Sunday Archive: A Meditation on Whale-Watching

FIN WHALES FROM DUNABRATTIN PHOTO CREDIT:PADDY DWAN
Fin Whales off the Copper Coast. Photo: Paddy Dwan.

This week I had the best day of land-based whale watching for many years seeing 6 or more whales in 2 groups, mostly fin whales but nearly positive of at least one humpback, a minke, as well as dolphins galore so I thought I would re-edit this post for the occasion.

All my life I had wanted to see a whale but all my life it never occurred to me to make an effort to do so, to stand and watch from a cliff, to learn about the habits of these giants of the deep, to check the internet for sightings. I somehow expected one to pop up in front of me one day. In the event this is exactly what happened one day, ten years ago now, when I was walking down the winding road to my small local beach. Suddenly, not a quarter of a mile from shore, there was a powerful explosion from the deep. A cloud of vapour hung for long moments on the air. Then, a long, shining, black back emerged, rolling, to reveal, finally a curving fin:a fin whale, the second biggest creature on the planet. I was undone with the excitement.

It was a cold February and there was frost and ice all over the road. Seven miles away a friend lay dying and so the days were pervaded with sorrow. It was with gratitude then, that I greeted this monster, its powerful blow an exclamation mark that punctuated the sentence of those chill days. I could not quite see it as a direct message from the universe but it was potent reminder of how powerful and enduring life was.

FIN WHALE OFF GARRARUS 2012
Fin Whale off the Copper Coast 2012.

I scrambled tearfully, gratefully, excitedly up the cliffs and watched for an hour as my leviathan swam back to out sea. I texted my friend in his hospital bed.

“I saw a whale!”

It seemed important to tell him.

Three years on I found myself suffering from fin whale fatigue. I still haven’t paddled a kayak beside one but I have seen plenty from my places of the cliffs, from a boat and it’s all a bit, well, meh. That icy cold day in February is nearly forgotten, left behind out of necessity. I guess we can’t keep our faces pressed up against the pain of the world forever.

I still watch though and I tell myself it is because I have yet to see a humpback whale, the rock star of the whale world, the one whose T-shaped tail adorns a billion motivational posters.  I convince myself it will be much more exciting than the oh-so common Fin, but I am like someone trying to convince themselves that the next iPhone will make their lives complete. It will but for how long?5 minutes? For all my weariness though, underneath runs a current, something that brings me out onto the cliffs over and over again. It is a vaguely conscious understanding that it is the watching for whales rather than watching of whales that is important.

So, I sit out on the cliff in the bouncy grass, surrounded by waving flowers – or the skeletal remains of flowers – while the gulls slide by and the insects buzz. I usually sit at Dunabrattin to do my watching but sometimes I just go down the fields. Sometimes I travel further, to Baginbun in Wexford or to West Cork. I scan the sea, pressing the binoculars to my face, squinting as I start the sweep slowly along the horizon west to east and back again. For a while it is dull. There is nothing out there, my heart sinks. What a waste of time, I say to myself, but my breathing slows and I relax. The sky is blue or grey, cloudy or clear, the sea cobalt, ultramarine or dirty green, smooth or choppy or rippled by the winds soft hands and shot through with colour and shadow.

The horizon isn’t the ruler straight line you see with the naked eye. Even on a calm day it is frayed and soft, an undulating silken fringe breaking down the division between Heaven and Earth. Occasionally it becomes blurred with the sweeping showers of rain that swing out over the sea from the mountains and disappear east. At Baginbun in Wexford, sometimes previously unseen buildings swell up from beyond the horizon like a mystical city of the sea.

Trawlers bob on the waves, smaller and smaller and then shimmering and swelling at the line of the sky. I often see an Irish naval ship, the LE Emer maybe, or the Samuel Beckett, patrolling, and once I saw her sailors stop and board one of the bobbing boats. I imagined the tension on board, and afterwards, when the Navy was gone, the crew having a tea break, hot water poured from a battered metal kettle that sits on the stove, chipped cups, a battered box of Lyons tea, a half packet of digestives passed around. Or more likely they have tapas, or wine and shrug and pooh pooh our Navy in one of the romantic languages. Putáin!

Heron

Then, there are the birds. They flap across my field of vision, sometimes low with their bellies full, sometimes high, in a hurry somewhere (where?) all flying in different directions, alone or in pairs, criss-crossing a sky of invisible highways. A heron flaps by;gannets circle and drop, tearing knots of spray in the fabric of the sea;cormorants, flip and dive, and then, stuttering, take off, black arrows over the surface of the water. Occasionally seals bob up, looking mournful, as if the racket from their dive bombing avian neighbours above has woken them. And the crows of course; choughs, rooks, hooded crows, jackdaws…

All this before a fin has so much sliced the surface. The longer I sit, the more there is a growing sense of the life and community on, and in, the sea, a sense of business being carried out. I look out at the ocean that ten minutes before I thought was empty and I know it’s not. It’s not just the birds and the boats. As I look across space I am looking across time too. If I can see that bird so many miles away from me then surely with a little effort I can see other people further away? I look south and think of Spain and the Azores and wonder what people are doing there. I imagine it’s warm and for some reason I see people in red shirts eating melons and wearing sombreros though my education tells me that is not, mostly likely, correct…

I look west and next stop is America where the people are five hours behind me in their day. Look, there is someone having a coffee and staring blankly out of an apartment window at a rainy day. As barrier after barrier breaks down, I imagine that if it’s possible to see to five hours ago, then if I were high enough, it could be possible to see yesterday, as well as today and tomorrow. It could be possible to see three years ago…

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Breathing slowly now, I am completely relaxed. Just by being still, just by watching the world, the dull film of familiarity has been peeled back and the world has become new again, the barriers between jaded adulthood and wonderous childhood are broken down and my eyes filled with life. When a blow finally appears followed by a lazy black back it is nearly (but not quite) unwelcome. It is at least unnecessary to reach a place of peace.

I stay and watch the puffs of white catching the sun, distant cannons of an invisible army, remembering a little what it is like to have my face pressed right up against life so hard that it hurts. Sitting there, on the bouncy grass among the nodding sea pinks, I am thankful. At least for a while.