My first whale watching expedition was a failure, mainly because we actually managed to spot our elusive quarry. Odd, isn’t it? You’d think it would be the other way around, but life can sometimes sneak up to surprise a person.
That first expedition happened in California. We joined a small tour, and I was excited. I’m from the Texas Hill Country — a place filled with yucca plants, cactus, rocks, and scorpions. What do I know about the ocean? I couldn’t wait to see my first whale, up close and in person in its natural habitat. I couldn’t wait to get on board that boat and head out!
We were not on a very large boat, but I didn’t think much about it as we set out on the tour. I was young and a bit stupid back then. We chugged along for an hour or so, until, finally, we came to a spot where another tour had reported sighting some whales. The captain cut our boat’s engines, and we floated along for a bit. I remember it was eerily quiet, except for a little excited murmuring among the people on the boat. And, suddenly, there it was!! A whale!!
Picture this: You are on a little, floating thing out in the middle of miles and miles of ocean. And there, right in front of you, a tail appears. It is so close, you feel like you could reach out and touch it. It is the biggest thing you have ever seen in your life. It is so massive that it takes your breath away. It is so massive that it seems nearly the same size as the boat on which you are standing. And then it hits you: This is only a small part of the whole animal. This leads to the inevitable realization that there is more than one of these huge beasts in the ocean, maybe even just below our boat.
I think this was the first time I realized just how tiny and insignificant I was. Keep in mind this incident happened in my 20s, a time when most of us feel like we own the world, like the cosmos dance around just for our pleasure. Before heading out that day, someone told me seeing the whales was a spiritual experience. They were right about that. I came back to shore shaken and unsure of my place in the world. And absolutely terrified of the ocean. I swore I would never again go out on a boat like that.
Last summer, we visited Cape Cod. On our second-to-last day there, my hubby surprised me with tickets for a whale watching tour. He and our daughter were both bubbling over with excitement, thinking it was the most amazing surprise possible. I, on the other hand, was underwhelmed. Or, maybe, I was overwhelmed with the memory of the fear I had experienced on our previous outing all those years ago.
I decided to keep my fear and uncertainty to myself. Everyone else was thrilled about the whole thing, and it seemed kinder to play along and pretend everything was all right. Still, I didn’t sleep much the night before. I kept having dreams where I was on a teeny boat that got stranded on the back of a giant whale.
As we boarded our tour boat, I was relieved to see it was much, much larger than the one I had traveled on all those years ago. I reminded myself I was a grown woman and a mom now, so I had no time for these silly fears. And yet, the uncertainty remained, hovering there in the back of my mind.
The trip out onto open water took a while, and there was a lot of stuff to see. Other than the misfortune of getting the Gilligan’s Island theme song stuck on a loop in my brain — something you don’t want to have happen when you’re heading out on a boat! — it was enjoyable. I liked the chill of the water and the feeling of it against my skin. And the view from the ocean — incredible! I had such a fantastic time laughing and joking with my daughter and snapping pictures of anything and everything.
At last, after what felt like forever, we arrived at our destination. We didn’t have to wait long until people started shouting and pointing over the sides of the boat, off into the distance. Our captain moved the boat a little farther and, almost without warning, we were in the midst of a small group of whales. There was even a calf, sticking close to its mother. They went about their business, frolicking in the ocean and feeding, without paying us the least bit of attention. They swam beneath our boat, huge shadows barely visible beneath the water’s surface, which seemed to go on and on before they had finally passed us by.
And it was amazing! I went into the experience with a sinking feeling of dread, fully expecting to be terrified out of my wits. Instead, I was able to share one of the most magical times of my life with my little daughter. As with the first time, all those years ago, it was a spiritual experience — but in a very different way.
At the end of the day, as we headed back to shore, we were tired and excited over the things we had seen and done that day. That night, I fell asleep hearing the slap of waves against a boat, feeling the water roll beneath my feet as gentle giants swam and played beneath me. But I wasn’t afraid.