It seemed like another holiday thing to do.
As we are here, and as we have some hard-earned time on our hands, we should take our chance whale-watching. The day looks good. The first burning sun of spring makes the sea dark blue, while mysterious bands and swirls of mist come and go. The lazy dawn dragging its feet through the day.
Fully expecting to catch no more than a crimson rash, I’m not surprised when our guide says that nothing’s guaranteed. ‘This is not a zoo’, he insists as he waves an expansive arm at the Atlantic. So I am astonished when we come across the first humpback after only half an hour. The great thing trundlesby in silent nonchalance.
Three hours later I had seen a score or so of dolphin, a dozen minke whales and a good fifteen humpbacks: a handful of which were identified by the marks on their tails.
I always get a thrill when I see wildlife in the wild, fleeting though the glimpse so often is: the flash of a stoat, or was it a weasel, a nano-second of eye-contact when a deer steps into the track, a sideways glance from a fox, an ear-twitch from a hare. Any of these can quicken the pulse. They all remake an ancient mammal-to-mammal bond.
We are educated on our boat – shown a rubber model of a sand eel: food for just about everything else in the ocean. Pity the poor sand eel. And pity everything else if sand eels are having a bad time – which they are.
Minke whales are big, or rather huge; more than elephantine. And yet they float by unexceptionally. Dolphins are fast and fun and speed by with apparent, but obscure purpose.
It is the humpback whales that get me. No, that’s wrong. It’s the humpbacks who get me. Sometimes alone, sometimes in concert. Here is synchronised swimming on a huge scale, and collaborative consuming. Here are intelligence and sociability, and the beginnings, more than the beginnings, perhaps, of relationship.
Out to sea the water’s surface is inscrutable until breached by a fin, or a plume of breath, or the white effervescence of a million bubbles which say that someone is coming up from below with a jaw open wide. Jonah sized, at least. There! Just beneath me a humpback breaks the surface, glides and flops its massive tail. Another comes to the surface with a mouth full of food and floats, grinning at the watchers while gulls settle and snatch at leftovers.
Later we come across a cluster of humpbacks. We count them differently. ‘I see four’. ‘No, its six’. They feed together, rest and are gone, leaving wonder in their wake.
When it comes to whales, bigger means older, and some of these are very big. Some might be in their eighties. There may even be centenarians out there.
Big, old, beautiful, social, and intelligent: we should call them venerable and venerate them. Not monsters, but miracles of creation; not for us but with us; not something to learn about, but beings to learn from.
What a way to pass the time.