Thursday, April 9, 2009

Interview with a Whale

I recently found an article from an old Sierra magazine (May/June 2006) that I had saved. The article, called "Interview with a Whale" by Douglas H. Chadwick, was adapted from his soon-to-be-published (back in 2006) book, The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye With Whales. He had teamed up with a National Geographic photographer to do an article about the National Marine Sanctuary System, and in the process his life was changed by his encounters with whales off the coast of Hawaii.

He describes his encounter with one particularly curious and friendly humpback whale as follows:

"I passed from the gunwale into the Pacific, took a quick breath through the snorkel, and ducked my head under. . . . I suddenly had a crisp view stretching in every direction for 100 to 150 feet. It was an opalescent universe of borderless blue, gradually dimming to gray in the distance. And it was empty save for flecks of plankton drifting by. Then I looked past my feet.

"The whale was suspended head down with its pectoral fins spread as if frozen in a swan dive, a pose often assumed by singers. Its music came straight through my flesh and played loudly in my bones. I felt strummed. . . . I don't recall the exact sequence, but I know that this enormity, this sentient presence with a body about 7 times my length and 400 times my weight, approached very closely, eyeing me, and its passing took an achingly long time, and at one point a pectoral fin swept by inches over my head. . . .

"Next came another approach straight at me. This time the humpback flared its pectoral fins and braked less than a yard from my face. We floated there nose to nose, scarcely moving. . . . Songs of other humpbacks came throbbing through me while my own blood pounded in my ears.

"I felt wary and off balance but never really frightened. I was too overwhelmed, treading water slowly while facing a force so utterly beyond mine that I couldn't begin to make sense of the situation. There was simply no experience in my lifetime to use as a reference. I hadn't come with any preconceptions about whales being extraordinarily gentle or wise, but I somehow trusted that the force hovering before me was benign. This megamammal appeared able to keep track of exactly where I was and to fine-tune its movements accordingly. It showed no intention of doing anything except making inquiries after its fashion. I was before an intelligent, purposeful, immanent being. It had questions.

"Maybe this is what an interview with God would be like."

I know that this doesn't seem to have a shred of anything to do with Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter (nor does it necessarily need to, given my present status!). But somehow the nose to nose encounter between Chadwick and the whale, the awe, the out-of-our-element-ness, the whale's song strumming through him, the silent conversation between them, the mystery and the love there, just makes me want to put it out there. And now feels like the right time.

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