We had an amazing experience yesterday aboard The Prince of Whales, a whale watch boat operated by Newburyport Whale Watch in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Cynthia and I joined Head Naturalist Dianna Schulte of the Blue Ocean Society to provide educational context on the trip. I have collaborated with Blue Ocean as an educator for the past five or six years.
After sighting a few fin whales in the distance who were spending very little time at the surface, we were suddenly joined by a young humpback, later identified from their fluke pattern as Lutris, which means “otter.” Lutris is the six-year-old offspring of Lava. Before we identified Lutris, we assumed we were being approached by a much younger juvenile, because Lutris spent close to an hour with us, right next to the boat, continuously checking us out, behavior that is more common among younger whales.
Several people who were on the lower deck had the very great honor of being looked in the eye by this magnificent creature. Several times Lutris rolled over to bring one large, pink eye out of the water to look at us. For a six-year-old to show this much curiosity and persistence in visiting a bunch of humans on a boat is fairly unusual, and it was a privilege to be among those visited.
Nearly every one of us on the boat felt an almost irresistible urge to jump into the water. People were hanging over the rails, trying to get as close as possible as Lutris swam past. It felt to me like we were being called home, like it was an intentional communication from Lutris to us, one which we recognized at a deep and unidentifiable level. Something very unusual was going on in this encounter. Something was being communicated, something we all felt, and experienced as an urge to be as close to Lutris as possible.
Several times we tried to leave, because our time was running short, but Lutris maneuvered into our path and would not let us go. Lutris was maintaining contact even when we were ready to break it off. It is unavoidable. Lutris was reaching out to us. The only other time I have felt such a clear connection and communication was when we encountered another young humpback who was entangled in fishing gear. That whale’s call for help, which we and others were able to provide in the end, was inaudible, but unmistakable. Lutris was not calling for help, but was clearly maintaining contact.
There is a strange phenomenon that occurs when one is visited by a whale in this way. Afterward, the whole experience slips away like a dream. We spent an hour with Lutris but it felt like minutes. And looking back, it was hard to believe that it was real. To be visited by such a huge wild creature, who is obviously intelligent and aware and purposeful and curious, just doesn’t compute in our brains somehow.
That inability truly to process the experience makes it feel a little surreal. But it is very real. It is the honest truth. It makes one realize what a marvelously inadequate thing this little brain is for truly understanding the living world. We are deeply embedded in beauty and wonder, and we hardly even know it. It remains a deep mystery to us. But when one meets a whale, or is met by a whale, in this way, one comes into direct encounter with the limits of the brain’s ability to comprehend, and that in itself opens up new horizons of possibility for engaging with this world. It is utterly impossible, in my experience, to go back into the human-dominated world after an experience like this, and feel quite the same way about it.
Clearly, the human is not the be-all and end-all of creation. The human is embedded in a magnificence it can not even comprehend. And the whale is also part of that magnificence, and so is all of life and all of everything. It adds dignity to our lives to see ourselves in this light, and also takes away our pretense of being the best and the brightest of all creatures.
I don’t know if it is intentional, but one of the things the whales are doing is putting us in our proper place in the order of things. It is a more humble place, but it is also a more beautiful and happy, and truly majestic place than the self-centered arrogance that has dominated human behavior for the past several thousand years.