-page 92- During our own Rite of Passage ceremony, the two whales continue to bob up and down, cheek to cheek, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the The Gay Divorcee. Denise's long black hair blows in the wind as she takes hold of the urn, walks over to the gunwale, and offers her dead son's ashes back to the deep. We are all surprised, even shocked: the ashes are not powdery and fine, but rather, bony and substantial like oyster shells. The dust hangs on the surface of the water for a brief instant, then gone. Each of us sits quietly for another minute caught in our own thoughts and feelings. But the whales are dancing around the boat. Soon we are up and about watching this impromptu performance.
The performance continues into the next hour. The whales have moved even closer. They have become such an accepted part of the scenery that the two children have begun to take them for granted.
Lounging quietly next to Tom, still clad in my wetsuit, I ask him if it is possible to set sail very quickly and then move right beside them. Tom searches my face for some kind of practical motive, smiles, and reaches down to the rope to tie off my ankle. No, I do not want a line this time, I want to swim freely. Tom grins from ear to ear. He extends his hand as if by shaking we are sealing a gentlemen's bargain. The sail is set, we move forward. The whales are no longer bobbing. Now they are rolling all over each other, making it nearly impossible to tell where one animal starts and the other finishes. They are kicking up a giant froth. Fifty yards ... twenty yards ... I jump off the boat without the drum. Tom veers sharply to the left and away. I am alone in the sea, not quite ten yards away from two gray whales. -page 92-
-page 94-95- I howl like a wolf, for reasons of safety as much as greeting. I want to be very sure that these whales are aware that there is a tiny stranger in their midst. I swim closer. The surge from a fluke lifts me half out of the water. The coarse prolific growth of barnacles covers their bodies like a living city built upon a living planet. Are the barnacles aware of the whale? I wonder if these barnacles are consciously arranged by the whales, like some cetacean expression of body makeup? The sentiment need not seem anthropomorphic, after all the barnacles always seem to flourish in very distinct areas. A phrase of McLuhan floats through my consciousness: 'Myth is the instant vision of a complex solution.'
I recall the ominous words of a hitchhiker who sternly warned me not to be so foolish as to swim in these shark-infested waters near the Farallones Islands. A diver had been bitten in half just the year before. A fisherman had caught a 14 foot, 2200 pound great white nearby.
Yet I feel no fear while I swim so close to the whales. My confidence may be nothing more than blind, romantic idealism, the fantasy of whale protectors with a capital P. On the other hand, I feel that there is no reason to be afraid on a day when death transforms into a Rite of Passage, a great migration. I feel the power of the two whales, the surge of their bodies rolling close like a living wall. 'Hey you whales, you got magic? We need plenty!' They are ten feet away.
I move in five feet. The whales ostensibly seem to back up five feet. I move in five more feet. Again the whales counter. No matter how fast I swim, these two whales uncannily persist to keep a constant ten feet between us. Their eyes are often peering away from me, so it is not a visual perception. Could it be sonar? Probably. It is totally amazing the degree of control these huge bodies exert in keeping such a precise distance while they roll and wallow in the swells. I had been born with the name Jonah. Was this what had happened to him? Had it been a gray whale? Why am I so close to these whales? What am I trying to do here anyway? What about sharks? Where is the boat?
Suddenly I was afraid. I needed to get away from these whales, and out of the water as quickly as possible. Attracting whales had been one thing, a noble experiment in interspecies empathy. But this activity of sporting with the whales: it was not right. My goal was a rush of adrenalin and maybe a yarn to tell my grandchildren someday. I had become a thrill seeker. But thrills are a controlled attribute of our fear mechanism. Now I was out of control. The whales deserved better. I deserved better.
This entire inner discourse could not have lasted more than five seconds. In fact, this entire free-swim with the whales did not last more than five minutes. As soon as my mood changed, as soon as even the slightest hint of fear came into conscious focus, just as suddenly, the whales dived.
This human being had swum into their space, feeling great excitement. Then he had changed his tune to one of fear. The whales disappeared below the waves. They took a quiet bow to the assembled throng, and then quickly made their exit. Their sense of timing had been absolutely superb, the work of obvious masters. The boat picked me up. The long, anti-climactic trip back to Sausalito was one of shared songs, impossible sea yarns, and warm sunshine. Players and audience all agreed that the Rite of Passage was a rousing success, an event to be remembered. Whales and humans both, had learned to comprehend each others manners just a wee bit more directly. Good Will rules the waves. -page 94-95-
Typed by Cheryl Vega 3-20-95