The thought of whales got me out after months off the water. The thought of whales helped me skip past my nervous at rowing a thin shell of a float out onto that big dancing blue body of the Pacific with whales in her belly. The thought of whales drew Mandy and I out, up from our warm beds, both on the tail end of sick, into the cool fall dawn.
At first; the sunrise tangerine over the cool blue, and a sea lion or two giving a chase, the penguin-like murres tiny on the swells. We rowed long, out past the mile bouy to the west, farther than I’ve ever rowed. The thought of whales steadied me as my body remembered rowing, leaned into the tippy side swells. No whales.
We turned toward shore, enjoyed the green earthy layers of west cliff, the circus on seal rock, the empty stands of the O’Neill Coldwater Classic. No whales. Mandy said she felt ‘em out here somewhere, we paused. We headed back in, satisfied with the morning and the row, the ocean smelling very fishy. Passing the wharf we stopped amongst a group of UCSC rowers, and their instructor lit up telling us tails of huge beasts spy-hopping 10 feet in front of her boat the day before.
I guess the whales needed an audience.
There, amongst the largest group of rowers, kayakers and standup paddleboarders I’ve ever been out with, they arrived for brunch. Five humpacks with their sweet out breaths, their no-wake footprints and elegant huge bodies, the quiet while we waited for them and again and again and again. Rowing smoothly with the swells, we moved to be near them, and the flury of the sea lion pack following them, and the churning of the birds diving into the water.
Before I’d gotten on the boat I had an important ten o’clock meeting. It was nine and us an hour off the dock. I turned, and kept chasing humpbacks.
[No cameras today, so I'll share this poem to get you there too]
by Mary Oliver
There is, all around us,
of original fire.
You know what I mean.
The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something
has to be holding
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.
off the Cape,
the humpbacks rise. Carrying their tonnage
of barnacles and joy
they leap through the water, they nuzzle back under it
They sing, too.
And not for any reason
you can’t imagine.
Three of them
rise to the surface near the bow of the boat,
deeply, their huge scarred flukes
tipped to the air.
We wait, not knowing
just where it will happen; suddenly
they smash through the surface, someone begins
shouting for joy and you realize
it is yourself as they surge
upward and you see for the first time
how huge they are, as they breach,
and dive, and breach again
through the shining blue flowers
of the split water and you see them
for some unbelievable
part of a moment against the sky–
like nothing you’ve ever imagined–
like the myth of the fifth morning galloping
out of darkness, pouring
heavenward, spinning; then
they crash back under those black silks
and we all fall back
together into that wet fire, you
know what I mean.
I know a captain who has seen them
playing with seaweed, swimming
through the green islands, tossing
the slippery branches into the air.
I know a whale that will come to the boat whenever
she can, and nudge it gently along the bow
with her long flipper.
I know several lives worth living.
Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones
toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire
even the great whale,
throbs with song.
From AMERICAN PRIMITIVE by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983 by Mary Oliver; first appeared in COUNTRY JOURNAL, May 1982. By permission of Little, Brown and Company, Inc. All rights reserved. For information about the book, please call 1-800-759-0190.
Mary Oliver was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984 for AMERICAN PRIMITIVE.