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A Whale of a Time

Now I don’t care if this sounds soppy, but I love whales.

Actually that doesn’t sound so much soppy as deviant.

Ok then, let me classify the love I feel for them as being of the wonder of nature, fascination from an early age type; not the very real and very biblical kind of love I have for Donkey’s mum, or the kind of love shown by that guy who was arrested for molesting a dolphin in the North sea.

So to reiterate, I really love whales (and while we’re being pedantic here let me also emphasise the ‘h’ in wHales – just in case you think all this Aussie air is really getting to me).

So anyway what I’m trying to say is ….oh you get the picture. I always go out of my way to watch or tape nature docos that feature whales. I’ve read the books. I haven’t bought the t-shirts. I know the physical attributes, feeding habits, geographical location (in the sea?) and migratory habits of most of the major species. I can draw you a half decent sketch of most types; I can give you the Latin names of some of them; I can condescendingly say ‘Orca’ when you say ‘Killer-Whale’, and I can almost say Sperm whale without giggling.

Yes sir you could say I consider myself a bit of an armchair expert. If you were in the pub sharing a Babysham with your nearest and dearest, then I could quite conceivably invade your conversation at the merest hint of a Megaptera Novaeangliae, and bore you stupid until you quite rightly hurt me, or, in utter desperation, try and hold a conversation using words with more than one syllable with Donkey just to get away from me. Either way you’ve had a pretty bad night there. I wouldn’t go down that pub again if I were you. And I reckon your girlfriend could do a lot better if you don’t mind me saying. Instead of having Babysham with you she could go classy with me and I could treat her to a nice Malibu and Tizer and my own personal cheese nibble.

So anyway, I’m in Rose Bay, Sydney Harbour, and people say this is the place to meet whales. I have arranged my whale watching expedition through a company called Pro-Dive. It’s cost me $85 but money is no object when it comes to an experience like this. We are to meet at the boat at 13:15. I’ve just got here, it’s 12:00. Bit early then! Truth is I was so excited I was driving myself mad waiting around at home so I set off to walk here. I am generally unperturbed by waiting at the worst of times, and this was certainly not that. The bay is filled with sunshine, the wind is blocked by the rising land all around, and the water is loaded with dingys, yachts and oversized power boats glistening in the sun and bobbing on the water like big floating vibrators.

Walkman in, book out, feet dangling over the edge of the pier, the time passes quickly enough as I read my book of Aboriginal legends, mainly about Baiame the god and his rather dappy wife’s habit of being eaten by Kurrias, or crocodiles to you and me.

Time upon us I am first to the boat like the school swot ready to show teacher why he’s the best pupil. The skipper, Phil, has an enormous bushy white beard. Live the stereotype comrade. As the rag tag of tourist types file aboard I am suddenly apprehensive that my spiritual voyage may be overtaken, overrun, and overturned into a packaged nightmare of eco-tour banality.  An overdressed middle aged couple approach the boat carefully, as she’s desperate not to miss a moment’s opportunity with the video camera she’s had surgically attached to her face. In the land of the tourist the one eyed cameraman is usually American. I hold my breath while I wait for those shrill tones to penetrate the air and test even the patience of the impossibly jovial Capn Birdseye bloke. To my relief she turns out to be Chilean. Close one. I put the plank and the cutlass away and settle restlessly in.

We get under way and Birdseye and resident whale expert Justine tell us that they have seen three whales already that morning while they were on a diving expedition. I start to tingle as the prospect finally draws closer.

Our boat is surprisingly powerful and as we thunder out into the harbour we are hit by wall of wind and sea spray. As we approach the harbour entrance and start into the sea proper the waves are reaching one and a half meters. Birdseye turns off the engines while Justine gives us a quick talk on the Humpback whales we will hopefully be seeing. I annoy the crap out of myself by nodding as she lists the various facts and figures associated with the migrating Humpbacks. I hate people that do that – look at me, I’m confirming what she is saying in case any of you who aren’t looking at me anyway require a second opinion from Glynn ‘I’ve read the pop-up books’ Greensmith. It’s at times like this I’m jealous of Donkey who never has to confront the aspect of his personality dealing with over-information. 

I’m pestered by an overloud girl from Guildford who wants to bond with me cos I have an English accent. Leave me alone love, I’m trying to listen and nod.

We set off again at reduced speed due to the force of the wind and the height of the waves. We head south along the Sydney coast past Bondi and all begin looking over the water as the ‘watching’ aspect of ‘whale watching’ begins in earnest. Annoyingly, due to the high waves and sea spray it’s hard to discern between what might be whale breath exhalation and what might be sea spray. The trip pretty much unfolds like this:

I stand at the back of the boat. I get a good soaking but I don’t care, I love the sea and I’m gonna see whales.

Guildford points extravagantly out to sea and shouts because she thinks she sees a whale. She’s wrong.

Chilean Death Squad Camerawoman points her lens at anything that moves, on the boat. The whole sea part of the trip seems to be eluding her.

An Aussie girl who is at the back of the boat with me lasts ten minutes in the rough conditions before she is yaking over the side with some vigour.

Her boyfriend Big Nose grins and ignores her.

Guildford points extravagantly out to sea and shouts because she thinks she sees a whale. She’s wrong.

Vomit Girl is as Vomit Girl does. A lot.

Chilean Death Squad Camerawoman releases herself from the satanic grip of her visual life force. Her eye peers gingerly out from the vacuum left behind and wonders what all this natural light is.

I am looking out to sea and getting soaked. Still enjoying it though – I’m gonna see whales.

It turns out CDSC only put the camera down to offer brief sympathy to Vomit Girl before telling her what she should have done to avoid being sick. That always helps when you’re already down doesn’t it.

Big nose is still ignoring her so I offer some sympathy. She’s very embarrassed and very green.

Big Nose catches on and generously brushes her back with his hand before going back to staring and grinning.

Guildford points extravagantly out to sea and shouts because she thinks she sees a whale. She’s wrong.

Justine fills me on the various options available with the dive course I will be taking with them. Diving with Grey Nurse sharks sounds pretty cool. Not as good as seeing whales though. None yet mind.

Vomit Girl is vomiting.

Big Nose is grinning.

Guildford points extravagantly out to sea and shouts because she thinks she sees a whale. She’s wrong.

She’s starting to annoy me.

One hour in, nothing yet. I’m still thoroughly enjoying it, but for the first time today the thought enters my head that I might not see any. I dismiss it. Not even my luck could be that bad. I know I joke about it and everything, but this would be going too far. No, it’ll be fine, we’ll see them – Guildford’s got to be right at some point, law of averages and all.

My eyes switch between watching the water for tell tale signs and watching the waves crash against the boat as we heave up and down into the wind. Time flies by too quickly.

We move into Long Bay down the coast to hit calmer waters so tea and coffee can be served to the oldies and Birdseye can unleash his rehearsed banter upon us again.

I’m still watching the water, I’m not interested in bloody drinks. Biscuits seem to be another matter though and I courageously drag myself away from my personal crows nest to begin a merciless assault on the assorted cream crunchies.

CDSC looks at me like she knows how to deal with people like me back home. I’m glad we’re not in Chile.

Vomit Girl is taking a well earned break now that we’ve stopped gyrating like Donkey in his Village People outfit. Big Nose is even talking to her.

I am wearing a black waterproof jacket. Now that it’s had a chance to dry a bit it looks like uniform issue at the Gulag. I pick aimlessly at the salt residue encrusting the entire front of the jacket.

Big Nose tells me that’s why he hasn’t put his black suede jacket on. Good for you Big Nose.

We set off again, but we’re now going with the current and the chances of seeing them are statistically less in this direction. I’m trying to remain upbeat.

Guildford points extravagantly out to sea and shouts because she thinks she sees a whale. She’s wrong.

I’m finding it hard to hide my growing contempt. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want her to fail, I desperately want to see the whales. It’s just the depressing inevitability of her overacted reactions. I know god’s sense of humour and he would never just deprive me of a life long dream when he could throw in annoying Surrey girls as well.

Vomit Girl is at it again.

She is sat in the same spot she’s been all trip, but now she’s on the side getting more spray. Big Nose puts his jacket on and brings her into it. But now he’s not grinning or looking out to sea, he’s looking at his jacket and he looks worried. I point out the advantages of having a jacket that you can just wipe clean.

Guildford points extravagantly out to sea and shouts because she thinks she sees a whale. She’s wrong.

I hate her.

We’re going past Bondi again, we’re not far from the harbour entrance. I can see that Bridseye and Justine are searching less vigorously. They may have resigned themselves to a whaleless trip. It’s alright for them. I look aggressively out to sea again like it’s a rugby game or a film and a burst of testosterone is going to do the trick. If it works for Rocky …….

Why do the films lie to us Mummy?

As we approach the harbour entrance Guildford, seizing the happy ending/blaring guitar/freeze frame on the hero moment, points extravagantly out to sea and shouts because she thinks she sees a whale. She even lets out a ‘Woo Hoo’ and clenches her fist with a ‘yes’ like an American child in a sports film. The timing of it and the extra vigour bring us all to the side of the boat. All is forgiven Guildford, have you done it this time you Southern beauty?

Somebody else shouts and points as well. I’m tingling again.

CDSC is leaning so far out with the camera I hope it’s waterproof.

Guildford is still pointing.

Vomit girl is still vomiting.

Then I see it. Everyone sees it. Everyone shouts. I stare.

It’s just a glimpse, then it disappears.

Everyone turns, comes away from the side and agrees it was indeed a very nice little seal…..

I’m still staring, I can’t stop. I can’t talk. I can’t hear anyone else. I’m still staring….. the word seal is buzzing round my head like the wrong answer to the million dollar question.

Guildford turns and looks at me. She shrugs with a ‘seal eh?’ air about her. I wonder if whales are attracted to the desperate thrashings of English girls as they drown.

We reach the harbour and the moment has gone. Three and a half hour trip. The height of whale season. No whales.

I am disappointed to the point of despondency. The engines open up in the calmer water and their roar contrasts with my deafening silence. My sadness is genuine and uncontrollable. I have waited so long for this and the cruelty of it leaves me like a six year old who thinks the world is crashing down because he’s been sent to his room with no dessert. It’s not just the whales. I have spent a lot of time near the sea, but it’s almost always been the same: large, imposing, cold and lifeless. As we bounced along the Sydney coast I could have been looking at the Irish Sea, the North sea, the English Channel. I was desperate to alter my perception of the water. To see those huge creatures gliding and crashing though the waves would have changed the way I would have looked at that blue vastness forever. Once you are able, with your own eyes, to see what the sea can contain; once you are able to witness actual non-mythical monsters living and breathing near you it can never look the same again. You can look at the water and always know what it contains, what is really within, instead of only ever seeing such things on the BBC with David Attenborough in your ears.

And, as I believe I mentioned, I really love whales.

We dock. Birdseye says goodbye and feels it might help to mention again the fact that they saw whales that morning. Genius like that can only really be rewarded by a boat pole inserted violently up the rectum, but I haven’t even got the energy to let mindless and random violence cheer me up.

I tried to cheer up and went out and got utterly shitfaced that night. But you can keep your earthly pleasures. Sometimes when you aim for the stars the top of the world just isn’t high enough.

Or something like that.

I’m off to get an application form for the Japanese ‘Science’ Navy. Apparently they see whales all the time….

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