On Day 9 of my epic sail from Galesville, MD to Ponce, Puerto Rico, at about 1435, I was sitting on the port bench seat when I heard what I thought was a dolphin blow.
“A dolphin!” I called, so skipper Matt Rutherford could hear. I jumped up, looked over the starboard stern quarter, and saw a black back with a small dorsal fin, smooth and shiny as wet Murano glass, as it arced and slid back into the water. I thought the body seemed too thick, and the tail too large, for a dolphin. I was so not expecting it to be a whale that it took me a while to comprehend that it was.
Matt was topsides in a flash and went forward to look for it. We had seen “nothin’ but a whole lotta’ waves,” and a few distant flying fish for days, so this was big excitement! Matt came running topsides and went forward to look for it. It surfaced again. Matt was at the bow, pointing to the water near the boat’s port midships.
“It’s a whale!” he yelled. I saw it swimming toward the boat, down deep, so it could pass under our keel. I could see its streamlined shape through the clear blue water, and most distinctively, two white oar blade-shaped pectoral fins–which appeared azure in that blue water. A humpback! “That was my secret wish for this trip, to see a whale,” I told my skipper when the whale seemed to have gone on its way.
I thought to take pictures of the whale but immediately realized that my chance was slim for getting a good shot. Also, I was aware that running for my camera and becoming the photographer would take away from my experience of the whale, so I decided to skip the photos and just enjoy.
After some minutes, the humpback returned, seemingly larger than before, because it was swimming near the surface. I watched in amazement as its wedge-shaped head lifted out of the water, the huge upturned mouth like an elongated smile. The young animal was yet unblemished with the barnacles typical to its elders. It blew loudly before gracefully arcing back into the water, its back curved, with brown, black, and gray skin so smooth and shiny it almost seemed to be made of liquid itself. In that moment it seemed I had not seen anything so beautiful, magical, and perfect since the eyes of my newborn babies.
We watched the whale for about 30 minutes as it swam alongside, up ahead, away, and back again. It often kept pace with us along the starboard side and showed us its white belly, azure in the water. Matt stood on the foredeck, balancing lithely as the boat rolled in the swells. I held onto the furled jib, bouncing and jerking out of rhythm with the boat, but I didn’t care. I had seen a whale! A humpback whale! So close, in its natural environment, without any touristy trappings.
“I got my secret wish!” I exclaimed. Matt said that if I had mentioned it to him before he would have said there was little chance, as he’d never seen any whale while on a delivery, except a pilot whale, once–and that didn’t really count because a pilot whale is really a dolphin. Matt and I felt lucky that we had each seen it; it had come when neither of us was catching up on sleep at our off watch. Although highly unlikely, my secret wish came true; in the middle of “nothin’ but a whole lotta’ waves,” a young whale found us and was curious enough to hang out with us for a while, giving us a grand show. I do appreciate a little lagniappe with my sail.