the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.
All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge
on and on, and dive beneath the icebergs.
. . .
And they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages
on the depths of the seven seas,
and through the salt they reel with drunk delight
and in the tropics tremble they with love
and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods.”
-- D.H. Lawrence, “Whales Weep Not!”
The whales they go Confucius-like
All heart, all fat and shimmery
born of water as every god
and as my life would tell you I was too,
if my life could speak
in anything other than whale song. Above
the water, we snapped shutters and waited for a breach.
Below the water, the whales moved like spirit
horses, placid in their fields. Silently they displaced elements,
moving not to trouble the water but to wrap themselves
in its reflection of sky.
My sons, wildest, most urgent, born
of water and come to life, immortal as the blue beneath the cloud,
these children go with strong desire, god-like, beyond the depths
and god-like they return
to their faithful, trembling with wonder.
Dedicated to Forrest, Nathan and Luca
The Vancouver Whale Watching Expedition office was crammed with sales brochures and racks of post cards, logo-emblazoned t-shirts, caps and hoodies, boxes of granola bars, and anxious whale-seekers, paid in full. Chiara and I waited in line for the one tiny bathroom while we heard the group leaders issuing instructions on the overflow balcony outside, where busy nature-lovers rushed to outfit themselves, bandying about the flotsam of camera straps and Captain America backpacks. Hopping on one leg, then another, we rushed out to zip our vacation-fed selves into day-glo orange suits, suiting up like astronauts embarking on an interplanetary mission.
After a tense morning spuming with typical squabbles that arise on family trips: where to eat, who’s watching the kids, who forgot to order Nathan’s sausage roll and why this and you that and don't blame me’s, I was finding it difficult to believe that our outing would reward us with the promised calm. I fumbled with my words and my feelings and just couldn’t feel settled, even though I was with my best friend and together we had been known to solve not only our own problems but the entire world’s over the course of two cappuccinos. While we killed time waiting to get on the boat, I tried to let peace settle over me like a blanket but all I felt was a cover of spit-gray drizzle.
Despite the late July warmth of the city, out here in the seaside fishing village, temperatures allowed for knitted beanies and a hoodie or two underneath the lumberjack/aerospace jumpsuits the color of a fluorescent hi-liter pen, rendering us recognizable from space should aliens have their scopes honed in on an Italo-American expedition of two moms, two dads, three little boys, two big boys and a 14-year old daughter, along with a junior oceanographer, a “captain” (All due respect to his rank but the kid was 25 years old and probably knew more about beer bonging than he did about boat captaining) and the captain’s buddy and their two girlfriends who had been invited on board to round out the private charter.
Once our cruise was underway, the suits blocked the 30+ mph winds that whipped through our hair and dried out our teeth on the open waters as we zoomed over the waves at a speed twice that of maximum wind velocity. They also served as flotation devices should the hovercraft capsize from jumping unmanageably high waves that our “captain” was only too eager to careen up and over. Before he’d gunned the engines, he’d taught us some nautical sign language. If we were enjoying the roller coaster thrill ride, we were to jut our thumbs into the air and thrust them upwards. Have you seen this gesture before? It is somehow meant to convey utter joy, a sheer joie de vivre from which the captain was free to extrapolate a request to GO FASTER.
The kids loved it and honestly, so did I. With every whitecap we wrestled and won over, I felt the bricks in my internal walls crumbling. When we bounced, laughter bubbled out of me. Captain Kegger and his need for speed had cured my melancholia. The trip was proving therapeutic after all, and we hadn’t even reached the whales yet.
And if we did get tossed out of the glorified rubber raft, at least we’d bob up and down until we were picked up by the Coast Guard, or until the whales mistook our bodies for tomatoes floating in the ocean’s minestrone. What a pleasant way to go, soupily sloshing along in the belly of a whale.
We all know killer whales are only called that because early hunters witnessed them ravenously lunching on sea lions. When they’re not snarfing down aquatic mammals, they’re quite docile, just chortling along in chilly waters, raising their young, singing their songs, posing for photo ops and making bank for the five or six observatory operations out in the bay with us that Friday afternoon.
Linked up by an elaborate walkie-talkie system, the boat crews let each other know when and where a whale pod had been spotted. A bit to the chagrin of the testosterone-set, our speed-demon-driven race came to an end when it was time for the real show to begin. We pulled up within 101 yards of a mother whale and her three young. The whale-watching police boat was out to enforce the restriction. I asked our guide lots of probing and potentially self-incriminating questions about the impact tour boats such as ours had on the populations, and she assured me: None. The whale families, whether transient or resident, would do what they were wont to do, regardless of human presence. And here is what they do:
they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages
on the depths of the seven seas,
and through the salt they reel with drunk delight
For about 90 minutes, they snuffed and snorted and they rocked and they reeled, and they did little else. They would surface, we would ooh and aah, shutters would snap rapidly, trying to capture that one Natty Geo money-shot. And as they did, we held our collective breath, hoping for a breach, a chance to glimpse those tell-tale white saddles. But according to the walkie-talkie talk, they hadn’t eaten all day. They needed to feed, so they weren’t in the mood to play. What looked to us like placid lap-swimming was actually hunting. I think the blood-thirstier among us would have been happy to watch a kill, but for the sake of the younger children, I was just as glad we weren’t privy to one.
The majesty of these creatures forms addictions, and watching them roll heavy and blow misted air, vaporizing the view, one could revel for a long, long while. They are poetry in motion. Eventually it is time for the watchers to move on. I believe our Luca wishes he were still there.
Luca is that friend who never stops smiling, unless he feels he has somehow let you down. He loves his sons and he loves his Chiara and he loves his friends with his leviathan heart. Confucius say, “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” That is Luca. He flew from Italy to watch the whales and was lucky enough to take a vacation along the way. As we ooh’ed and aah’ed that afternoon, asked our questions, thumbed-up, ate our granola bars, passed around our cameras, pointed here and there and wondered what might happen next, but eventually grew a little restless, throughout it all, Luca was transfixed, mute, awestruck. When they say humankind has lost its sense of wonder, I will tell them No, that holding of the breath while the world unfolds its mystery, it remains with Luca. Those who stand the most still are the ones whom wonder strikes within the soul.
The whales, they go Confucius-like, all heart, fat and shimmering, borne of water as you and God and chamber-pumping bridal jellyfish. But if we’d stayed out on that boat any longer, the natives would have mutinied with all their heart, steering the craft back to land and the vicinity of dinner. In the front row of the boat sat our 17-year old son and his best school mate, next to Luca and Chiara’s 8-year old boy. What did the three of them have in common, besides their innate curiosity, their tendencies to ogle beautiful girls, and their inability to function before breakfast? Their need for speed and the frequency with which they eat. And there intersects the Vin diagram between them and the whales.
Back at their headquarters, the teams of whale watchers had compiled extensive research, tracking, and documentation on several whale families, or “pods”, that frequented the area. Whether resident or transient status, the only thing that changes is the range — they all travel for one purpose: food.
Food. More than it sustains, more than it fortifies, it unifies, as do the similarities between wondrous god-like creatures of the sea and the teenagers who comport themselves like gods. They stroll through my front door, bee-line for my pantry, and traipse up the stairs to my son’s corner bedroom. Whether in antediluvian poetry or oceanographic categorization, the common traits are undeniable. “Hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.” Have you seen a high school junior, late for play rehearsal, hungry, can’t find his car keys, group-texting and tripping over himself with a confused elation that says, I’m coming-out-of-my-skin-restless yet I still want my mom to do my laundry? He can’t get out the door to freedom soon enough, but when he gets tired or runs out of money, he wants to bring the pretty girls home for dinner and more. “Hottest blood”, remember? “Massive, strong desire.” I know these guys’ hormones rage. I know they want to drink beer and set off fireworks. They want the captain to turn the speed up to maximum and break the dial. They love fiercely. They’re immortal. “They rock, through the sensual ageless age” of their late teens. And they inhale. All. The. Food.
At least they can be gracious about it. Once in a while, I’ve heard him brag to his friends about what a good baker his little sister is, and I have watched the little sister’s pride swell to a point where she’s perfectly okay that The Big Kids ate all the cookies she just baked. If hungry whales had been covering hundreds of miles of open water all day looking for cookies and finally came upon a fresh batch, I too would step out of the way.
And step out of the way is exactly what I must do, as this young man of mine prepares to split from his pod. The oceanographic guide went to a great deal of trouble to keep pointing out that the pod we were witnessing hadn’t always been one mother and three offspring, and that no one was sure what had caused the baby’s dorsal fin to be crooked. It would be a digression for me to start the musing now about my middle child’s quote unquote crooked dorsal fin. No one knew what caused it either, yet there it is. And do you know that for about an hour, as the whales surfaced again and again, I could not see the imperfection in the fin? Right there a hundred (and one) yards from my face, bent as an elbow akimbo, and yet I could not see what she was talking about, I couldn’t discern anything wrong, I couldn’t figure out why the Eff it mattered. I digress. . .
The pod hadn’t always been one mother and three offspring. At one point, there had been a fourth, but according to extended tracking, it had left and never come back. That’s not to say it wouldn’t. Whale pods expand and contract, more like amoeba than empty nests. The fourth could conceivably come back some day, and the mother whale would welcome him as if he’d never swum so far away. She would do his laundry. The sister would probably bake him some cookies. A double batch for a grand celebration, reeling with drunk delight, and trembling with love.
Whales are like Ovid’s spirit horses, gravid in their fields. Silently they take the winded elements into their skin, silently they move, not to trouble the waters but to wrap themselves in its reflection of sky.
I wrapped myself in my reflections on the whales and hardly spoke a word on the return trip. Nothing could be heard over the roar of the motor anyway. We tucked our skull caps tighter over our ears and zipped our moonsuits tighter against the chill. Sometimes, when we become aware of greatness, or of a settling in the bones that words can’t name, the chill comes from within. Sometimes intermittent rain drops sting and spatter our cheeks, but then they stop and the sun comes out to warm the seals and sea lions basking on the rocks and buoys. Sometimes we need something as massive as a whale to make us forget the problems of a morning. Sometimes the corners of our mouths turn upward and the laughter erupts when a sloshing bashing captain guns his engines and jumps the waves so we can rush through the gray and brackish in search of the rare and mystical. Their pods as fluid as cloud, birthing then freeing their young in an open embrace that envelops the folding quality of time. May all our days be as filled with wonder as whale-watching days, when everybody in the boat, wind-whipped and giddy with speed on the open water, raises their thumbs in a gesture for more: more adrenaline, more moments like this, more wild and more urgent and more wondrous and more oceanic and more still, and more still.