From a very young age, I have always been interested in whales. It could be because of the numerous animal picture books in our house or because of an audio cassette of the humpback whales’ famous songs that my father sometimes played, I always wanted to see these magnificent creatures. So it was inevitable that when I decided to visit some friends in Boston for a week, the activity that I was looking forward to most eagerly was not visiting MIT or Harvard but going on a whale-watching cruise.
Our catamaran started from Long Wharf in Boston on a fine Monday morning at ten. I was on the topmost deck as the boat gathered speed and moved out into open sea. The wind was more forceful than I had ever faced in my life, and although the weather was uncomfortably hot when we started, soon everyone was shivering and putting on jackets.
The beginning was very exciting. The deep blue water, the Boston skyline, the planes landing at the Logan International Airport and the windmills and lighthouses nearby provided ample material to keep the photographers busy. I walked around from bow to stern taking photos and watching people and photographing small islands as we passed by them.
Then we left all that behind, and it got boring. There was nothing to see, and nothing to hear except the wind. The wind and the engine collaborated to make any attempt to converse with fellow-passengers futile.
This being my first sea voyage (if a three-hour trip can be called that), I was probably a bit more enthusiastic than the majority of the crowd, who had by now either settled down in the comfort of the air-conditioned cabin or were sitting down on the floor of the deck to escape the howling wind. I was, of course, considering myself a mix of Captain Ahab, Captain Nemo, Christopher Columbus and Jack from the Titanic movie and stood at my post at the very nose of the vessel. Except for a brief moment when I had ducked down under the parapet and put on my jacket, I refused to look away from the horizon. I wanted to be the first person to spot the whales.
About one and a half hour after we had started, the public address systems on the vessel crackled to life. Nobody could hear anything, of course, unless they ducked down under the wind, but the whole crowd flocked out on the decks sensing something interesting was about to happen. I crouched down momentarily and realized they were talking about the whales in general, and I chose to scan the horizon deaf, rather than listen to whale experts blind.
“Whale there!” shouted the gentleman next to me suddenly. He was pointing towards a vessel similar to ours in the distance. “I just saw a spout on the left side of that boat,” he said. The boat in question was very far away, and I pointed my telephoto lens towards it. Sure enough, soon there was a fountain of water next to the boat, followed by an unmistakable black tail being thrust skywards. It was gone before I had time to focus (see photo). It was incredibly far – it was a miracle that the man had seen it in the first place. Evidently, the crew had seen it too, for we headed in the direction of the sighting. And as we approached the place, we saw white spouts and black bodies of the humpbacks coming closer and closer until they were just next to our ship.
The engines were cut off and the wind stopped howling immediately. The whale expert’s voice was clear now, but I was not listening to her. There were three glistening backs in the water. They took turns releasing their breath in sprays, and then doing somersaults in the water, never exposing too much of their bodies until they came to the tail. Then they would thrust the tail heavenwards and clear of the water before diving down while the water where they just dove acquired a strange oily flat look. If imagining a creature as big as a bus seems difficult, try imagining one that is as big as a bus and as graceful as a mermaid in water. All the cameras in the crowd went crazy. Then they surfaced on the other side of the boat and the whole crowd rushed from the starboard side to the port side, setting up a slight rocking movement in the process.
It was precisely at this moment when the first wave of nausea hit me.
In the excitement of the trip, I had forgotten all about my motion sickness problem and had failed to take any preventive medicines that I usually carry. Now as the boat bobbed on the waves and everyone struggled to maintain a foothold while holding cameras, I had a new worry – where to go if I wanted to throw up. Fortunately, I never needed to find out the answer.
The intense seasickness curbed my enjoyment to a great extent, but that does not mean I took my eyes – or my camera – off from the whales for one single moment. The three whales that were swimming around us included two females called Tornado and Nile (named after marks on their tails) and a third individual who was not recognized.
After spending some time with the whales, the catamaran started its engines and moved away looking for more pods. As we accelerated, I noted with relief that my seasickness was limited to the times when we were free-floating near the whales and subsided when the boat was moving and hence more stable. We soon found another pair of whales where we repeated the same maneuver as before. Then we saw another three, and finally another two some distance away, bringing the total count up to ten before turning back towards Boston. Everywhere, we saw flippers, tails, backs and spouts, and once even got a clear shot of the blow-holes, but we were never lucky enough to see a whale breaching. Breaching is the process by which a whale clears the surface of the water and throws its body partly or fully out into the air before landing back with a tremendous splash. We did not see it. And frankly, after the four stops that caused four separate bouts of seasickness, I wasn’t too sad about heading back.
I spent the return journey in the cabin – dozing half the time and talking to my parents the other half. Even when apparently in open sea, cell phone signals never deserted us. When I felt firm ground after my feet again about three-and-a-half hours after we had started, I wondered how people spend months on board ships at once. That little time was too much for me to endure.
That does not mean I am not going back, of course. After looking at those gigantic creatures so close, I consider my life incomplete unless I see and photograph a breaching whale. Until then, I’ll have to live with the memories of those white fountains and shiny black-and-white tails.