eye of the beholder
We huddle on deck, our senses heightened on waves of anticipation. A brisk wind whips at the ocean and our hopes, creating peaks and troughs. As the boat rises and falls on the swell, our minds lurch to and fro. Will we see whales? How many? How close? What if we see nothing? The last is too painful to contemplate. We are all gathered here from every corner of the globe, for a glimpse, a chance. Some are here for only a day. Some will stay until they get what they came for. All of us are bewitched by the same obsession.......whales.
Each year between May and November, humpback whales hitch a ride on the East Australian Current, the warm ocean highway that travels from speeds of 2 to 7 knots, transporting marine life up and down the coast. Today, it’s the end of November. The last of the whales are swimming south with their newborns, to the rich feeding grounds of Antarctica. Everyone knows there is a risk we may be too late in the season. On the other hand, if we’re in luck, we could get lots of “up time”. The mother and calf will be spending more time on the surface so the calf can take more frequent breathes, swimming slower so the calf can keep up. We all want to relax and enjoy this daytrip with nature, but it is within our nature to obsessively re-calculate the calculated risk we have taken. The engines churn through the ocean as we all trawl our minds for some serenity. Are we too late in the season? Will we see whales? Yes, we are completely obsessed.
Everyone races to starboard. A mother and calf! The couplet perform a fluke up dive and a tail swipe only a few metres from the boat! We are all flushed with excitement ........ and then it’s over. How long? “Down time” can last anywhere between 20 seconds and 15 minutes. In our minds we astrotravel underwater with the pair; our brief communion now effecting a kind of psychic link. We too are almost breathless, waiting for the moment when they surface. “THERE!” Everyone races to port. A pectral slap this time. Then another fluke up dive.
Each time the whales surface, we are transfixed. We can’t take our eyes off them. When they are submerged our eyes frantically scan the ocean with the anguish of a parent searching for a lost child. The “footprint” of their last position still etched into the swell and our retinas.
We race across. The mother raises its head clear of the surface and, yes, it is undeniable....... she looks at us. She is really looking at us. What does she see? Are we people on a boat? Does she see us and the boat as one great animal? Does she spy on us with curiosity or concern? What does she tell her calf about our presence? It is impossible to guess at what is seen by the eye of this beholder.
As I look into that eye, I think about her life. She is close to starvation. Since leaving the feeding grounds in Antarctica and travelling to the breeding grounds in Queensland to give birth, she has had nothing to eat. Nothing. She suckles her baby, nourishing it with the life within her that is fading. She will only just make it. What drive pushes her on? The memory of the feast of krill that awaits? Perhaps her own life is unimportant now. She will get her baby to the feeding grounds, driven by the mighty engine, not of self-preservation, but of maternal instinct. I think about the drive that pushes us to watch her in awe. The deep instinct within us, so denied and obscured by our daily lives. The primeval need to be one with nature. This is why our hearts leap in a synchronous dance with the whales.
My co-travellers are of many different colours and creeds but in this moment we are all believers and worshippers of nature, whipped up into an exhilaration to rival any religious rapture.
Suddenly, it’s over.
There is much shaking of hands. Promises of photos to be emailed, extracted and given in many accents. Intimate smiles between total strangers, now bonded by a shared ecstasy. Each traveller leaves for their next adventure.
But today, I am not a traveller. Sydney is my home. The Sydney coastline is my backyard. I am not bound for the next exotic location. I’m simply going home to cook dinner.
When I arrive, my children are still planted in front of the TV, like a couple of limp plants deprived of water and sunshine.
“See any whales mum?”
“Yes, I did.”