“Should I be worried about this?”  I ask as we tread water in the rolling ocean, two or three miles offshore. “Because I am – a little.”

Peter laughs and raises his brows, but I can tell by his bugged-out eyes and broad, unchanging smile that he’s a little nervous too. The whales are circling us, so close I can smell their stale mackerel breath. My own breath is coming in semi-panicked gulps, and my heart pounds against the walls of my chest like a claustrophobic prisoner. What do we know about these whales, really? Not much. Not much at all.

We’re off Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The west coast of the large island is remote and melancholy: miles and miles of broken gypsum cliffs with sheltered coves and lonely cobble beaches. Above the cliffs stand high bluffs fringed with meadows and boreal conifers, but one’s eyes are drawn inevitably back to the dark blue sea. In summer and fall great oily shoals of mackerel scent the water and the breeze, attracting an influx of hungry sea-going wanderers: seals, cormorants, osprey, giant yellowfin tuna, and cetaceans, especially pilot whales. A tendril of the Gulf Stream winds around into the protected Gulf of Saint Lawrence, making the water in this far northern clime surprisingly warm this time of year.

It’s an overcast day in August. There are moderate swells but no wind, and the surface of the ocean is like slowly undulating glass. Other than the whales, we seem to have the entire Gulf to ourselves. A few moments ago we were sitting in Peter’s boat, a trusty Grady White, watching a pod of pilot whales, known locally as blackfish. The pod swam toward us, black dorsal fins parting the water for their curving muscular backs, blowholes emitting the calm, rhythmic exhalations of big mammals on a leisurely patrol. As they came to within ten or twenty yards of the boat, we shed our clothing and slipped into the water. We tried to do so as quietly as possible, but as usual our presence spooked them, and they sounded. So far our whale swims have been refreshing, but futile. The blackfish seem mildly curious about the boat, but there’s a line beyond which they’re evidently unwilling to let swimming humans approach.

A minute or so later the pod surfaced, a hundred yards away and still retreating. For the hell of it I took a deep breath and submerged my face in the water to give my rendition of a high-pitched whale call. I’m sure it was gibberish, and horrendously out of tune. But was it my imagination, or was there a slight change in the movements of the pod? A few heads lifted further out of the water, perhaps, to peer back in our direction?

There was a strong current, and by now Peter and I had drifted so far from the Grady White, where our wives and children are patiently waiting, that we could barely make out the details of their faces. We were alone, effectively, suspended far above the sea bottom in a clear, dark ocean, with the shore no more than a hazy dream in the distance. The reality of this situation sinking in, we began to swim hard for the psychological refuge of the boat. Peter, not plagued by the same deep-water phobia as I, kept up a strong but steady pace behind me.

The water had begun to feel chilly. Ten yards from the ladder I looked up to discover the occupants of the Grady White agitated, pointing and making emphatic gestures toward the water behind me. Had something happened to Peter? I swiveled around, but he was right there, swimming strong. I continued toward the boat, but before I could close the gap, my wife Julie called out in a stage whisper: “No, no, you two! Stay where you are! They’re right behind you!”

I swiveled around again. Indeed they were. The entire pod was just behind Peter, who’d also turned around to watch. They moved gracefully, slicing up and down through the water with incalculable power, lazy, bullet-headed dolphins the size of a Volkswagen bus.

So here we are, treading water, with these giant blackfish swarming all around us. I feel a surge of fear, but my intellect insists this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, so I keep treading water, rotating slowly to keep an eye on the circling beasts. One swims up to within a yard or two and lifts his massive glistening head to peer at me coolly with a tiny coal-black eye. My limbs throb with panic. He dives and circles back, and this time it seems he’s going to plow right into me. I brace for the impact – for the sudden tearing of flesh – but at the last second he dives again.

I let out my breath. Skin prickling, I plunge my face underwater, the rational part of my mind regretting that I didn’t think to grab a mask and snorkel before leaving the boat. Below and all around I can make out the whales, enormous black missile-shaped shadows swooping through a universe of midnight blue. Is this a dream unfolding here, I wonder, or a nightmare?

I come up for air. The whales double back slowly, expectantly, as if they are waiting for Peter and me to do something: to make some kind of move, perhaps, to challenge or entertain them. We’re too clumsy to oblige, unless they consider naked spider monkeys flailing their limbs on the surface entertainment. We have no prowess to demonstrate; nothing to offer but our curiosity, our bravado, and our absolute vulnerability.

As one, the pod sounds. Peter and I are left shivering in the silent, gently heaving ocean. We are too stunned to do anything for a time but keep treading water.

Looking back on it, I realize that while this was an important moment, perhaps even a crucial moment, it was not, as you might expect, a magical moment. Perhaps it was a moment of truth. Perhaps truth is not always accompanied by symphonic crescendos and rays of sunlight piercing the clouds.

Why, I wonder, do I feel guilty for being too panicked to enjoy it? Isn’t it natural that an animal of my size would cower in the presence of what was, after all, a pack of large and powerful predators, coursing deftly through their medium, while I, a naked and half-blind primate, moved in the water with the approximate grace of a seal waddling up a beach?

I haven’t discussed this with Peter. Somehow, it never seems like a fitting topic for conversation. But next time, if there is a next time, I’m not forgetting the mask and snorkel.


This essay originally appeared in Snowy Egret magazine.

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