The other day I saw a humpback.
It arched its back slowly over the surface of the water, rotating like the slowest saw blade in the world. I held my breath and didn’t move, hoping for a resurfacing. Its fluke appeared and stood straight up before slowly sinking and disappearing from sight.
Afterwards, I let myself breathe again but refused to move. The moment had passed but I wasn’t ready for it. The whale showed itself to me, and it felt like a revelation.
“This is what it means to be alive,” it whispered.
My brain likes to chase answers, and it typically kicks in with questions when things are vague. “What is THIS?” It would normally scream, instead it was accepting of the non-answer I had just been given.
After a few minutes, I moved again, scrambled along the steep rock face towards the little cove that was our destination. I convened with my family on a little outcropping there and said, maybe we should just drop everything and stay here?
I once spent time with a couple who let humpbacks take over their lives. They moved to an island far away from everything and built a tiny cabin with a stereo system connected to hydrophones that captured humpback songs (and boat noises) day and night.
Sure, there was a purpose to this lifestyle: they called it citizen science. That made sense to me at the time, but after the moment on the shoreline I feel like I have a new understanding of the project. How does one become one with another thing? We try this all the time with other humans, and it only ever lasts for a few fleeting moments. I think those people were trying to become one with the whales.
Given all the other life-options out there, it’s not that crazy. What’s crazy is trying to cash-in on a creature like that, chasing them around with a boat full of tourists, or worse, setting yourself the task of inventing new weapons to make their slaughter easier for the average joe.
Yes, I know. Most people don’t get to live on the ocean, and have to go to great lengths to see a whale. Even if they are people who roll sixes on the regular, they probably don’t stand around on random Saturdays at locations where a whale might just swim by. Still, chasing a whale is like chasing a feeling – do-able, but you tend to get uncomfortable results.
I also know that whale oil was important for lighting and greasing machinery before we were pumping liquid dinosaur bones out of the earth. Baleen was great for corsets, apparently. But the intrepid European whalers of the 19th and 20th Century weren’t filling a need, they were making profit.
The humpback was one of 13 species of whale considered to be “commercially valuable.” What was perhaps even worse for these creatures than the invention of rocket harpoons was the introduction of factory-ships. In the 1930s, fifty thousand whales were killed in Canadian waters every year. By this time, the world was hooked on petroleum products – in fact, people started using coal and kerosene in their lamps by the early 1850s, so by the 30s whale oil was WAY out of fashion. The industry found new markets for their “product.” Margarine was the big one, and commercial whaling did not become an ethical concern until after World War II. The industry continued in Canada until the 1970s, and globally until the 1980s.
Humpbacks, particularly in the coastal waters of British Columbia, have enjoyed a notable recovery in the past two decades. I’ve lived here for decade, and this was my first encounter.
There is magic in the world and these creatures prove it. Humpback diarrhoea removes carbon from the atmosphere, and sperm whale vomit (that’s the closest way I can understand it) is a sea-treasure compared to the finest of wines. If we allow them to take us by surprise, they’ll fill us with awe.
Humpbacks carry the name Megaptera novaeangliae, for their big wings. In this part of the world, researchers give individuals handles like BCX1301 or BCZ004. Personally, I prefer names that are more relatable, like Beethoven or Spike (RIP, Spike).
Who was it that I met the other day, and where is she now?
If we became one, it was only for a split second. She’s got a long journey ahead, probably to Hawaii, and I’m back at my desk. Next October you’ll find me on the shoreline, hoping for another moment.