sand dunes.  As the boat skips over the waves with the sea air and the wind in my face, I can enjoy just this.  But I hope this will be my time to see a whale in the wild.

Can that be a whale?  Yes, I see a mass in the water spouting its air through its two blowholes.  One of the twelve passengers on our small boat shouts, "There's one."  Another whale is lifting its huge head out of the water spyhopping, like in the picture I put over the bathroom sink and looked at every day for a year.

I'm seeing whales -- for real -- in the wild!  They're huge and glide by silently, without even the tiniest splash.  I enjoy the way they are at one with the water.  How I wish I could take in 360 degrees with my eyes.  I hate to miss any chance to see them.  I'm taking pictures even though I know I'm too far away to get a decent shot.

Is that - yes, it's a baby swimming beside its mother.  A 1,500-pound baby gray whale is so adorable!  After the 5,000 mile migration from the Arctic to Baja California, Mexico, then delivering the big bundle of joy, how can the other produce 50 gallons of milk a day?  And she hasn't  eaten since she left the Arctic months ago.  Nature's adaptations defy logic.
I think - yes, that baby has just fallen or intentionally tumbled off mom's back.  The tail is so tiny and cute compared to mom's.  They said there were 1,500 gray whales in this lagoon at the last count only a week ago.  How wonderful to be hanging out on a sunny day in the company of these amazing creatures.

With the boat's motor off, the silence is lovely, punctuated only by excited shouts of "There's one."  But no, it's not really silent.  I've never heard such a sound in a sea before.  I can actually hear the whales breathing all around me.  I know it's the whales that are breathing, but I feel the water, the sea itself, is alive in a way I've never experienced before.
We begin to distinguish the footprints of the whales - flat areas on the sea where they've gone down.  I know that sometimes the whales will come very close to the boats.  I'd like that, but if it doesn't happen, I feel content being in their company inhabiting the same place on a warm, sunny day.

Ohhhh, my god!  There's one right next to our boat.  It seems to go on forever, like watching a freight train roll by.  But it's going by so slowly, so intentionally slowly.  I am trying to digest what I've seen when someone says, "It's still down there."  I can see the mottled barnacle-encrusted bulk, and distinct fins.  It's going under the boat.  I rush the short distance to the other side to watch it come up again and roll over ever so gently.  Someone from the boat puts out her hand and touches it as it glides by.

Now everyone wants the chance to touch it,  but this one stays tantalizingly out of reach.  "It's too close," exclaims a photographer who no longer needs a zoom lens.
Its eye!  I want to see her eye!  Now we know "it" is a "she."  She's much too big to be a baby; we don't see a baby around her.  She has come to play with us.  It's true.  She actually wants to be with us.  Why else does she follow our boat?

She can hold her tail still in the air!  I didn't know whales could do that.  It looks like a huge flower growing out of the sea.  With the backdrop of the blue sky, blue-green water and the white sand dunes, it's perfect.  Hope the photographer got it.  But I have it in my memory, just in case.  Her tail is very distinctive because there's a rather large half-moon bite out of it.  Wonder what tail tales she could tell us.

How beautiful!  She's a ballet dancer too.  What an exquisite slow motion unfolding of her tail as she dives beneath the surface.  Those are the same powerful flukes once used in self-defense when they were called "devil fish" in the sad days of whaling.  We are in the same Scammons Lagoon, named for the captain who turned the waters deadly red from the whales' blood.

What's she doing with her tail now?  She's swirling up the water.  She's actually splashing us - not enough to hurt us, just enough to hear us gaily laughing.  How honored I feel that she wants to play with us mere mortals after all the terrible things we have done to her kin and their home, the ocean.  One flip of her massive fluke could easily destroy our boat and us.  But the furthest emotion from my mind is fear.  I am thrilled, fascinated, reverent.

Now I must see her eye.  It's hard to find among the barnacles.  Even when her huge head comes out to spyhop so close to the boat, I still can't find the eye.  And then she passes by - and I see it.  She's not looking at me, but still I feel a jolt of pure joy go through me.  It is magical.  It is mystical.  It is the most incredible single moment of my life!

I relax.  I have seen a whale's eye.  But I continue to dash from side to side.  What's that?  Someone is handing me a box lunch.  I don't want to eat.  I want to play some more with the two whales who have befriended us.  Oh no!  The boatman has started the engine.  We're leaving this idyllic spot.  When I look back, our whale is holding her tail with the half-moon bite up in the air.  I'm sure she's saying goodbye, and I want to cry.  I bid her namaste; the boat picks up speed.

Suellen Zima

Suellen Zima, the Senior Hummingbird, is a writer and blogger based in southern California. She is the author of Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, and Out of Step: A Diary to My Dead Son.

1 comment:

  1. Suellen, your posts are always informative and a delight to read!