They sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent....
Whales Weep Not
First it seems you have lowered yourself into a bucket of absurdly blue paint. The clear Hawaiian sea absorbs all other color. You sense depth only because shafts of sunlight, refracted by the surface, converge on a point uncomfortably far below. The blue is so uniform in all directions except up that you can see perfectly well that there is nothing to see.
Then comes an outrider, a dolphin, moving swiftly, its body as mottled as marble. It turns its head and fixes you with a pulse of clicks. You are echo-located. As the dolphin passes, it knows the number of your ribs, the churning of your heart.
A great quadrant of the sea darkens and divides into shapes, and you have no time to wonder whether whales are oversentimentalized, because here they come, at alarming speed. The leading-animal, a female, has a second dolphin riding the pressure wave ahead of her jaw. The nine-foot dolphin seems a guppy about to be inhaled by a salmon.
The whale is powerfully undulant and—you see as she nears—pleated and knobby. Beneath her, within a protective circle made by her 15-foot pectoral fins, glides a calf a third her length. Those two are followed by a running battle. Four adult male whales, one with white pectorals that flash turquoise through the depths, lunge and collide, arch and bash heads. The sea is filled with otherworldly squeals, chuffs and wails. Huge mushrooms of bubbles are sent into spirals by the beating of the great tails. The ridges down the pursuing whales' spines have been scraped raw.
Because their sounds are born deep within 80,000-pound bodies, and because you can't tell sound direction underwater, the whales' exclamations seem to come from far away and all around. The impression is of being in a vast room ringing with significance, the whole of it ungrasped.
These leviathans are not waiting around to be deciphered. In the 15 seconds before they are beyond the sphere of your vision, the whales fill the blue and define its space. They are ships in flight, genuinely extraterrestrial. They might as well have rows of winking lights. You break the surface, at once awestruck and voracious, wild to know what you have seen.
You climb—bug-eyed, shivering, yipping—back aboard the 15-foot Zodiac inflatable boat used by Deborah Glockner-Ferrari, who, assisted by her husband, Mark Ferrari, is studying the distribution, reproduction and behavior of these humpback whales. For 14 years Glockner-Ferrari has been out among them with camera, notebook and tape recorder during the four months of the year that the whales gather off Lahaina, Maui.
"That's an active group," says Ferrari, employing the rather mild term for males fighting for dominance while accompanying a female about to enter estrus. "Those males at the back are having semifinals to see who gets a title shot at the escort male, the one in the prime position closest to the female." As you sit on the warm rubber gunwale of the boat and shed fins, mask and snorkel, you see that the horizon is bounded by the islands of Molokai, Lanai and the whale's-back profile of Kahoolawe. The mountainous bulk of Maui behind you shields these waters from the northeasterly trade winds.
That's why the town of Lahaina—which grew up as a port for 19th-century whalers—is here. That's why the whales are here. Newborn humpbacks, though 14 feet long and weighing two tons, are born with only a small amount of insulating blubber, so they must be introduced to their world in a warm, protected sea, or so the Ferraris speculate.
But humpbacks are baleen whales. They strain their food—huge quantities of herring and inch-long red prawns called krill—from the sea with the baleen, or whalebone, sieves in their mouths. The only oceans that produce zooplankton soup thick enough to sustain them are near the poles. The two basic needs of the species, food and reproduction, can only be met thousands of miles apart. Humpbacks must migrate. And because of that some of the humpbacks that winter in Hawaii are now in extraordinary peril.
For they summer off Alaska. In midspring, pods of these whales will depart for their summer grounds. Some, traveling along still-unknown routes, will head to the sheltered, if not protected, waters of southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound. There, in one of the richest ecosystems on the face of the earth, they have always gorged on storms of krill.
Now they swim toward a vandalized feeding ground, still choked with the residue of the more than 10 million gallons of crude oil sent into the sea by the Exxon Valdez.
"Will we have humpbacks dead? We don't know," says Ferrari, trying to keep his voice level. "It's a hell of an experiment. We know that at least 150 whales in the North Pacific population feed in Prince William Sound. If you've ever seen them eat, coming to the surface with that giant mouth wide open, taking in water, fish, krill, everything, straining it, processing it, then you understand why, if a baleen whale ingests thick oil...it could be terrible." Even if the humpbacks are able to detect and avoid actual slicks or the submerged tar balls, the herring and krill cannot. Oil has by now entered the Alaskan ocean food chain. "If it's in the ocean, it's in the crab, the fish," says Ferrari. "They're closing the herring season because the fish might be toxic. That's the human herring season."
The toll of the Exxon Valdez spill on the humpback population will take six months to a year to know. Meanwhile, the Ferraris, who always savor their subjects, savor them more, for their return is not at all guaranteed.
Near the Zodiac, a boiler explodes. It is the sound of a humpback's exhalation, or blow. Ferrari starts the outboard and drives in pursuit of a maelstrom of flukes and foam. Two whales rise half out of the water, their heads rammed together, their long stiff fins slapping each other like flailing sumo wrestlers. (It hits you that there really are no similes. Whales themselves are our race's fundamental metaphors for size, and for the unknowable.) Then they are down. It's quiet. Ferrari keeps his hand on the throttle, and you stare into the deep. "On a cloudy day, when you can't see into the water," he says, "they can surprise you and come up tail-lashing. Once they missed us with a fluke by a foot, but we have never been swamped."
It's a miracle. Ten feet from the tiny craft, two rolling, streaming bodies lift their 18-foot-wide tails and dive on the others below.
Naturalist Richard Ellis has written, "...whales appeal to people who appreciate the change in fall foliage or the first snowfall...or nuthatches walking upside down on the side of a tree." These humpbacks would appeal to fans of the 49er defensive line.
"Not that they try to hurt you," says Ferrari, "but when they are in an active group, getting out of your way is not their top priority."
Of course, most people don't get anywhere near these whales. Federal law prohibits coming within 100 yards of the endangered humpbacks, 300 yards in some specified calving areas south of Lahaina. The maximum penalty is a year in jail, confiscation of your vessel and a $25,000 fine, although the biggest fine ever imposed, by a federal court in Hawaii, has been only $1,500. Boats that find themselves bow-to-nose when curious whales turn and come to them are not cited.
The Ferraris, as accredited researchers, are permitted by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources to approach the whales as close as necessary for their work. Their photo study of pigmentation patterns on the flukes, flanks and pectoral fins (they can identify more than 700 individual humpbacks) is not bothersome to the animals. And clearly this mob of hormone-stoked beasts won't sit still for underwater pictures. "Hour after hour, day after day, they spend that energy," says Glockner-Ferrari.
"And make a pair of at least 3,000-mile swims," says her husband.
"And give birth, and nurse for months."
"All apparently without eating," says Ferrari. "What we know about them scientifically is very, very little. What we theorize is more. What we speculate is vast." As metaphors for mystery, they remain apt.
In 1900 there were perhaps 125,000 humpbacks, 15,000 of them in the North Pacific. Within 60 years commercial whaling had slaughtered all but 9,000 of them. Approximately 2,000 remained north of Hawaii. In 1964 humpbacks were at last protected, but their numbers have not appreciably increased. There are, at most, 1,500 humpbacks in the North Pacific. They are considered the third most endangered species of cetacean, after the right whale and the bowhead whale. This despite their amazing lust and a high birth rate. "We've seen 25 or 30 calves this season," says Ferrari. "We don't know how many of these will survive. It's hard to identify a whale you've observed as a calf after adult pigmentation has set in. So there are a lot more questions than answers about calf survival."
The humpback gestation period is 11 months. It was once thought that cows alternated winters of nursing with winters of mating and so could produce, at most, one calf every two years. Glockner-Ferrari, after observing whale No. 3208, a cow she named Daisy, show up in Hawaii with a calf four years running, and in seven out of 10 years, determined that birth and impregnation can take place in a single season.
The pod of whales moves offshore, into rising swells. The calf breaches, leaping almost clear of the water and twisting to land on its back. It leaps again, an image of power and antic spirit. Yet against the immensity of the open ocean, the animal looks no larger than a bobbing bottle. When the wind line is reached, that decisive border where the island no longer brushes aside the 25-knot trades, the researchers turn away to locate calmer waters and whales.
Listening, while the pounding Zodiac jars your teeth from your head, to the Ferraris discussing the blows of a solitary male "there, at Kahoolawe," or those of a cow, calf and escort, "there, over toward Lanai," while you squint and go blind seeing nothing but heaving horizon, is to begin to appreciate how well these people are suited to this task. They will drive the Zodiac a mile toward a spot before you detect the feathery puff that signals them there. You comprehend, as well, how vulnerable the greatest mammal is made by the white flag of its life's breath. Land animals must be hunted on the basis of knowing their habits, their weapons and weaknesses. In aboriginal societies, a man was said to take on the properties of the beasts he killed. What did the whale bestow on his hunter? Majesty. Awe. Good eyesight. In the case of Ahab, weirdness.
But it came cheap. Men hunted whales easily. The spouts of whales let them be seen in any ocean. Even in Melville's day of the open boat, when whales had the advantage of size, they—with the exception of the sperm whale—seldom turned and attacked their hunters. When the factory ships and explosive harpoon cannons came in. the whales had no chance.
Whales now seem the truest practitioners of Gandhian nonviolence. They have tested whether an act of violence injures the practitioner as much as the recipient. For this they have suffered perhaps two million losses in the last 50 years.
The Zodiac slows behind a family group: a cow and calf with but one male escort. Without pretenders, there is peace. After birthing and mating, the object of whale life in Hawaii is to nurse and rest. The two adults are taking 15-minute naps 100 feet down. The calf, which must take a breath of air every three to five minutes, commutes to the surface. Ferrari kills the engine, and you quietly slip over the side.
As soon as your face mask touches water there is spread out before you a vast, perfectly composed whale panorama. Which lasts all of three seconds. The cow performs a sudden seal-like swerve with outstretched fin that firmly directs the calf away from you. The whales sound, and disappear with three pumps of their flukes. They don't blow again until half a mile away.
"No visitors," says Glockner-Ferrari. Adamant in observing the whales' privacy, she never pursues animals who have taken evasive action.
Glockner-Ferrari, 38, is blonde, petite and resolute. An inexhaustible photographer, patiently changing O-rings nightly on the battle-scarred cameras Nikon has donated to the project, she cannot recall a time when sea creatures did not swim through her dreams. She graduated in 1972 from Louisiana State University with a degree in biochemistry, and worked for a while doing water quality surveys on the Gulf Coast until she herself was closely surveyed by an alligator. She then became a dolphin trainer for an aquarium in Gulfport, Miss., eventually traveling to Hawaii to continue her work. In 1975 she began her documentation of the humpback whales.
Ferrari, also 38, majored in psychology at St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. He had spent 10 years studying and photographing mountain lions, eagles, bears and wolves when he turned up in Hawaii, having "heard about this incredible lady with fantastic whale pictures." They have been married for nine years.
Working through their nonprofit Center for Whale Studies, they have amassed more than 70,000 slides of humpback whales, and Glockner-Ferrari has developed a method of underwater identification using the grooves on the whales' lower jaws. She is a member of the panel named by the federal government to devise a recovery plan for the species.
The Ferraris' work is supported by several grants, the largest coming from Wildlife Conservation International, a division of the New York Zoological Society. Kodak provides film. Hawaiian Airlines flies them and their equipment from the mainland to Maui and back. Glockner-Ferrari's parents gave them the Zodiac.
Most years when the whales leave Lahaina, the Ferraris go home to Walnut Creek, Calif., for seven months of analyzing data and slides. "Nobody visits you then," says Ferrari. In Maui, though, the Ferraris swear you to the secrecy of their unlisted number. Whales awaken a religious ardor in many people. Multitudes yearn to pass within the law's 100-yard cordon. The Ferraris cannot take them. The National Marine Fisheries Service permits only scientific colleagues and the occasional, well-scrutinized, indecently lucky assistant.
They can spare you only a square foot and a half in the Zodiac, amid the three plastic chests of cameras, film and equipment. Glockner-Ferrari almost always enters the water in a wet suit, but her husband just wears shorts. His legs often suffer staph infections from the beautiful but less than hygienic Lahaina water. Though they may be offshore all day, the stores on board consist only of fruit juice. The whales' fast is also their stewards'.
The Zodiac comes upon a less frenzied group than the first. You go into the blue. And wait. All you see are rising dots that grow into bubbles the diameter of dinner plates quivering up from the lower darkness. The humpbacks have passed under you.
"Bubbles aren't necessarily friendly," says Ferrari. "The escort male trails a line of bubbles that warns challengers away." Consequently, scuba divers have little luck with whales. Glockner-Ferrari has instructed you in proper whale-snorkeling technique. The idea is to bicycle slowly along the surface with fins well down to minimize bubbles. This technique is quickly forgotten when six animals, 200 tons of whale, come bearing down, charging the air with wet breath, and you are told to dump yourself in their path.
But below the surface you marvel at the humpbacks' control. Never are they jumbled or awkward. Occasionally vertical, they seem long-winged angels ascending through cathedral light. If only symbol-fevered Melville had had a mask and snorkel. He would have understood the whales as true creatures of depth, free to move in three dimensions rather than being pressed to some surface all the time.
When the whales are finally enfolded by the blue, you keep staring after them in case they circle back, but they're gone.
You haul yourself on board the Zodiac to hear Glockner-Ferrari say, "Humpbacks are the most romantic whales. They are graceful and expressive. They have human-shaped hand bones in their pectoral fins. They pull their calves in to them with their 'hands.' "
And they sing. Humpbacks produce a bewildering variety of social sounds, but the males are most astonishing for putting their heads down and pouring out thunderous, complicated, mournful songs that have been extensively studied but not the least explained. Because the humpbacks do most of their singing in the tropics, it is thought to have something to do with breeding. All those impassioned rutting battles must produce a share of melancholy losers.
Swimmers on Maui's shore often hear these songs. Human ears can hear them as far as 15 miles away. Biologist Roger Payne has speculated that before the noise of propeller ships, whales were able to hear things happening thousands of miles away. "They live in an acoustically rich environment," says Ferrari. "They are probably in touch with each other from all over."
Here's how in touch: The singers all sing the same song, which evolves each season, changing subtly. Yet whales wintering in Hawaii and those wintering 3,000 miles away in Mexico make the same changes—they sing the same song.
They might be discussing the fate of their calves. Consider the gauntlet the humpbacks must swim: To reach Alaska, whales must evade the 30,000 miles of 40-foot deep, three-inch-mesh, monofilament drift nets put out in the North Pacific every night by more than 800 Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese boats.
This is known as the "red squid fleet," because no international convention regulates the taking of squid. If squid is what you say you are fishing for, then the tuna, billfish and salmon you happen also to haul in, you keep—and the unmarketable sea birds, sharks and turtles that die in the nets, you dump. Adult whales tear and carry these nets away, to what outcome is not known. A calf, once enmeshed, cannot escape. In the same ocean roam pirates who ignore international agreements protecting whales in order to satisfy the single nation where whale meat still can be found on a restaurant menu—Japan.
"Hell, maybe it's good we don't know the route the humpbacks take to Alaska," says Ferrari.
Maybe the pirates already know.
Healthy humpbacks have few predators besides man. But orcas and sharks have been reported to feed upon both adults and calves.
With all this lying in wait, what concerns the researchers is the fighting trim that humpback calves attain before departing from Hawaii. Ferrari's infected legs bear witness to the quality of the near-shore environment, as do the lines of brown water downwind of visiting cruise ships. "It's the accompaniment of population," Ferrari says. "The effluent, the runoff of chemical sprays. It's human beings not understanding the consequences of our acts."
An immediate danger off Maui is the burgeoning number of thrill craft such as parasail boats and jet skis. "Parasailing operations use powerful boats," says Ferrari. "Naturally they pay attention to the parachutists they're towing. They do not see well in front of them."
Three days spent listening to the Ferraris as they alert the towboats to nearby whales leads one to the conclusion that parasailors don't hear well. The boats often come far closer to the whales than the law allows. "The adult whales are wise to them," says Ferrari, "but we've seen calves with apparent propeller injuries."
More important may be the effect that such constant high-speed activity has on the behavior of these acoustically supersensitive animals. "It's got to be like a chain saw outside your window," says Ferrari.
"It used to be that mothers and calves would rest all day along the shoreline," says Glockner-Ferrari. "Eighty percent of cow-calf sightings were right beyond the surf. Now it's five percent."
"If they don't rest," says Ferrari, "what is lost to the population? We don't know. If it affects the mothers' lactation, then calves might not be properly prepared for the swim to Alaska. The Endangered Species Act says the federal government must come up with a recovery plan. If it could restrict the parasail-ors during the months the whales are here, it would certainly be a contribution. The Mexican government protects Scammons Lagoon [on the Baja Peninsula] and the gray whales breeding there."
Recently, the Hawaii legislature passed a bill reaffirming the right of the state's Department of Transportation to restrict the use of commercial parasailing and other thrill craft (jet skis) in the areas and at the time of year when the whales are around. The DOT has already reduced the number of permits it will issue, but it has yet to stipulate any other regulations. Other organizations demand action: The Sierra Club, the Greenpeace Foundation and several Maui hotels have filed suit in federal court against the state's ocean management recreation plan because it allows jet skis and parasail boats to operate in areas used by humpbacks and threatened green sea turtles.
Thus, some predictably harsh lines have been drawn. One parasail operator told Glockner-Ferrari, "F——the whales."
"I'll convey your sentiments to the legislature," she said mildly. But carefully controlled whale-watching is also big business on Maui, so there is some lobbying muscle on the side of protection. Ferrari, who worries about the propensity of politicians to strike compromises when biology does not, says, "If we can't save whales, we can't save anything."
It is curious that ancient Hawaiian legends, which celebrate the spirit of every volcano, animal or fish that touched Hawaiian life, omit references to humpbacks. "Probably because they just began coming here some hundred years ago," says Glockner-Ferrari. "One theory is that they didn't always have to come this far because the northern Pacific water was warmer."
So it seems the whales could vanish from Hawaiian waters as abruptly as they came.
"We have to be careful," says Glockner-Ferrari, "that we don't end up with all this data and defeat our purpose. We don't want to find that we have contributed to making them move."
In 1984 the Ferraris came upon Daisy, one of the whales they have studied longest and photographed most intimately, about to be pinned between a reef and a charging parasail boat. Ferrari drove his boat into the narrowing space between. "I was furious," he says. "I picked up an oar. The parasail driver was shouting, 'Hey, I'm not a jerk. I just didn't see!' Which was true, of course. That brought home the potential harm. When it happens to Daisy, it gets emotional."
The Ferraris see Daisy once or twice almost every year. Sometimes they can look all day and not see a blow. Or, on an exceptional day such as this has been, they see so many whales you would lose count. "Thirty," says Ferrari while piloting the Zodiac in. He doesn't lose count.
A cow and calf they observed earlier have escaped their pack of wrestling males. Glockner-Ferrari slides into the water to see if the cow will rest and the calf will play. From her snorkel can be heard the sweet nothings she is murmuring to the leviathans.
Ferrari watches her. "They know she loves them," he says. "They do things for her they won't do for anyone else."
But the whales move off. "Every time you go out," says Ferrari, "you're shooting for that One Good One. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe Sunday."
And enormous mother whales lie dreaming suckling their whale-tender young
And dreaming with strange whale eyes wide open in the waters of the beginning and the end...
In Lahaina you find yourself entangled in the roots of the town's block-wide banyan tree and then netted in Front Street's T-shirt racks, so distracted are you. You have whales on your brain. And a puny brain it is, at 1,400 cubic centimeters. Humpbacks operate with 6,000 cc. Men and whales, it seems, are part of the ultimate compare-and-contrast question.
Human brain capacity began to increase a few million years ago when hominids swung out of the trees and onto the dry African savannas. Humans proceeded to develop a specific intelligence related, to tools, weapons and speech. Evolved to meet the land's decrees, we were small, accumulatory and aggressively fearful of the unknown because the unknown had a lot in it that could tear us limb from limb. We became a creature with eyes and hands, a voice, a manipulator in every sense of the word.
Whales, which who once were terrestrial animals, returned to the sea far earlier than man came down from the trees, 40 to 60 million years ago. The waters rewarded them for size because their mass helped them maintain their 98° core temperature. The sea made them open, social, unaggressive (except in mating) and, obviously, not acquisitive. It made them lovers, wanderers, singers.
Sound, which travels through water five times faster than through air, became their light, hearing became their vision. This culminated in the wondrous echolocation ability of the toothed whales, such as dolphins, pilot whales, orcas and the largest-brained animals ever to live (at 9,000 cc), the sperm whales.
They possess true biosonar, the ability to send out a tone, or a click, and tell from its echo a great deal about what it has bounced back from. Blindfolded dolphins can distinguish between identically shaped hollow aluminum targets with walls differing by as little as [1/16] of an inch. Because sound can travel inside things, cardiologists use echo technology to watch the valves and moving blood of a beating heart. Dolphins and toothed whales can use their biosonar to read a shark's intentions by observing the fish's muscle tension and the emptiness of its stomach. One imagines that a secret would be hard to keep in a society where everyone can see right through you.
Echolocation may allow whales to bypass language as we know it. If they can re-create the sounds of their incoming echo-images, they could project those images to each other: Instead of translating knowledge of a school of tuna into symbols, a whale could simply beam a sonic slide show of the actual tuna into the consciousness of another. If they can do this, then we are on the wrong track trying to get them to talk or trying to learn their "language."
Baleen whales apparently do not echolocate. They just have fantastic ears and a propensity to sing. Perhaps, like human nomads, they are oral historians. Might not their songs be the poetry of their race's rememberings?
In the abstract, neither man's nor whale's evolution seems superior. Each, to take a term from forestry, is the climax species of its environment. But once the land's creature, the cunning manipulator, the Ahab, the parasailor, got going, the sea creature was at his mercy. And the land made man with precious little mercy.
The grainy, early-century photos of endless columns of skinned and sectioned whale carcasses, of rendering ships awash in blood and oil, seem so unselfconscious, so proudly industrial, that they remind you of other old black-and-white pictures: those of hard men making steel or logging huge virgin trees. Or those of the Holocaust. Whales gaze at us out of the ovens, out of the oil-thickened sea.
Only now, having butchered them, do we love the whales. It is a mystery. Farley Mowat wrote in A Whale for the Killing: "[A trapped fin whale] had to be saved if only because contact with her...might narrow the immense psychic gap between our two species; might alter, in some degree, the remote and awesome image which whales have always projected upon the inner human eye."
Mowat's whale died, but most assuredly that psychic gap has narrowed. Awe is conspicuously absent from the ads for whale-watching tours in Hawaii. "Nature's star entertainers," they say of the humpbacks, "put on truly spectacular shows."
Ride one of these boats and watch the people. At a glimpse of pectoral fin or rising fluke, they sigh. If the public could swim with them, the whales would be the grandest draw in the world. Until they suffocated under the adoring human tide.
So our race advances, unevenly as usual. We ban whaling (of course, there's always one country that doesn't get the word). We go nuts to rescue three gray whales trapped under the polar ice.
Wandering Lahaina, you find you have ended up thinking more about men than whales. There is one solution for that. Go back into the sea. But first, in the night, you dream of the factories and farms pouring wastes into the rivers; of "ghost nets" floating for years, killing until the weight of their dead takes them to the bottom. You awake to Maui bird-song, to a world that couldn't possibly be that bad, that blind. And you try not to think of Alaska.
The next afternoon is hazy with sugarcane smoke. The Ferraris are radioed by a whale-watching boat that a cow, calf and escort are a half mile offshore of the Lahaina dump. They reach the area, go into the water with exquisite care and come up blowing and howling.
"This is the cream," roars Ferrari. "Now you're going to have the time of your life."
"Look, the escort is Biteso!" shouts Glockner-Ferrari. "We named him for that big bite something took out of his left pec."
The Ferraris swim toward the whales actually yelling and waving in the water, as at a 747 bringing home an old friend. This 747 is an old friend. The two adult whales cruise majestically by, unperturbed by these maniacs. The calf, a female, has a round scar like a gas cap on her right flank, perhaps the result of a bite by a cookie-cutter shark. She is frisky and, hearing no objection from her mother, rolls, dives, does aerobatics, slaps the water and generally carries on like Snoopy doing his dance of spring.
"Daisy is just total peacefulness," Glockner-Ferrari says. "She says, 'Hi, here's my calf....' "
"You kind of wonder who," says Ferrari, "is watching whom."
Daisy and Biteso nap about 100 feet down. The calf is curious, playing ever closer to the researchers. You drift away from them. Then the calf shoots toward you, keeping her eye on the Ferraris behind her. She is only 15 feet away before she sees you and gives a wide-eyed start.
"Daisy is the only cow who lets her calf play with people like this," says Glockner-Ferrari. "She's great, but I don't know if this is being a good mother or not."
You think to record the moment. The next time the calf frolics near, you take her picture. She obliges by orbiting you, the serrated tip of her left fin six feet from your lens.
Absorbed in this, you are not aware of her mother the submarine surfacing under you. As you take your face from the camera, there is the sense that the sea bottom has risen. You are almost touching a great rounded deck stretching back to a lifting tail.
You experience the thought that you are positioned between a calf and a mother the size of 80 grizzly bears. Though you will regret it later, you cannot discipline your feet to stay still.
You move up and away. Daisy slows her ascent. Gently, the two of you avoid contact and there occurs the unforgettable passing of a whale, an eternal proceeding of pleats, knobs, grooves, scars and flank...and flank...and flank. It ends as you stare at barnacles the size of coffee mugs on the tip of her fluke as it cuts the water a yard over your head.
Yet what you will call up most clearly months afterward is the sight of her strange whale eye. Through its five-inch, blue-black lens, you gain the sense of a supremely aware presence on the other side of that wall of dense flesh.
From Daisy's eye shines the whale's enduring, dooming, unwarranted benignity. There is no redemption for us in that eye, only vast innocence. Whales have no say in their survival. They simply watch to see what will happen next. They watch us.
If we cannot save the whales, we cannot save anything. If that sentence is true, then it is a fearful truth, for it binds the fate of men and whales.
It happens that your picture of Daisy's calf turns out to be the best you ever expect to take. You put a large print of it on your wall to consult as you write these words. It is effective in bringing back the encounter. But you fail at an ending. You keep drifting off, wondering if she still lives. You remember that for a moment she stood on her head beside you and her fin had seemed to gesture, "Come on down and play." Then she was gone, into the empty blue, leaving you with your fears.
A HUMPBACK DOES A BACKFLIP, EXPOSING "AN ETERNAL PROCEEDING OF PLEATS, KNOBS, GROOVES...."
A MOTHER AND CALF CRUISE BENEATH THE MIRRORED SURFACE OFF LAHAINA
GLOCKNER-FERRARI AND HER HUSBAND KEEP THEIR VIGIL
WATCHING VESSELS ARE REQUIRED TO STAY 100 YARDS FROM THE WHALES, BUT HUMPBACKS SOMETIMES UNEXPECTEDLY SWIM CLOSER
A HUMPBACK CALF CAN PLUNGE STRAIGHT DOWN THROUGH THE WATER
THE AUTHOR CONSULTED THIS PHOTOGRAPH OF DAISY'S CALF AS HE WROTE
THE FLUKES OF A HUMPBACK WHALE SEEM TO WAVE FAREWELL TO ONLOOKERS