Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Close Encounters

Wooo, wooo. The ship’s horn roused me out of my mid-day slumber.  My mind wandered back to the pre-cruise safety meeting and I groggily reviewed the short list of alarm signals that the captain had described at the briefing.  “General Emergency Alarm,” I thought.  “Seven short blasts followed by one long blast.”  The horn had given one brief blast.  The ship wasn’t sinking.  I had barely finished this thought when Captain Dana’s voice came over other ship’s intercom.  “Dolphins on the bow,” he announced in tones that reminded me a bit of Christmas morning.  Dolphin calls held an endless fascination for the normally landlocked marine biology graduate students that populated my university’s research cruises.  I jumped unsteadily from the narrow top bunk were I was perched and yanked on my shoes.  I could hear the familiar sounds of sneakers scurrying through the media room, towards the heavy water tight doors and across the main deck to the bow of the ship.  I followed them, eager for a close encounter with the playful, charismatic denizens of the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The bows of boats, as I discovered during my first outing on a research vessel, were like amusement park rides for dolphins.  They loved to ride the waves that the boat made as it cut through the water.  We loved to watch them do it.   When I got to the bow, most of the students who were able to leave their workstations were already there.  I found an open spot on the port side and leaned my head over the edge.  There were about five bottlenosed dolphins surfing along the side of the boat.  I leaned further over to watch them play when suddenly, they swam away.  I leaned even farther over the side, hoping to catch a glimpse of a dorsal fin under the water.  I didn’t see a dorsal fin.  Instead, I was rewarded with the large, barnacle-covered head of a sperm whale.  The object of our research cruises was to find pods of sperm whales and attach satellite tags to their bodies in order to study where they spent their time, but none of them had ever come this close to the ship before.  The crew usually sent a small party out to the pods on speed boats.  The whale itself was over 1/3 the side of the boat, so I’m not sure if it was there to surf or if it was as curious about us as we were about  it and its cousins.  My face was about as close as I could get to the whale without falling overboard, then the whale suddenly turned his head and focused one large eye on me.  We stayed that way for several minutes.  Me, hanging over the side of a boat.  The whale,  gliding gracefully below me in the waves.  I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking, but the bright, intelligent gleam in its eye left no doubt in my mind that he was, in fact, thinking.  Eventually, he either got tired of surfing or he satisfied his curiosity and swam away.  I returned to my routine of filtering water samples and reading The Lord of the Rings.  The next day, I got a chance to ride one of the speed boats out among the pod of whales we were following, but I never got that close again and no other whales came back to check out the puny humans on the big, metal boat.   In my imagination, they were wondering who in the world we were and why in the world we were stalking them.  Maybe my whale friend was a scout.  Maybe he went back and told his family about the close encounter he had with me.