Nella quale si ragiona, sotto il reggimento di Neifile, di chi alcuna cosa molto di lui disiderata o con industria acquistasse o la perduta ricoverasse.
To achieve one’s dreams is a great feeling: to do so after having put some level of effort is even better. This is the topic of the third day of the Decameron: tales of arduous conquer of seemingly unachievable goals, mostly of squires hitting the sack with noble ladies or abbots scoring with noble ladies or friars getting lucky with noble ladies (hardly a surprise that the Decameron featured in the Index librorum prohibitorum). Alas, my story today isn’t going to be as spicy, though it includes toil, deep discomfort and, as it is my custom, a penchant for choosing the very worst moment to embark in this quest. But let’s start from the beginning.
There used to be a dinosaur in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London. Dippy, as it is called, was a revelation when I first saw it in 1996. Then, a few years ago, came the news that Dippy was buggering off for a tour of what we snobs living in London call “The Regions” (cue in a shiver of barely-concealed horror). In its stead, the NHM decided to put another skeleton. This time of a blue whale. Cue below a photo taken from Look Up London.
It was one of the very few cases where the stand-in crew does a better job of the headliner. In fact, I’d say that this 25-meter blue whale is awesome and I’m more than happy for Derby, or Stoke-on-Trent to keep Dippy. And the reason for me to say this is that I’m terribly fascinated by whales – and blue whales in particular. No other animal has ever come close to their dimensions. Somebody has calculated that their jaws have reached the maximum dimensions allowed by physics in order for them to feed in the way they do. Do yourself a favour and read Nick Pyenson’s Spying on Whales and if you don’t feel pure awe then something’s wrong with you.
Anyway, all this to say that seeing a blue whale has been a dream of mine. With only one catch, actually two. First, as always, dough. Second, and more importantly, I’m not good with boats. Well, since we’re amongst friends I’ll spill the beans: to say that I’m not good with boats would be like saying that Challenger’s last launch went a wee bit wrong. Although things have improved in the past few years, back in 2017 I wouldn’t have wandered out into the Indian ocean on anything less than a supertanker. Up until the fateful day when we boarded a glorified bathtub on a stormy day in Sri Lanka.
Mirissa is, or at least was back then, a village caught in the transition between fishing hamlet and tourist hotspot. Hotels were few and far inbetween, resorts unheard of and if the beach bars looked like shacks it was because they were so, not for a stylistic choice. Every morning an unseen hand would list the number of aquatic creatures – sperm whales, sea turtles, dolphins, blue whales – spotted on the previous day’s cruises on a whiteboard stuck in the sand. It was too good an offer to pass.
The day chosen for the coronation of this dream was also the one when the good weather turned. After a week or so of heart-warming sunrises and sunny afternoons that begged for a hammock and a nap, that morning offered a 180 degrees turn. Gun-metal sky. The beach looked more Stavanger than tropical island. A sign in the hut where we assembled, a marshmallow-soft crew of vacationers in flip flops and swimming trunks, said that they expected 6-foot swell. I did a quick comparison to proper units of measure and the result yielded a meterage that, to my land-dwelling eyes, was appropriate for tsunamis. Being responsible adults, we ignored it and swallowed the sickness pills.
The boat wasn’t a bathtub. It was actually a catamaran, meaning two bathtubs linked together by a two-decked platform designed to be rolled over by the first wave, sending flip-floppers into the jaws of awaiting sharks and krakens. On board were some well-worn life vests with instructions in tidy katakana characters and visuals like only the Japanese can draw. Arms here and here, head through here, tighten these and may the odds be on your side.
We spluttered out of the marina, noting how not a single fishing boat was out, and already one guy – a French fellow with a 1970s moustache and a girlfriend that was beginning to realise the enormity of the error she’d made – already with the head in a bucket. As soon as we left the harbour the boat started woosh-thumping on the rollers, the prow rising and falling with the regularity of a metronome and the propeller whining louder as if suddenly found itself in open air. Hey, where’s all the water gone? it seemed to complain.
Speaking of complaints, my inner organs weren’t enjoying the ride. Everything that was ‘down’ tried to go ‘up’ and, in an inner corner of my mind (which, in case you were wondering, works exactly like in that Woody Allen movie except for the fact that all the workers are on strike), a squeaky voice kept on repeating Just so you know, I don’t believe we are meant to be here. Regardless, the boat soldiered on, cruising straight ahead until the coast was nothing but a memory, our world was a grey ocean and the only feature were freighters cruising by in the distance (“Captain, are those ships in distress?” “Nah, it’s those stupid whale-watchers. Better have a launch ready in case they capsize like last Wednesday, though”. “Aye aye captain”).
On and on we went, lashed by rain that grew colder as the day went, the whine of the engine and the rale of the sea sick our only companions. Those who weren’t vomiting looked on the verge of passing out, and those who weren’t passing out didn’t seem to be enjoying the cruise. I was ranking my life choices in order of stupidity when the corner of my eye felt something different. The sea next to us was no longer a uniformly chaotic lump of trembling foam. Something long, grey and smooth had appeared, stretching from crest to crest.
An excited gasp. Perhaps it was me, perhaps it was everyone else. We piled up on my side of the boat as the blue whales emerged in formation. Two, three, maybe more, they surfaced to breathe next to us, a lot closer than the crew would’ve ever dared going. We’d been told that it’s hard to see more than half the animal at any given time and the little we were seeing was longer than our entire boat. Later, the crew would’ve estimated their length at over twenty meters.
A whale emerged upwind, closer to us than any before, and breathed a column of vapour that blew into us. For a second we smelt musk, an undertone of algae, of deep sea and unknown worlds. Then she dived, arching her splendid back until the tail flew in the air, a moment we failed to catch on camera but that is etched in my memory forever. Then they were gone.
We turned back soon afterwards. The following day the sun was again out and the wind gentle; the whiteboard on the beach showed a paltry tally – 4 blue whales. But it didn’t matter: they were our blue whales.