Ted and I took a trip to the Gold Coast this week and went whale watching on the Sea World lovely new cruise boat. We booked this about a month ago and prayed for good weather – and of course, we didn’t get it! Rain drizzled all day and it was cold – okay, I know it’s June and winter in Queensland, but up to now we’ve had lovely weather…
This is the fourth time we’ve been whale watching, once to Hervey Bay and twice previously on the Gold Coast, and we had only ever seen whales in the far distance, so forgive me if I was a bit cynical about our chances! The boat cruised slowly along the coast, with Surfers Paradise in the misty background, and suddenly there they were, two playful whales swimming alongside. They put on quite a show for us, tail slapping and breaching several times, to the excitement of everyone on board. Sadly I didn’t get any photos as the rain got heavier and I knew they wouldn’t be any good, taken through a rain streaked window!
But this reminded me that some years ago I wrote a short fictional story, based on the Hervey Bay trip and what I have been told was once experienced by someone. I hope you enjoy it. Sara
Jenny’s Whale, by Sara Sutherland.
High above the waters of Hervey Bay, fluffy white clouds are scudding across the winter sky, blown by a stiff, cold wind. The whale cruise boat, moving steadily, dips and wallows in the turbulent swell. The sun is shining, but providing little warmth for the rugged-up tourists along the rails, many with binoculars clamped to their eyes as they search the empty sea for a sighting. They’ve been promised whales; have paid good money to see them and are determined not to miss anything.
I am standing among them, at the bow of the boat, one hand clinging to the rail and the other shading my eyes as I gaze around, but all I can see is water. I speak to no one, but around me I can hear languages from all over the world, many I don’t recognise, like a Tower of Babel. People are pushing politely, but I stand my ground. No one is getting my spot!
An elderly couple are behind me. He is looking uncomfortable and cold, huddled into a coat, his lined face pinched, but she has bright blue eyes in a face that is calm and was once beautiful. Her hat almost blows off and she laughs. Our eyes meet for a second and I move aside just a little, to allow her room at the rail. Two cheeky children push their way in rudely, yelling and laughing, completely unaware of any disapproval as they jog elbows and ruin photographs. I wonder where their parents are. No one seems to own them or care what they do.
I am conscious of a sense of unreality to find myself actually here. I’m not normally an impulsive person, but life has handed me some challenges lately, with the sad but inevitable separation from my partner, and now a diagnosis of breast cancer. I needed to run away for a while, and a whale watching trip is something I’ve always wanted to do, so I hopped in the car to drive up from Brisbane without any further thought. I feel slightly guilty now and make a mental note to ring my sister later.
There’s a ripple of excitement and I wonder if someone has seen something, but there is only the empty sea and never ending waves. Not a whale in sight. Then I see them – dolphins all around us, diving in the bow waves, watching us watching them, small, sleekly brown bodies cruising happily in their element, travelling unbelievably fast.
Immediately there is a rush of people, crowding around me, all trying to get the perfect photograph. I join them, snapping hopefully. Everyone knows that where there are dolphins, there are whales – or maybe it’s the other way around? I don’t know, but I watch these beautiful creatures avidly, and I see an enthusiastic tourist almost fall overboard with his camera, silly fool. Luckily for him, someone pulls him back.
The dolphins disappear finally, off to find another boat perhaps, and more cameras to tease. The excitement drops back as everyone becomes watchful again, and I hear murmurs of disappointment. An announcement tells us there is tea and biscuits inside, so many seek shelter out of the wind, until the next sighting. The old man takes his wife’s arm and pulls her back, although she is obviously reluctant. They disappear inside, but I remain on deck, happy to be alone.
Lunch time comes, and still no sign of whales. I’m not hungry, and as people emerge on deck again, there are some unhappy faces. I hear the captain reassuring the passengers that the whales are there, and they will try to find them, but there are no guarantees in the ocean. If we want to see wild animals up close and personal, go to the zoo, he says. These whales are wild and free and will only perform if they want to.
I close my eyes for an instant, to rest them. Staring out to sea can be tiring, and then as I open them again, I see something in the distance. I blink, trying to focus and then I hear the shout go up, and immediately there is a stampede of feet as everyone tries to get the best view and camera angle, almost squashing me into the rail. Yes, over the p.a. system comes the announcement, two whales ahead, at 10 o’clock. Everyone watches intently, and then a fin appears as if to wave at us. There is a huge collective sigh. Then another fin and, wonder of wonders, a tail rises and comes splashing down on the water. The sigh becomes a squeal of excitement as the boat slows, obeying the strict rules about not chasing whales but allowing them to approach the boats. We watch and wait and finally, the captain calls out something about a footprint. A footprint? This, apparently, is the circle of water left when a whale dives down and in the bad old days, the hunters looked for the footprint to find whales before firing off their guns and killing them.
I see what looks like a footprint and I am staring at it hopefully, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, a huge head surfaces right beside the boat, causing people to squeal and a few to jump back startled. I see an eye, and it appears to be looking right at me. I look back, fascinated, hardly aware of the bedlam all around me as people yell and cameras click and whirr. The whale takes no notice and for a frozen moment continues to stare, right into my eyes. I feel as if I can reach out and touch it, but I cannot move. Slowly the head sinks back into the sea and the big mammal moves away. I stand still, in a kind of shock. Is it trying to tell me something? Does it know what I’m feeling? An emotional tingling whispers, “something amazing has happened.”
Then the show starts, both whales breaching and slapping the water, swimming under the boat and back again. People rush from side to side as they try to follow. At one point there is a huge spurt as a whale blows water and some people scream as they get wet. It stinks, too, but no one seems to mind. The two whales swim and play around us for a long time. At last, everyone is satisfied; they’ve seen what they came to see.
We see more whales, but never that close. I regret not getting the close-up photo I could have taken, but I will take that memory of the whale’s eye, piercing my consciousness with its strength and well-being.
The boat turns for home and I go inside at last, looking for a cup of hot tea which I sip gratefully. I feel a light tap on my shoulder and turn to look into the blue eyes of the old woman.
“Are you alone”, she asks in a strong German accent. I nod and smile.
“Are you enjoying the trip?” she tries again.
“Yes, thank you. Are you?” I ask, awkwardly.
“Oh, we are loving it. The whales are so magnificent!”
I nod again. “Yes, they are.”
She looks at me with understanding, her eyes twinkling, “I can see you want to be alone. Forgive me interrupting your thoughts.”
I must appear rude, and immediately feel myself blushing, but she smiles and waves a hand dismissively. “If you would like to chat, I am here and my name is Lotte. My husband is Gert. We are about to have a cup of tea if you would like to join us, but if not, that’s okay too.” She gives a very continental shrug.
“Thank you. I am Jenny. How can I refuse such kindness?”
So I find myself enjoying the company of this very charming elderly couple for tea and chat all the way back to the harbour at Urangan. I learn quite a lot about them. They came to Australia after World War Two, settling in Brisbane. Gert is a retired architect, and Lotte an artist. They have two daughters, now grown up and married. This is their first whale watching trip. Lotte chats on gently, never asking questions, seeming to understand that I don’t want to talk about myself. We disembark in the late afternoon to loud cheers for the captain and crew from the satisfied customers.
I am strangely drawn to this lady. Standing on the dock, I surprise myself by inviting them to have a drink with me at my hotel before going our separate ways. The hotel is just nearby and has a pleasant bar. Lotte accepts immediately and Gert smiles and nods, apparently perfectly happy.
Soon we are ensconced in a quiet corner of the bar, sipping wine, while looking out at the harbour with its boats and activity. Several tour boats are returning, and there is cleaning and hosing down going on. Life happening all around.
I feel relaxed and comfortable in their company and after a little prompting, I tell them my story, about why I came to Hervey Bay to see whales and find out if they really do have mystical powers.
“And what have you discovered?” Lotte asks in her gentle way.
“That it’s true! Do you know, that whale looked right at me today. It seemed to be telling me that everything will be all right, and I should have faith…” I break off and shrug, embarrassed. “I guess I only saw what I wanted to see…”
Lotte laughs and even Gert chuckles. “That’s wonderful,” she says. “So are you glad you came?”
“Oh yes.” I realise that I am feeling almost exuberant. “Even though I have a health battle to come, I feel much more optimistic.”
“And do you think the whale is responsible for that?”
I laugh, reluctantly. “I have no idea.”
Lotte leans forward “If I give you my phone number, will you keep in touch and tell me how you are?”
I lift my glass in a toast. “I’d like that,” I say, and mean it.