Decameron Day 3. Whales in rough seas.

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.
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26 Responses to Decameron Day 3. Whales in rough seas.

  1. Anna says:

    You went out in those seas? I bet your mother would have told you off for this one too! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Alas she couldn’t, for she’d left us a few years prior… but I can picture her drinking a Limoncello from up above, cast a quick eye down, check out what kind of muppetry I was about and go “Nope. I’ll rather walk the dog” and proceeding to do exactly that rather than ‘watching us from above’…

      Like

  2. Bama says:

    Blue whales have also captivated my imagination since the first time I learned about this species. The largest animal to have ever existed on Earth? Truly mind-boggling, to say the least. Despite the rough weather, you were very lucky to be able to see those magnificent creatures up close. Sometimes we do need to go on such tense boat ride to see something amazing. Almost five years ago we went to these remote islands in eastern Indonesia, and on our way to one of the islands, we were met with strong waves hitting our small boat from every direction. I’m usually like you, in general my stomach hates boat rides. But that moment, I was so focused on staying put on this wooden bench where I sat in the boat and had no time at all to listen to my stomach. When we finally arrived at that tiny island, we were presented with the most spectacular coral reefs we’ve ever seen in our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hey Bama thanks for reading. I think that if we need to embark on something like this, it better be for a good reason. I mean, I feel for the Vikings: go through the North Sea on a wooden boat, braving storms and ice and stuff… to hit bloody Northumberland or Orkney!? Litte wonder they were pissed once they arrived…I would’ve.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. richandalice says:

    We’ve seen a zillion humpbacks in Hawaii, and some right whales near Cape Town. But you are the only person I know personally who has seen a blue whale. Now you’ve given me a new bucket list item.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Ha! Apparently the biggest ones are to be seen off the coast of California (where else?!?) and they have bounced back to the pre-hunting level in that particular population… now, I know we have a bit of a situation right now but this summer, if things improve… just sayin’!

      Like

  4. Fortune shines on those who dare. Those seas look pretty ominous …and I live on the sea. But you faced your fears and were beautifully rewarded. We came to these blue whales in 2018 after frustration and disappointment. But had we not gotten our keel stuck in that fishing net, we would have sailed through these waters too early in the day to see the blue whales. Instead, our delay turned into delight when we sailed into a pod at feeding time. Seeing your group here today brought back that excitement once again and gave me great hope for the future. Dreams come true when we chose to pursue them. As always, I adore your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We went whale watching in Mirrissa in 2018. Sorry to tell you this, but we had a perfectly calm day. It was my first whale watching experience and we were also lucky to see a few blue whales. It was thrilling. The only whale experience that was better was diving with a Whale Shark in Thailand.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. lexklein says:

    You might still be able to use yesterday’s quotation, “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and those who lack good judgment” today! Haha – glad it not only did not result in capsizing, drowning, or wretched sickness, but in the joy of the whale sighting. I love your description of the whale’s smell in that column of vapor – fantastic!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was with you all the way. How exciting! All the more so for being in rough seas. It must have been an incredibly special experience. The size is mind-boggling!
    I’ve not seen Blue Wales, but pods of orcas (Killer whales) more than once when on the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island. The ferries slow right down when whales are spotted. There would be hell to pay if they hit one.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  8. J.D. Riso says:

    Just looking at those photos makes me want to barf.🤢

    Like

  9. Dave Ply says:

    As a recreational diver I’m not a stranger to being on the ocean in a small boat, but six foot swells and blowing seas? No thanks. Worth it, I suppose, just maybe for a blue whale. I’ve never seen one. Only humpbacks, California greys, and orcas.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I could barely read this. I despise being on rough open seas. My most terrifying memory is a ferry crossing from Newfoundland to tiny, French held Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon. All I could see were mountains of waves (even the whales would have hated it). I made deals with every god to get me back on dry land. Years later, hubby bought a boat thinking it would be fun family activity. Suffice to say, things didn’t go well and we no longer own a boat. I’m so glad you got to see the whales (and survive!) Great story!
    It just occurred to me that today, Easter Sunday, is the anniversary of those horrible bombings in Sri Lanka. So sad that just as visitors were starting to return to this beautiful country, COVID-19 hit.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Ahh. Just love. I could smell them between your lines. I saw them only once, from so far away that we couldn’t tell what they actually were.

    Liked by 1 person

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