Chasing Whales

Chasing Whales

13244231_1490935147599232_2529425574868615330_oI’m not sure how to explain it, but I’m chasing whales.

Not metaphorically. Really. I am looking for whales. Everywhere. Anywhere. And when I see them I dive in, swim after them. Follow them down into the blue. No joke. I’ve been training. 🐋

It started in Iceland.

Actually, that’s not true, it started before Iceland. It started last summer. It started in New England.

We were laying around, sprawled on the bed in the middle of the day. “Want to go snorkeling?” she asked.

“You know, I’ve never liked snorkeling,” I said. “I did it as a kid, but I can’t relax. Listening to my breath, all loud next to my ear, I don’t calm down. I wind up on the verge of hyperventilating. I’ve always wanted to get comfortable but I never have.”

She popped up to sitting. “I have masks,” she said. “Let’s go.”

That was the beginning. I have a tendency to run headlong at anything that scares me, and her push was enough. We grabbed wetsuits, masks and snorkels and went to the beach. The water was cold, but I floated around listening to my breath run ragged through the plastic. I calmed my heart, willed myself to relax. Soon we were coursing our way around rock beaches and points, diving down to examine starfish and stripers. The ocean, which had always held a foreboding cast for me, came alive. I was part of it, close enough to touch it. I was hooked.

12961430_1458805094145571_3194725830949882464_oLater that summer we were diving a nearby beach and swam into a shark. A blue shark, nothing dangerous, but it sure felt real as I swam up to him in his territory. In the fall we dove the Florida Keys, where I came face-to-face with a swarm of parrotfish. They looked like a herd of rhinoceroses tromping over seagrass beds; they saw me and parted like swallows, enveloping me. The next day I swam alongside a sea turtle as it made its way over the reef. Two days later on a diveboat, the only two without tanks, we swam with nurse sharks 30 feet below the surface. The ocean’s current had me; it was dragging me down.

Fast forward to February: Iceland. I had a 24-hour stopover on the way back from climbing in Scotland. I saw it in the Iceland Air magazine, towards the back: “Whales of Iceland. The largest whale exhibition in Europe.”

My head was still in mixed climbing, but it looked interesting. I’d give it a shot, I figured. I had a day. The plane landed and I caught a bus to my hostel. After a shower, a meal and some relaxing time in a bookstore coffee shop I went to bed.

The next day I woke up at 7 a.m. The sun doesn’t rise in February in Iceland until 10 a.m., so I wandered out into the dark. I found a public bathhouse where I relaxed in geothermal water in outside pools. The morning was beginning well.

I plotted my course on a cheap tourist map. The whale exhibit was on the other side of the city, but Reykjavik is small; it took me 30 minutes of walking, buffeted by wind.

I got there right after 10 a.m. just as they opened. The city was bathed in gray, overcast light. The man behind the counter looked up at me.

“You’re the first one here,” he said. “Just go in. Don’t worry about paying.”

IMG_4604Confused, I wasn’t about to complain. I wandered into the entrance, where I met the first of 23 full-sized models of the dolphins and whales that choke Icelandic waters. They were detailed, realistic, hanging from guy-wires, suspended from the ceiling. I turned the corner and the man from the corner came after me. “Wait a minute,” he said, holding up his cell phone. “We just developed a new app, a virtual tour of the exhibit. Will you test it out for us?”

I took the phone without a reply; I was still taking in the massive beluga whale model off to my right. I wasn’t yet ready to answer questions. I hit the play button and began wandering through the sea of mammals.

The tongue of the blue whale weighs as much as an elephant. The heart is the size of a Volkswagen. A sperm whale’s teeth are the size of corn cobs. And I was wandering beneath detailed, full-sized versions, bathed in blue light, listening with a phone to my ear in awe. It felt like I’d stumbled into the real thing, like I’d wandered into a sliver of open ocean. I went from one whale to the next, and slowly they got bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until they were the size of city busses and diesel locomotives. I sat down at the coffee stand at the end, still open to their enormity, and exhaled. They were stunning.

Then I saw it: A virtual reality headset on a nearby table. I walked over and put it on, goggles and headphones both. There were three choices—tropical, temperate or arctic. In each you were underwater, surrounded by whales, and fish, sharks, seals and more. I spent 15 minutes spinning blindly on a chair watching orcas race past me. This. Was. IT. I was chasing whales.

IMG_1043I walked out in a daze, barely remembering to give the guy back his phone. “Come back whenever,” he said.

That’s it. The seed was planted in Iceland. That’s where it started for real. Since then I’ve been watching, waiting for whales. And they keep show up—in conversations about work, in books, tattooed onto the forearms of strangers at the Red River Gorge, along the highway. So I follow them. I trust they are leading somewhere. And I’m preparing to meet them: I took a freedive course in North Carolina so when one pops up before me I’ll be ready. In Moab I swam laps in the rec center pool, holding my breath from one end to the other. I’m going to be ready. When I see one and it dives, I’ll dive with it. They will share their secrets with me. They already have.

If this doesn’t make sense, I know. But I’m following them anyway.

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