A Mammoth Tail

 In spite of my self-perpetuating glamorous trappings, at my heart of hearts I’m a nature boy. From the very first memories of the Aqua Circus in Cape Cod, I’ve been held captive by the sea and its inhabitants. On that vacation, I sat watching the animals, transfixed by their fluid movement and other-worldly atmosphere. A few years later, at Sea World, I wanted to spend an entire week just sitting by the tank of rays, mesmerized by their undulating wings, their smooth skin, the way they glided through the water as if in flight.
I tried keeping a bit of the sea beside me – in a few fish tanks of fresh and salt water. At the very start of the reef aquarium bloom, when people were just starting to figure out the ways of biological filtration and live rock, I stocked a 55-gallon reef aquarium with a small pocket of the ocean. Beneath the surface there was quiet and peace. The dangerous but beautiful spines of a lion fish patrolled the water, as it lay in wary wait for its next meal to swim by. The plumes of a feather duster slowly unfurled, capturing their own microscopic meals. No matter what was going on in the world outside the glass, within the water was a buffered sense of solemnity.
I have always felt the pull of the ocean, drawn to it with the wish to be carried away by its powerful currents, at one with the healing rhythm of its unceasing waves. By turns calm and fierce, delicate and destructive, the sea was something to which I could relate in its ability to morph from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. The sea is never one thing for very long, but at the same time is somehow immutably unchanging. It also harbors some of the largest and most mysterious animals of the planet, and my fancy has long been taken with tales of giant squid, manta rays, and great white sharks.
When it came time to go to Provincetown with Andy this past weekend, I insisted that we do the one thing I’ve been longing to do all my life: see the whales.
It took about an hour-and-a-half’s boat ride to get close to their feeding area. The day was perfectly sunny, the ocean calm, and the breeze deliciously cool. The thought of seeing whales in person thrilled me, cutting through the Dramamine haze and the sunburn-inducing reflection of light all around us. The guide counseled us on patience, but it was not necessary – I would wait for days for a glimpse of them, happily content to stare into the expanse of surrounding ocean. Luckily, the wait would not be that long, and soon enough, in the distance, the mound of a whale’s hump broke through the surface, and then another – and then the tails in all their water-dripping glory.
It was impossible not to be struck by the majesty and might of these magnificent creatures – so immense, so graceful, so gorgeous. The power of the expelled air from the blowholes, their gargantuan size and roughly-scarred exterior, and the large swath of displaced water in their wake collectively lent their movements a sense of destiny and inevitability. Nothing was meant to stop them. They rendered so many things instantly obsolete. Silly. Frivolous.
I was filled with awe and wonder, any concerns of sun or seasickness felled by the sheer beauty of the scene before us. More whales surfaced, a tell-tale circle of bubbles and attendant seagulls signaling their rise to the surface, and then the rush of air, the arc of their backs, and the elegant silent swish of their tails. It made me want to cry.
Taking photographs of them did scant justice to the experience, and to be honest I was more concerned with witnessing what was going on around me with my own eyes than through a lens or for posterity. That’s why I got to see the lone – and amazing – breach of the day.
Without warning, one of the whales shot straight up into the sky, a full third of its body reaching out of the ocean before falling back with a tremendous splash. There are many scientific theories as to what the purpose of breaching is – a form of exercise, a way to get rid of parasites – but I prefer to think of it as play, in the same way that we cannonball ourselves into a pool or cartwheel across a fluffy green lawn.
In a way, watching these whales brought me back to that little kid who stood on his tip-toes peering into the dolphin tank thirty years ago in Cape Cod. Considering that they live about as long as we do, it’s possible that some of these whales were here at that time too, and that’s a comforting thought. No matter how far you go, no matter how many migrations you make, there’s always a way to return home – even if you have to make it up as you go.

As we prepared to depart the ocean, a few of the whales flapped their flippers in the air, as if to wave good-bye. It was over too soon, and we started the journey back to shore. A bit of the wildness that was the whales stayed with me, a bit of the freedom of the sea took up residence in my heart, and we docked with all the wonder of the world fresh in our thoughts.

When I take back the memories of this birthday weekend, it will be the whales that I remember most fondly.
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