Vancouver Island, late some November evening, this is what I knew of Canadian winter: mild, frosted, and greened by coastal moisture. I don’t remember where exactly I was trying to go that night, driving from the tip of Victoria city into the green dark of E. Sooke, but I remember I was driving quickly, and with little sense of direction. I saw a sign, small, and green, and rectangular, like any street sign. I aimed my headlights at it. It blinked back brightness from the dark, like cat eyes:
H U M P B A C K R O A D and without thinking where was I supposed to be going, I turned up it. The road slanted higher into the hillside. And winded like this for a while along the unknown island road, windows rolled down, breath chilled and visible. Wherever it led me, I knew I needed to be on this particular road. The sign might better have read, M E M O R Y L A N E or, now entering N O S T A L G I A S T R E E T or, H O M E W A R D B O U N D B O U L E V A R D.
There are rules in Hawaii.
Swimming with Humpback Whales is illegal, punishable by federal fines of $25,000. Approaching Humpback Whales by any means is illegal, by boat (cut motors and keep a 100 yards distance, or 300 yards for mother and calf) or by hovering aircraft. Harassment of any form is illegal. Hawaii, for the whales, (as it is for many a tourist) is a retreat. The Humpbacks come to Hawaii to be warm, to flirt and to mate, to give birth, and to nurse their calves in the winterless waters. The shallow seascape lulled between the islands is their sanctuary, and their nursery.
I have never broken the law. But I have come close.
When I was seven, before I had much of a say on where my body went and what it saw, my uncle Steve’O grabbed me by my kid-thin ankles, flipped me upside-down and head-dipped me off the back net of the boat and into the ocean. My young eyes were tooled with a tempered-glass mask so I could see underwater clear as I might the sky above. My hair haloed light around my flipped floating head. Water rushed my eardrums, muting things. My arms hung limp from the shoulders, floating like noodles from the elbows to the fingertips, I left them floating like that, unsure of where else to put them. I didn’t squirm, I was limp and docile, I knew better than to kick the hands that held me. It took me more than a moment to focus, and really see what it was my underwater eyes were looking for.
Then I saw her. And although I hadn’t been breathing, nose and mouth underwater and sealed in glass as they were, when I saw her I really emptied out any possibility of breath, and entered a state of purposeful breathlessness, as I might if I saw a buck in a woods, or an owl perching on a fencepost – like that, only proportionately larger and more gaspable.
She was underneath us; her body nearly equaled the length of our 64-foot Catamaran. A vast and stout and supple beast hovering before my tiny seven-year-old self and what I remember more than her actual size, more than her girth and depth, which was stunning, and shocking (later, I would learn a mature female weighs up to 40 tons and is often larger than 42 feet from tip to tail); what I remember more than her dark textured hide, or her mineral callouses like coral-reef decoration on her face and body; what I remember most were her eyes, or the one eye I could see, anyway. One eye: on the right side of her massive head, glued just above her cracked mouth.
She watched me: her calm, attentive, glossy eye the size of a husked coconut, or a fist. I misplaced myself in that eye; for an instant, and in that instant, I sank into my first experience of bodilessness. Later, I might come to dissect these moments, giving them labels such as “awe” or “elevated instances” or “interconnectivity with the higher self, or the spirit of something rather.” But in that instant, in my seven-year-old consciousness, I simply considered how generous a moment it was, this sharing of existence with another being.
At the surface, I was only a reed-like body being fed to the ocean, fidgeting ever so often to heave myself up for a breath, and our boat bobbed below us. At the surface, on the horizon, three males bashed at one another in organized formation, fighting for the privilege to mate with this beauty that hid below our boat. She was nervous, I could tell. I saw this nervousness in her unblinking black-onion eye.
Years later, I would reassess this situation and say, fuck man, if I were that female, I’d have been horrified, too, I’d have stayed hidden under the boat, too, for as long as it took for the dudes to figure it out. There was 120 tons of male whale – a combined 21 feet of whale dick – physically fighting over who would fuck her next. I would have hid, too.
Megatera noveangliae, the Humpback’s Latin name, translates to mean Giant Wings. This name is inspired by their 14-foot pectoral wingspan. Like so many large-finned underwater mammals, Humpbacks move with small-boned grace and agility, more suited of a half-ounce bird than a 40-ton blubber mass. But all the power to them; I can’t tease. I could never do what they do; migrate 7,000 plus miles north to south each and every year; give birth to 3,000 pound kids; fasting while they do all this.
Megatera noveangliae, you have always impressed me.
I was conceived on Maui, just like all the Humpback Whales, was born there, too. My mother nursed me and raised me there, although her breast milk was not the consistency of yogurt, nor did I gain hundred of pounds a day from drinking it. But I did grow. And I slept and swam and socialized in the shallow-water sanctuary surrounding Maui County – Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i. Unlike the Humpback calves, I took 18 years to gain strength enough to survive the demanding voyage up North. When I felt I was ready to part with my mama, and my calf-siblings, and the warm Hawaiian waters, I flew (didn’t swim) the 3,000 miles to the southerly most tip of Vancouver Island, British Colombia.
When I was young, the arrival of the Humpbacks was a rare form of cyclical magic. Their arrival signified the shifting of seasons, however subtle in Hawaii. With the whales mating and swimming and dating and birthing in the surrounding waters, we shifted from summer and into Whale Season. I’m aware now that not everyone refers to winter in Hawaii as Whale Season, I’m sure my calling it that had something to do with growing up on touristic charter boats. But besides half a dozen raindrops, half an hour less sunlight and a shift in the wind (so slight only a sailor could notice) there really is no proper change in the seasons of Hawaii. So, I have always referred to December through April as Whale Season.
With the arrival of the Whales so too arrived in me this expression of Awe I reserved for the Whales and the Whales alone. When I was young, I had no map memorized of landmasses in the Pacific. I knew the whales swam from somewhere in the north Pacific, but somewhere was a mystical place that I didn’t think actually existed, or if it did exist, wasn’t accessible for the average human being. Like Narnia, or Neverland. The whales just began to appear, every year in masses, and that was the magic. One day we’d be out on the boat, my brothers and mama and I, or swimming in the shore break, and spot a spout on the horizon and hoot out to whoever cared to listen: “whale hooooo” and we’d squirm and giggle and hug one another. Tis’ the excitement of the changing of the seasons; sort of like waking up one morning and seeing the first thin covering of white on the front yard. Only, I didn’t see snow (nor have I experienced this ‘first snow sensation’) until I was 18. And instead of snow, that melts in the sun, or muddies under boots, the whales are entities of their own and seemingly everlasting.
And even if they don’t consider me in the same regard, I have come to think of them as friends.
Most days, I know why I moved to Vancouver Island.
Most days, I remind myself, I am here to grow up faster, to get wiser sooner, to be my own person. I moved away from Hawaii, away from home, from family, with some semblance of purpose. And now I am here, and most days, I’m okay with that. But some days, I yearn for the familiar; I crave my mother’s forehead-kisses, or my brother’s cheeky comments or playful butt-kicks and arm-punches. I miss swimming, surfing, sailing in a bikini, not in foul weather gear. I miss hot sand, and warm waters. I miss swimming with the dolphins, the fishes. I miss the whales.
I think of this as I drive along some Vancouver Island road. It is night, and though I’m not alone, I have isolated myself in the back on this roaring pickup truck. The boys in the front, drunk off Pabst and Wiser’s, screech around the dusty turns, dirty rap songs blaring out the open windows, beats thumping to the rhythm of their outstretched arms. These are my friends; and I do love these rough boys. They remind me (maybe in all the wrong ways) of my brothers.
We spent the day shooting rifles and stomping beer cans, jumping off cliffs into crisp lakes and drunkenly basking in the mid-summer sun.
In the truck bed with wet hair and a sunburnt nose, I huddle under my parka and thick wool blanket and howl at the blank sky. Sipping idly at the tin flask pinched between my gloved hands – whiskey, keep me warm. I have chosen this place, this life apart from my family. And I love it here, on this wild windswept island. But some days I question my transitory nature; why move away from everything good, from everyone that matters to me? This migration seems map-less, aimless, almost entirely against my instinct. I am not a whale, though some days I wish I was; then at least my pod would travel with me. I am not a whale, and it is not in my nature to dart north to south, south to north. And still, I continue in this solo migration loop, following the patterns of the Humpbacks in the Pacific.
Sombrio Beach, somewhere on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in the dumping rain. Sitting my numb ass in the sodden sand, my pathetic fire spitting ash at me, my toes drained white and cold. The fog rolling in like tidal waves consumes my vision, ingesting my comfort. I sigh. This is when I miss – I miss – I miss somewhere else.
Or something else: warmth, or to not feel so alone, isolated on a foreign beach in the north Pacific. To have the blood return to my toes, or have the sun reheat my wintered skin. I miss swimming in the sea for hours without shivering once. I consider swimming here, but no, too cold here. I shouldn’t. I remain huddled near my unwarming fire and plea the sun to melt away the covering of fog. In this instance, I need a reminder of my good fortune. I am on a beach, a beautiful beach, in the dense chill of a mild Canadian winter. And I am content here, I think. Only missing something – some ungraspable thing.
Then, midday and alone in the November fog, I see three Humpback Whales spout and roll across the horizon. ‘Ha,’ I mouth out loud, ‘Ha!’ I stand and wave frantically in the direction of my traveling friends. Bundled in my parka, toque sliding down over my ears and neck, I pick up my stone-white feet and trot to the edge of the heaving Pacific. I hesitate, tiptoe in. ‘Guys,’ I say, ‘guys wait for me.’
I strip (how could I not strip). I strip off my jeans and long johns and parka and hoodie and long-sleeve and short-sleeve and tank top and, for decency sake (lest a lucky surfer catch a peak), I leave my bra and panties on. And plunge my body past the head-high shore break, diving through it, sinking down, and listen.
There is a particular non-silence found only underwater. This is something I miss. I close my eyes and curl my limbs into each other, tangling myself like ribbon, as if tightening my body against itself might keep it even slightly warm. I bob-bob-bob gently, five feet from the surface. And listen. There is a crackling, the busy nibbling world of anomies and planktons and jellies. There is the drawling lull of tides and currents and particles of sand being swept. There is the muted breaking of waves against the stones on shore. Then, there it is: this echoing, the hallowed moan of the Humpback.
I’m sure I’m frosting, and might be crying, and stiffening underwater in the winter water. But this is what I needed, this is what was missing: this something. I laugh, excreting the last of my air bubbles from the walls of my pinched-sponge lungs, adding my subdued sound to the resounding song of the transitory Humpback. And before kicking off the sanded bottom and breaking through the rough surface, I hold myself still to listen.
Then, I kick the packed sand and stone-rumbled bottom. And break headfirst through the cold surface, winter waves slapping, rolling, continuously, at my face. I gasp for breath, but can only laugh. I slip back underwater for a quick moment, but not deep enough and there is only the sound of the busy surface swell. The waves push me back to land, the waves tripping at my frozen limbs as I gracelessly clamber out. The stones, tossed in the shore break, roll over my feet. I only laugh, and sigh. I must look like wild– numb and naked – being spat onto the shore with the stones.