Tip Top in Tonga
It happened this morning, in Tonga. The tip of my top. Just me, a newborn humpback whale, and pure curiosity. He preferred to look at me upside-down. His favorite move was a fluke swoosh in my face.
It happened for forty-five minutes. Expecting only a fleeting event, I quickly don my rash guard, bikini bottoms, squid lid, long blades, mask, snorkel, four pounds of lead and Dan’s GoPro. I shiver when I slip in; the water a chilly 79 degrees. The long swim gets my heart to warm my extremities. I can’t see the bottom, it’s just blue getting darker blue. But I can hear whale-song, it penetrates both of my ears together so I can’t tune-in to direction. I lift my eyes above the surface to ground truth. I aim at a bunch of palm trees swaying over the sandy tip of Lifuka Island, a quarter mile away. Occasionally I see dorsal fins—a mother and a calf. Their groans and squeals get louder, the bottom comes into view. Vaguely, the shape of a 50-foot whale lays in the sand. Her calf bobs above. Swimming towards me.
Thrice my length and 25 times my weight, he is only days old. Trusting Mama will keep him from harm, he heeds less caution than I, and with just a hint of hesitation he met me. Rolling onto his side to get a better look, his monocular focus is on me with one globular grey pupil. Pectoral fins rotate down along his sides and up together across his chest, one at a time waving with flexibility. We bump arms. It startles us both. The leading edge of his pectoral fin smacked my forearm as I back peddled. It felt like rubber. Maybe my fat insulated bone feels like rubber. It doesn’t feel dangerous. I want more.
It happened four times. Starting as a head-on collision course until we’re nose-to-nose, he rolls belly-up beside me, eye-to-eye we connect, then with a flick of his fluke he glides by, leaving me in a wake of tiny bubbles. Flirting for the pleasure of a playmate. Each round faster and more comfortable, my adrenaline dissolves into the experience. I begin to lean on my knowledge of marine mammals (he doesn’t have teeth). I begin to trust his proprioception (he won’t run into me). I begin to giggle when the bubble curtain covers my face. I begin to flirt back.
You Guys, you know the feeling, when a baby flirts with you. Suddenly you’re special, you’ve sparked joy in a little being and for a moment you are filled with the wonder of innocence. You can’t wait to see what happens next. You make ridiculous noises and silly faces. Wait. I have an admonition. Once I made a scary face at a screaming baby in an airplane. Patience is not a virtue of mine, but I have put my time in with the ocean. This is my reward. Like the tippy top of a triangle, the base wide with experience, this whale tips my top.
His rostrum is pocked by tubercles like a teenager with bad acne. I can’t see his eyes, so I know he can’t see me. He feels me. A tiny hair projecting out of each tubercle feels my positon, my breath rate, my long blades finning. Fancy acne (like Ampullae of Lorenzini, the sensory organ hammerheads use to detect slight vibrations under their wide noses); tubercles are ampules of oil stuck with a whisker. They are all over his face and the leading edges of his pectoral fins. This is why he swims straight at me, whiskers aimed like headlights. This is why I stop back-peddling. He feels me. I feel jubilant.
He’s so new to the world, the edge of his fluke trails stringy fringes, the skin not yet congealed into form. His gooshy belly sloshes like a water bed filled with milk fat. Think 2% milk is creamy? Mother’s milk comes out like toothpaste, 60% fat, and he’ll drink 50 gallons of it each day. Aggressive males don’t wait for calves to finish suckling, and scars cover this newborn’s sensitive skin from being pushed out of the way. When he grows up, ventral pleats will enable him to engulf 5,000 gallons of water in one gulp, and he’ll use a VW van-sized tongue to lick clean fishy baleen plates. It’s their oil-rich blubber that drove them towards extinction, and the advent of petroleum-use saved them. Next time you’re idling angry with traffic, feel better. Save the Whales.
A single hair connects us. We are members of the Mammalian Kingdom. We breathe air and have warm blood, we have boobs and give birth to live young. Underneath that rubbery pectoral fin are five boney fingers webbed into a paddle shape. I use my arms to swim, humpbacks use arms to steer. His pelvic bones protrude, attached to nothing but the memory of evolution, just hanging there not wanting legs.
We share an ancient bond in our bones, in our hair, in our genes– but we are deeply separated by the sea. Whales came into their aqueous being 250 million years ago, probably because dinosaurs scared them off shore. I’d like to think I could survive at sea. I feel more at ease in the water than I do on my yoga mat. We struggle and we sacrifice for sacred experiences. We build massive pyramids and top them with gold and jewels. Baby Humback, you are a wish-fulfilling jewel, the tip of my top.
PS: Click this link: Dan’s “South Pacific Whales” video (the tip top newborn appears around minute 5).