A whale of a tale

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I like living down south. I really do. But in August, when the days are hot and humid, and I am too wimpy to leave my air-conditioned house, I start to get homesick. I miss the northwest. I miss the cooler, clearer summer weather. I miss being able to sit out on the lawn of an evening without being eaten alive by mosquitos. But most of all I miss the water. There are days when I am sitting in my tiny house in a landlocked city, and I feel I would do just about anything to see the blue gray expanse of the Puget Sound, and to feel the salty wind in my face.
Or I want to be on a boat – a speed boat, a sail boat, even a row boat would suffice. Once upon a time, boats were a part of my life. I learned to row a boat with my best friend on her grandparent’s tiny lake. My Sunday school teacher had a wonderful sailboat that we used to take excursions in, exploring the islands of the Puget Sound and keeping an eye out for whales. I have always been fascinated by whales
And oh the many adventures we had on my uncle’s speed boat, chasing down the huge, lumbering cargo ships so we could ride their wake, or stirring up glittering waves of phosphorescence during midnight boat rides.
My uncle also had kayaks. It took me a while to summon up the nerve to climb into one of those wobbly little boats that sat so low in the water. But I soon learned to love cutting swiftly through the water, following the long rocky shorelines bordered with madrona trees and piled with white driftwood. And again, keeping an eye out for whales.
One day we got a call from my uncle, informing us that wild orca pods were passing through the bay in front of his house, following the salmon run. So we headed up to his house for the day, to see what we could see. I was so excited. Despite my vigilance, I had never yet managed to see a whale in the wild. Maybe today was the day! When we got there, he had a telescope set up on the front deck, and a few pairs of binoculars.
Sure enough, once I managed to get the binoculars focused, I could see, far out in the bay, the tell tale spurts of mist and the black of their triangular dorsal fins. But they were so disappointingly small and distant. And the pod was surrounded by a small fleet of water craft and a larger boat sent from the Coast Guard to keep an eye on the situation. I wanted to be closer too, because I had brought our new video camera in hopes that I might get some good footage. But clearly that wasn’t going to happen from the safe distance of my uncle’s lawn. I could see his kayaks pulled up on the shore below and so I talked a few of my sisters into a little adventure.

There were two kayaks- a one-man and a two-man. I elected to take the two-man with one sister, so I could sit in the front and film, while she paddled. My other sister jumped into the one-man and sped off toward the distant pod.
We took off after her, but were soon struggling to keep up. I had failed to ask some important questions, like whether or not said little sister could paddle at all. She wasn’t exactly a pro if the field, and soon we were spinning in circles. I tried to rectify the situation by counting out the strokes, but I was much bigger than she, and our unequal strokes kept us more or less in the same place.
Ever so often, as we spun, I could see my other sister in the distance, drawing closer to the coveted destination. So I turned around in my seat, handed my sister the camera, and told her to film, while I paddled on alone. We began to make some headway, but once again, I hadn’t asked the important questions, like whether or not my sister knew how to work the video camera.

We do have some footage from this whale watching adventure on an old vhs tape somewhere in my parent’s attic. It’s terribly funny. You can hear me yelling directions at my sister, trying to tell her which buttons to push and where to point the camera. She is wailing about not being able to see anything. In the distance can be heard the booming voice of the Coast Guard from his boat, telling my other sister not to get so close to the whales. The only thing you can actually see are alternating flashes of choppy sea and cloudy sky, with an occasional view of my stressed out face. It’s a film guaranteed to make even the most hardened old sailor sea sick.

Within a few minutes, the pod had moved on, and I could see my sister in the one-man returning from her frolic with the orcas. We turned off the camera, steered the kayak around and headed back to shore. All the way home, I was kicking myself for having been so worried about getting a video. If I had put the camera down, I might have gotten a chance to see the whales up close, Coast Guard or not. I was fairly certain that that had been a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Despite that conviction, I was always eager for another chance to get back on a boat. After all, there was joy in simply looking at the sun on the water, or admiring the snowy mountains in the distance. So months later, when my sunday school teacher organized another outing on his sailboat, I was elated.
The day he chose was a glorious, windy summer’s day, perfect for sailing. About half way to the island where we were going to have a picnic, my fellow classmates decided to go below deck and pass the time by playing a game of cards. I felt like playing cards while on a boat rather defeated the purpose, so I elected to stay up top. I went and sat alone on the side of the boat, dangling my feet over the edge until they just skimmed the surface of the waves. I was (to use a rather worn out phrase) lost in the beauty of the day.

Then suddenly, to my absolute terror and unending delight, a black fin cut the surface of the water just a couple of yards from my dangling legs. Up it came- two feet, four feet, six feet of shining black dorsal before the enormous black and white body curved up, and blasted a fountain of spray that misted my face. Then down it went again, while another rose up and another. I was absolutely speechless, rooted to the spot, unable to make a sound.
I don’t know how long I sat there enjoying the unbelievable sight before it struck me that I should share the experience with my friends. I clambered to my feet and ran to the hatch, where I started hollering about whales. Up they all came eager and excited, but when I pointed to the side of the boat, the orcas were gone.
Some of them asked me disappointedly if I had been joking, others just shrugged and went back to their cards. I found myself wishing I had had a camera so I could prove it to them. But then I laughed at myself and stopped wishing. I was suddenly glad I hadn’t thought to go looking for one and so missed another opportunity.
Since then, I have felt that those few special moments were in some way, a gift just for me. Those images are as clear to me now as they were that long ago day. And I am thankful I was able to store them away in my own mind to be replayed again and again when I am far from home.

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