An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

There's a Whale on our Tail

5:30 a.m. on the northern shore of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Late August, and already it's cold. The mist rises from the water in swirls and eddies. Overhead, a sea-plane is circling, circling; searching for our target: a pride of blue whale, the largest mammal on the face of the Earth.

I am in a rubber "Zodiac", the boat preferred by Greenpeace for its' maneuverability and portability. There is a huge outboard clamped to the back. I have been invited by a young couple from Boulder, Colorado, that I met at a cross-border "No Nukes" conference just ten days or so ago. Eager, out-doorsy, committed eco-warriors, out to earn a few bucks taking tourists out to see the whales, working for the head of Greenpeace Canada, who has had this gig going for several years, now. He advertises in New York Magazine, flies in small groups of whate watchers, and guarantees a close encounter, and for this, he, his pilot and a small staff earn enough to keep them the rest of the year.

Today, they are doing some "beta testing": making sure the bugs are out of the system; and because I hauled their gear from the airport to our hotel in my van, I am along for the ride. And so far, quite a ride it's been. Riding in a Zodiac is like being in the water. The bottom is flat, and thin. The sides are inflated tubes. It is remarkably rigid. When it goes bouncing over the water, my bottom is getting paddled, though most of the time the high speed we've ben maintaining to get here resulted in the boat "floating" across the water.

While we wait for the plane to spot a pod, we chat quietly. Sudden noise, aside from its' negative effects on whales, would be totally out of place here.

"Last year we spent the summer in the coastal waters off Vancouver", she remarks. "We were doing the same thing, taking tourists out to see the whatles. This year, we thought we'd try something new."

I ask her if she was there when "the picture" was taken. She knows immediately that I mean the picture of the surfacing whale with the boat it came up under yawing in the air above it while the passengers are spilled helter-sketer out of the boat and into the water.

"Yes, I was there" she says. "In fact, I was on that boat."

I ask her what that was like. "Normally, they're very careful, you know (I didn't, but I hoped so)." She paused. They were having sex, and I guess they just got carried away and weren't paying attention. Anyway, you asked me what it was like? It was like getting hit with 20 tons of love."

The walkie-talkie squawks, informing us that whales have been spotted about five minutes southeast of our position. The motor is started, and off we fly. OK, the voice says, you're there. There, is directly in the path of a couple of whales. We shut off the motor. We wait. After a few minutes, we hear a "chuff, chuff", the noise a whale makes when it blows water out of is' "blow hole". The sound approaches, but just out of sight in the mist, it fades and then disappears.

What happened, I ask. Oh, its' nothing, he says. It's just that sometimes they don't want to entertain the tourists; they prefer to be alone together. Well, sezi, maybe we should respect their wishes. Wish we could, sez she, but no whale no pay. Their just being flirty. You'll see, when they want to they will go by this close. She indicates her arm to the armpit. I'm not sure I want to be that close to that kind of power, but too late now...

The motor roars to life, and we go skimming along to a new position, where we plant ourselves once more, and once more the whales turn off just before becoming visible. This hapens twice more. "This is it", she says. "Stay quiet."

"Chuff, Chuff", getting louder, closer. And then silence. A silence so profound it is its' own sound. Just then, the fog lifts briefly, and behind us we see two enormous tails lifted into the air as the great creatures - one on each side of our raft - dive under the freezing water. We are holding our breaths. I am meditating on the pointlessness of worrying about control when everything is out of my hands, and sending out "there, there, nice fishies" vibes.

Slowly, slowly, with a kind of etherial majesty, the leviathons rise up out of the water on either side of our puny rubber bathroom toy. As they glide by, the eye of each closest to us swivels and they give us the once over. It takes them forever to pass us by: they must be at least 100 feet long. When they have gone on, continuing their journey west to the place of birth, I notice that they have left no wake. It's as if the waters of the sound have simply parted before them, and closed after.

We sit for a while, not speaking, until the cold motivates us to break the nurturing silence with the roar of our engine.

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and