Ahead, the ghostly remnants of a spout dissipated above the water’s surface: a whale was nearby. Now, to the untrained eye, a spout is a spout, but anyone who’s spent time in the presence of leviathans knows that each breathes uniquely. Humpbacks are graceful and slow, and with each exhale their saturated breath represents their lax nature. Their spouts are as melancholy as their perpetual frown. But orcas are riled, keen, and quick. Their spouts erupt from the water as violently as they hunt, much like the plumes of bombs. And we were certain that this spout was jagged, rough… an orca’s spout. But closer examination revealed no ominous black fin attached, only the lazy point of a humpback.
I had seen so many whales that summer that I found myself declaring that it was “just a humpback.”
JUST A HUMPBACK.
Before the words fully slipped my tongue I cringed to hear them form in the back of my throat like choking mucous. For a fleeting moment, I had lost an amount of joy in these magnificent creatures. They had become common, simple, and I betrayed my adoration of nature: I denied the beauty in simplicity. But perhaps the whales knew that I was suffering some sort of word vomit or hiccup in the natural rhythm of my identity because some time later, they humbly approached me.
We were excited just for their tails, stretching far in the horizon and breaking the miles of uninterrupted blue with black flukes and lazy spouts. We watched from our distance with contentment. But their courses changed, the five great and wandering leviathans, to match our own. And for nearly an hour they surfaced beside us so intimately close that we could distinctly note the sound of their inhale, the hollow growl of air filling the massive chambers of their chests, and see the scars of battles and encounters, natural and mechanical, that each carried.
So conflictingly gentle and jarring: their arrival is a mix of emotions. Their maws break the surface of rolling swells like a sharpened blade gracefully tears through the folds in silk. That part is a secret. You never hear it or see it, unless you’re fortunate enough to be looking just in the right spot at the right time (and we all know the luck of such likelihood). But moments later, all are alerted as the spout erupts. That’s the part that makes you jump. It makes you feel small. And for a split second, perhaps you are scared. But their loping, gray bodies are more precious than any stone I’ve carved or polished and they shine with grace as each vertebral bend ticks by like the seconds on a clock. Imagine being such a massive creature that the sight of your body can be compared to the movements of time.
You learn, over time, how to read their bodies like a stopwatch and when, if those seconds click quicker, a deep-dive of her flukes can be expected. And they learn, over time, how to always keep you on your toes, those great wandering leviathans.