Book excerpt: Part 1 of Ocean Country: One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in Her Quest to Save the Seas by Liz Cunningham

The following is Part 1 excerpt “From Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2015 by Liz Cunningham. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.”

(Chapter) Song
I woke suddenly and lunged for the bathroom. The vomit came out so fast it was if a pressurized jar had burst open. When I came out, Charlie was up, vomiting on a rolled-up sheet in our cabin.

We went outside to get some air. The boat lurched in swells the size of small hillsides. It was early morning, and we were on a boat eighty miles southeast of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Overnight, the boat had crossed from the Dominican Republic over a fourteen-thousand-foot oceanic trench to a seamount just fifty to ninety feet below the surface—the Silver Bank.

Normally the passage is quite calm. Just our luck: it was the roughest crossing they’d had in two years. I’d wanted to come to the Silver Bank because every winter, some three thousand to five thousand humpback whales go there to mate and give birth and nurse their young. Many of these whales skirt the Northwest Point in the Turks and Caicos when they migrate to and from their northern feeding grounds, which stretch from Stellwagen Bank, just off of Cape Cod, to Newfoundland. Lizzie, at the School for Field Studies in South Caicos, had told me that the whales came through the cut between South Caicos and Grand Turk Island.

It was early spring, and some of the humpbacks had already started to migrate north. About a half hour later, we crossed onto the Silver Bank.The seas settled dramatically in the shallow waters.We motored smoothly toward a mooring on the northern side of the bank. For as far as I could see, there was only ocean, and the windy seas did indeed have a silvery sparkle.

The humpbacks come to the Silver Bank because the shallow, calmer waters are an easier place for a mother whale to give birth and for a calf to take its first breath and build its strength before undertaking the long migration north through open water. And because the bank is so shallow, there are fewer opportunities for predators, such as orcas, to attack calves from below. Soon the air filled with the loud rattling of a mooring chain, and the engine stopped.We went upstairs for a briefing in the galley. “Okay, little bit of rough ride, but we’re all here,” Gene Flipse, our captain, said. He was tall and lanky, and curly brown hair graced his forehead. I bit off a piece of toast, cautiously chewed, and swallowed it as if I had a goiter in my throat.

“So, we go out,” Gene said enthusiastically, “and we cruise around and look for whales.” There were two small boats, called “tenders,” which we’d use to go out and search for whales.

The ideal situation would be a mother and calf that are resting.“The mothers and calves have very, very close relationships with each other,” Gene explained. “They are almost always in direct physical contact, except when they are separated to breathe. So if you see a calf on the surface circling, that means ‘mom’s just below,’ and the calf will go down.”

Gene held up two small plastic replicas of humpbacks, a mother and a calf. As he talked, he simulated the diving and surfacing behavior.The mother breathes every twenty minutes or so, but a newborn calf needs to breathe every three to five minutes. So a mother will rest below while the calf comes up, takes a breath, and then, Gene said, moving the calf model back down to the bigger one,“after it is finished breathing, it’s going to dive back down and nestle up next to mom.”

Gene explained a phenomenon called “whale time”—of patiently following the whales’ breath cycles and reading their behavior to see if it’s a good opportunity to get in the water with them. If the whales are deemed suitable for a “visit,” Gene explained, then he or our other guide, Elisa Buller, would prompt us to quietly slip into the water and float “like harmless seaweed or jellyfish,” and “present ourselves” for an encounter. “The whales use their hearing as their primary sense out here,” Gene said.“They are very highly attuned, and they hear us coming.”

We wouldn’t position ourselves any closer than thirty to fifty feet from a whale.That was the “stop point” for our approach. The Silver Bank was part of the Dominican Republic’s Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals, in which whales were protected by law against aggression.The sanctuary had, Gene told us,“a very conservative definition of aggression, which is that if you are moving toward the whale closer than that stop point, that’s considered an act of aggression.”

But, should the whales come closer to us, well then, by all means, “Come say hello!” “You just have to stop and stay in position,” Gene told us,“and wait for the natural curiosity of the animals to bring them to you.” So in terms of the tone of the interaction, our little expedition could be termed a “swim with humans” encounter for whales.

We went down to the main deck to put our gear in order. My fins suddenly seemed so small. The scale of the creatures we were about to encounter had finally registered. I remembered Ms. Blue, the blue-whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab that was almost ninety feet long. Okay, a full-grown humpback whale is smaller—only forty-five feet long, just a little longer than a school bus, and, shall we say, one of the “lightweights” of the family, maxing out at fifty tons.

There were dark clouds on the horizon. A storm was blowing in. It was too rough to go out. Charlie went up to the galley in search of some sea-sickness medication. Exhausted and queasy, I lay down in our cabin and closed my eyes.

My innards were dizzy. For the last stretch of my research, I’d wanted to go to three regions of the world in the course of one year, immerse myself.Well, I’d done it, but something was missing, some nugget. Some understanding I was searching for still eluded me.

Ever had a conversation in which someone said to you,“I had this feeling …”?You know, about a man or a woman or a house or a job? Well, I had this feeling that my journey would bring me to a certain “place.” But that place? I hadn’t gotten there.

Our cabin had a big picture window. Rain started to pelt against it. Maybe it will just be that way, I mused. Maybe it’s a mystery you accept. Maybe that’s part of the magic, it lures you for- ward. We would have just five days on the bank. I tried to resist wondering how long the stormy weather would last.

I was so tired, long-term tired. The fatigue had been building for months. I thought it’d be great to come full circle, back to seas that were just a day’s sail from the Turks and Caicos. But I didn’t realize that no matter how strongly anchored you are in a sense of purpose, it doesn’t insulate you from grief. Our flight to the Dominican Republic passed through the same airport gate I’d taken to fly to the Turks and Caicos.The sense of déjà vu was so strong, the sadness I’d felt when I witnessed the coral reef bleach.When we boarded the plane, I burst into tears.

I’d urged Charlie to come with me.This was the last stage of the journey, and I wanted to share this experience with him. Now we were both seasick, and I was exhausted.

I rolled over on my side and looked out onto the surging seas and thought,“Did we really need to come here? Couldn’t it have been enough to write about the whales?”

No, no, no!

The whale thing was too much about the ocean not to do it.The story of men and whales is the story of the civilization and the ocean writ large. From the ancient Babylonian myth in which the god Marduk slays the sea-monster Tiamat to Melville’s Moby Dick to the ultramodern, explosive-laced harpoons launched from factory ships, whale hunting is symbolic of epic battles with nature—slaughter for survival.

Whale oil literally greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. The steam engine? Whale oil. Watches? Whale oil. Sewing machines, railroad signal lamps, altimeters, microscopes, textile factory looms.Whale oil. Known for its exceptional stability and low viscosity, it was the preferred lubricant for everything from the gears of trains to fine mechanical instruments. By the mid-1960s, the global population of humpbacks, that some estimate was once over a million before commercial whaling, had been whittled down to about 1,500. So what happened? Why weren’t they hunted to extinction?

The environmental movement. All that public outrage and uproar, all the demonstrations, sit-ins and petitions and legal actions worked. Despite that victory, whales need increased protection today. As of 2014, Iceland, Japan, and Norway still hunt whales with industrial-age equipment, defending their practices with thinly veiled assertions that they hunt a limited number for “scientific purposes.” Whales are also greatly at risk from collisions with large ships, entanglement in fishing gear, and chemical contamination. Still, humpback whale populations are now coming back, increasing by about 5 percent a year.And humpbacks, in particular, became the poster child of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s and the push for a worldwide moratorium on whale hunting in 1986, in large part because of one trait: they sing.

In 1967, biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay discovered that humpback whale songs have a complex syntax, with phrases that repeat in patterns known as “themes.” Each song has two to nine themes, which are sung in a specific order. It’s still debated why humpbacks sing, but it is generally the males that do the singing. And they usually sing at night.
Payne released a recording, Song of the Humpback Whale, with his then-wife, Katherine Payne, and his colleague Frank Watlington. It sold over thirty million copies. The rhythmic sequences gleaned from nighttime recordings made from a small boat in the North Atlantic galvanized the Save the Whales movement and the environmental movement as a whole. Some unexpected, emotional connection was forged.

So I wanted to see these inspiring creatures with my own eyes. Get some rest, I told myself. I dozed off.

A bell rang. Loud. “Okay, everybody.” It was Gene’s voice.
“Weather’s better. Let’s go!”

It was still windy. The tender bobbed as we loaded our gear. We motored away, eyes glued to the horizon. Gene stood in the stern of the boat, mask on his forehead, alert, searching.

A half hour later we spotted a mother and calf resting. Gene started timing their breath cycles. After about twenty minutes, the driver brought the boat close to where the mother had last descended.

“Okay, I think we might have an opportunity here. Let’s get geared up,” Gene bellowed over the wind and surging seas. He stood balanced on the handrail in extra-long fins, one hand gingerly holding one of the support poles for the sun tarp, as the boat rocked back and forth. He was the corollary to the British term “proper sailor”—a proper man-fish. He was filled to the brim with excitement and energy, like a conductor leading an orchestra through a favorite symphony. He knew the routine so well—time breaths, fins on, mask on, into the water, approach gently, signal to the driver.

Gene slipped into the water, moving his fins so they did not break the water’s surface. Every few moments, the sun burst through the dark clouds and the waves glittered. A moment later, he signaled to the driver, and we got the go-ahead to slip into the water.

I didn’t see anything. Then I realized I didn’t see it because it was so big. A dark bluish shape so fully filled the field of my vision that I couldn’t comprehend what I was looking at. Even at forty or so feet away, I wasn’t looking at a whale. I was looking at … part of a whale.

It was motionless. Excuse me, she was motionless. Just above her, nestled in the crescent of her back, was her calf.The mother turned and circled us three times in slow motion. Her calf swam with her in synchrony, always staying just a few inches from that snug arc in her mother’s back.

I didn’t touch my journal that evening. The beauty of the whales so exuberantly defied what I thought was possible, their gentle grandeur, that I was dumbstruck, beauty-struck.
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