Close encounter with a whale while kayaking in Baja.
– Paddling in the sky –
I was paddling from Mulegé to Loreto along the spectacular coast of the Sea of Cortez. The wind had died down the day before and a thin hazy overcast screened away the brutal force of the sun. Another 35-mile day in calm seas. I was paddling long distance, and the enjoyment of covering miles was on my mind. I was far out, the land was hardly visible anymore.
As the sky reflected almost perfectly on the mirror-like sea it didn’t make much difference if I looked into the sky or onto its reflection on the water surface. And because of the thin overcast in the distance a horizon was hardly discernible. So the sky was everywhere, without separation, above, underneath, around – I paddled in the sky, I moved through the clouds. In fact it was difficult to not get lost in this mind-boggling illusion of being suspended in boundless sky. Not only because its reflection was nearly flawless but also because image and reflection flowed into each other without separation. The horizon, this universal reference for the mind, was missing. And there was no other optical clue to raise doubt that this sensation of “hovering in the sky” could possibly be an illusion. My little wake, spreading out behind me, gave the only faint sensation of motion. The impression of paddling through the sky – between the clouds – was so attractive and convincing that it was hard not to believe it.
The coast was miles away – wild, beautiful, and lonely as this planet in its original state. I had paddled with a bunch of dolphins for hours, and they seemed to have accepted me in their group. Moving on in silence, I couldn’t imagine any place I would rather be. Now the water was quiet again, and I heard whales far away – this awesome sound of explosive hissing exhale and roaring inhale that always seems to touch a primeval nerve in us.
I couldn’t see them at first but I heard them draw nearer my way. Without being really aware of it I stopped paddling and waited. Everything around was absolutely silent and calm, and something was in the air that made me hold my breath.
Then, not more than a boat length away, without a sound, without any splash or wave, without even a riffle, the water-plane heaved up and a mountain of glass rose up from the surface. A huge dark body emerged from this glassy mountain, and water slid away from it without the slightest turbulence; in fact it disappeared, it ran off so smoothly and unperturbed, I have never seen water move that way. The water surface just deformed, changing into this body. Matter changing its appearance, and yet – like pure magic – no physical process of transition seemed to take place. The nostril-opening appeared, and, with a primordial roar, a gush of mist shot up high into the air and I got wet all over.
Only then did I realize that it was real and not just a fantastic dream. A dorsal fin came up, somehow small in relation to the massive body. In fact it wasn’t more than a suggestion of a fin – typical for a Blue. And suddenly I sensed the gigantic size of the animal, felt its life with overwhelming intensity, and saw its wonderful motion, so gentle and yet incredibly powerful. Blue Whales are the largest animals that ever lived. They get up to 100 feet long. Today there are fewer than 5000 left of them.
For a fraction of a moment I saw his eye under water, looking at me – this wonderful creature, looking at me. How could I ever describe this look? It was so brief that I’m not sure what I really remember, but this look touched me deep in my heart. One of those wordless messages we sometimes pick up without really being aware of it. Something we hear and understand but cannot repeat and therefore do not take seriously. Something we think we don’t understand, but which we feel ringing in our soul like a long forgotten melody, familiar like our own breath and yet impossible to express. There is this knowing that tends to dissolve as soon as we begin to translate it into language, that disintegrates when we strain to rearrange it and hold it with concepts. We recognize these mysterious messages but don’t know what to do with them and therefore often turn away in disbelief.
I was still totally entranced when another whale came up, a little further away. This one rose much higher and moved faster. Like a living island, I thought. He breathed, and then his tail came out.
I sat there in my kayak and felt as if an angel had touched me. It dawned on me that the whale could have easily tipped me over, but then I knew that he must have been aware of me and that it might have been a moment of mysterious significance when he chose to emerge so close and somehow bless me with his spray.
* * *
Whales write letters
It is astonishing how quickly the old custom of writing letters has fallen out of fashion. Many of us will still remember when we wrote letters to each other: composed, structured information with beginnings and endings, with lots of formal ballast but also with so many layers of subtle, indirect messages expressed in the hand-made layout and, of course, in the hand writing,. And the time lag between sending and receiving the reply was part of the magic of correspondence by letter. In the time between letters the real world would keep on rolling, but the created world of a conversation would be on hold and leave space for reflection and contemplation. With the advent of e-mail all this has mostly fallen by the wayside. Today we throw e-mails at each other, the shorter the better, and who cares about form? (And I don’t even mention the even younger form of ‘texting‘) We express emotions with standardized symbols 🙂 Instead of evoking or describing emotions we insert laughing or frowning little faces as instructions for what to feel. No one has time for depth or complexity. The speed of transferring information has become so fast that we seem to have lost all sense for the meaning of information. Any child can google up unlimited quantities of information, but to come up with meaningful conclusions is a skill that didn’t get any easier with the Internet. Information has become cheap, but to understand and interpret information is as difficult as ever. Instead of better information we exchange more information. What did we gain?
Did you know that whales write letters to each other?
Whales can communicate over vast distances. We all know (thanks to the Internet) that they “talk” to each other in songs, and these songs ring through the oceans unobstructed. Due to peculiar properties of the acoustics of the sea and because whales have highly specialized sensitive ears the song of humpback whales could theoretically be heard all the way around the world. However, it takes time for sound to travel. The speed of sound in water is such that it would, for example, take a few hours for a song-message to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. When a message takes so long to travel you cannot expect a reply immediately. Because of the significant time lag between message and reply over such great distances and because of the effort of the whole process it would seem uneconomical to exchange spontaneous, meaningless information. Information that travels so long must be reviewed before it is sent out, and it must also be carefully received and listened to when it arrives before it is answered. This may be the reason why whales don’t sing out single words, so to speak, but deliver a pretty long monologue in their songs. Without repeating themselves they sing for a full 8 minutes. Doesn’t that look a lot like letter-writing, sending composed, thought over information like a letter? Interestingly enough they even go back in their messages to the beginning of the song and repeat it all over again, many times over, each complete cycle lasting about 8 minutes: like letters with redundant copies to eliminate glitches that happen on the way; all that just to make sure that every detail really arrives and conveys a meaningful message and not just half-garbled information that takes precious time but communicates only little. Why would a whale make the effort to sing his heart out across the world when what comes out isn’t exactly what he means?
Whales write long letters, and then they patiently pay attention to the reply before they write again. Sometimes I moan the disappearance of the culture of letter writing in our world.
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010