And God Created Great Whales

by Richard Hodges

Straight in front of our boat, about 50 yards away, a great whale breaches. If you have never witnessed this almost inconceivable act, you are the poorer for it. Our 50-ton humpback launches himself without warning right out of the water. His whole body hangs for a moment in the air and makes a stately 360-degree roll around its axis, then falls back with an enormous splash. A whale-sized circle remains on the surface as testimony, transformed into a surging pool of eddies and bubbles and spray, the water in it mysteriously a transparent blue. Then the pool fades away as the more quiet opaque grey of the surrounding sea reasserts its dominion.

The humpback seemed to have created this show for our benefit. We had seen dozens of whales this day, and they had done many of the things that whales do, so different from the behaviors of terrestrial animals yet in some strange way familiar: the "blowing," combining sight, sound and, if you are close enough, smell; the surging sideways surfacing with mouth gaped wide in order to gather huge volumes of water from which the baleen will sieve out small shrimp-like krill on which they live; the diving, singly or one after another in small groups, with flukes flashing high in the air as the body slips into the depths. All the other whales had seemed indifferent to our attempts to get closer to them, or perhaps slightly annoyed at our intrusion upon the sanctity of their rituals; they often moved away from our boat's line of progress. But this whale seemed to have decided intentionally to grant us this striking performance.

The image of the whale poised in flight remained etched in memory. Then one became aware that this image was an exact replica of photographs one had seen in books the same angle of the body, the same position of the flippers held out to the side. One had not realized from the still pictures that a 360-degree turn in mid-air was involved, but it must have been so.

So this is what whales do! Why do they do it? And why was it so amazing? Though graceful and virtuosic, it was surely no more clever than the acrobatic flips and spins of a mockingbird, no more graceful than the leap of a cat, no more intricate than the play of gravity and movement of the human body in walking a single step. What was extraordinary was the sheer amplitude and improbability of such a gesture, in this gigantic creature, one of the largest animals ever to live on our planet.

One senses in whales and their kind, the cetaceans, a certain very high degree of physical awareness. I have several times seen them doing some amazing things and had the sense that they were did what they did perhaps primarily to show that they could do it. This same trip, we saw for example a dolphin, the only one among hundreds who did this, who at the crest of his leaps made a quick and powerful extra flip of his tail so that it smacked down on the water with a loud clap. And once in a public aquarium that had both dolphins and seals, I saw this underwater ballet: the seals were chasing the fish they were being fed, grabbing them and letting them go, stealing them from each other, somewhat like dogs at play. The dolphins were swimming fast in large orbits, exuding presence as if they were some presiding gods, affecting an indifference to the antics of the seals whom they seemed to regard as lower beings. But if one observed closely, a dolphin might slightly adjust the timing and line of his run so that the powerful backwash of his passage would be just enough that a seal would miss his fish; this happened over and over and could not have been anything but intentional.

If these acts were performances, who were they for? For fellow cetaceans certainly, perhaps in the same way that mockingbird acrobatics, both sonic and aerodynamic, are territorial and sexual advertisement. But one could not escape the feeling that they also had a more conscious purpose, that they were meant for another audience: partly in fact for us, in whom cetaceans seem to recognize beings worthy to be shown these mysteries; and finally for the one himself who did these things. Each seemed to do them for his own audience, himself the finest and most appreciative critic of what he could do. Or was it yet perhaps for some cetacean God?

And why do all these acts remind one of certain things that people do? We think at once of the greatest acts of athleticism, of thought, of art and music, of architecture, of industry, even of war, acts which in some cases reach far beyond the ordinary level of human life. But are these by themselves the highest gestures that humans can aspire to? No: higher than these, expressing the essential core meaning of being human, are certain acts of renunciation, of concentration, of service, that lift a man free of psychological and creaturely needs and conditions. These are the acts of saints, remembered and aspired to in religions and other traditions.

And may it not be true that for whales too, there are higher things than these performances? Perhaps in the privacy of their hidden depths, there are whale saints who do unimaginable deeds that may be even for our benefit, or for the whole planet. Perhaps in their great souls, they witness and sing the glory of a whale-God finer and more glorious than any that men can know. And if that were true, then it would perhaps follow, for whales as for men, that the doings that amaze, performances of movement and creation, while lower than the acts of saints, point towards the latter as acts of a conscious intention which only needs re-purposing to become the power by which men and whales ascend to their essential station.

Copyright © 2003 Richard Hodges
All Rights Reserved