Under What’s Seen

Eshani Surya


The call comes early after we have hit open sea, after we can’t see Grand Manan any longer, or even the littler pieces of land that jut up from among the waves. By now the whale watch boat has taken us past White Head Island, and Durlan Ingersoll, the first mate, has helped us spot a variety of pelagic birds—animals who live the majority of their lives on the water—including puffins, who bob just above the water before plunging in with their sun-hued beaks. By now we have also slowed to observe the progress of a few porpoises that shyly cross to the side of the boat. A glimpse of their quick, sleek movements reminds me of catching a look at a whisper. But we want what we think of as a true whale: a drifting giant, larger than the boat, with untold power that we crave to know.

On the starboard side, Durlan tell us, there it is. A humpback, but a sleeping one this time. It rests half-submerged in the water and periodically blows out a spout, which Durlan explains is shorter and stockier than a finback whale’s exhalation. It is one of the ways we learn, on that trip, to distinguish between cetaceans.

The most intimate of humans’ gazes are those when we watch a sleeping person. Maybe we are drawn in to the openness. The look on our faces when we see a whale, cushioned by the swell of water on all sides, is no different. Maybe everyone feels the privilege I do, to witness the whale in a natural state, unmitigated by tanks or trainers. Its vulnerability makes us tender.

Finback in the Bay of Fundy

I was drawn to whales even before this sighting. As for many viewers, the documentary Blackfish, that focuses on SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas, opened up my interest. But past that film, past trying to understand conservation efforts, I have found their existence strangely meditative, a balm of hope when I need it.

Some nights, when my body seems too attuned to my fears, when I am overheating under my quilts, my skin burning with blood charged by terror, I focus on a singular image. A humpback whale, drifting in very cold water, alone. Its tail, pointed towards sand and trenches that can’t be seen; its snout lifted upwards towards a beam of light, a spotlight of sun in the depths. But the whale doesn’t surface in my thoughts, nor does it sink to the ocean bed. It stays content in the swells of water, buoyed by it, even. The humpback sings through the water, finding contentment in the in-between.

All this thinking is a fantasy of the whale though. A symbolic rendering that ignores the physical reality of the creature. The whale does not consider the ocean its in-between or even its home in human terms, but rather the circumstances that make sense for its baleen bristles, its blowhole, its blubber. All the kinship I feel with the whale is meaningful because I believe it.

And yet what I want most is to respect the animal, see it for its true nature. I want to acknowledge its wildness, its autonomy. I have relegated it into the boundaries of a sign, erased its complexities—an act I would rail against if I were the one being boxed. On the whale watch, I wonder how far into the creature I can go, instead of remaining content with periphery.

Emi Noguchi, Laura Esposto and Eshani Surya

We leave the humpback to sleep. Captain Peter Wilcox maneuvers us through the water, and as we move further, Durlan continues to point out the different species. There are maybe thirty of us on the boat, some of us with binoculars, some of us with cameras. A few of us grip the railing and try to look only with our bare eyes. I am one of that category, afraid that I will spend more time fiddling with a shot and less of it memorizing what a whale’s peaceful dips through the water look like.

At first I try to keep count of the whales we see, but soon I lose track. The ocean is full. But Durlan tells us what we need to know: the shape of the dorsal fin as an indicator to species, the length of each whale variety, even how they hunt with their bubble nets and baleen. Suddenly, swiftly, the smell of fermented fish overtakes the pleasing fresh salt of the air. There’s something out there, Durlan says, and taps his nose. That’s whale breath. Out past the boat, the whales begin to surface.

In all my dreaming of whales, I never considered the smell, wafting off the pounds of krill and plankton in a whale’s stomach. And—as we sail on and come upon an enormous finback—how when a whale breathes, the sound of it is a hollow echo, tumbling around giant lungs and finally expelling like a barreling train.

Being on Grand Manan has reminded me of my own ignorance to the sea. I have never lived primarily next to the ocean, and my livelihood has never depended on the day’s catch, nor do I follow the tides to figure out where to park my car or when to leave a party.  After the whales start to dip back down under the water, and Captain Wilcox guides us over to another stretch of sea, I go into the wheelhouse of the boat, where they serve coffee and hot chocolate. Durlan is by the counter, and I ask him if they have any sonar technology for finding the whales. He says that the instruments will show them what is under the boat, but only if they are right above a school of fish or maybe, for a brief moment, a little minke whale. I ask then if they use the radar to communicate with other boats, to find out where whales have been sighted. Durlan shakes his head, says: There’s no one else out here. They do it all on their own, looking for signs of whales. Sometimes they see a footprint on the water—a patch of calm water—that signifies that a whale just dove. Or they will note a gathering of birds, which usually implies that there is a food source drawing the feeding whales.

After years with it, their innate knowledge of the sea guides Peter and Durlan in a way I doubt I’ll ever be able to access. Sitting in a booth, I flip through a book of photos that shows humpback whales’ fluke coloring patterns. Each photo has a name attached; the book is used for identifying individual humpbacks. Maybe Peter and Durlan are used to a few of these whales coming around every year. Maybe they don’t need to check the book to find the name. For me, the identifying markers start to blend together. I can’t even memorize five of the animals. It is all too apparent how much of a visitor I am to the Bay of Fundy, to the ship, to the ocean, to whales themselves.

This year, the politics of the whale has been specific to Grand Manan as well, a fact I only learn when I come to the island. There are fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and the Canadian government has been under pressure to increase protection of the whales, especially after reports of them being killed in collisions with ships and fishing gear. In June of 2018, lobster fishermen in Grand Manan were forced to shut down their business early after a single North Atlantic right whale was sighted—though it did not seem to linger in the Bay of Fundy. As the lobster industry is one of the cornerstones of the island’s economy, many of the families here lost important household profit.

It would be easy, coming from Connecticut, where my parents work in dance and engineering; coming from New York, where I worked in publishing, coming from Tucson where I am an educator at a university and a narrative game designer, to advocate solely for the right whale. After all, species decline is a rampant issue across the globe—a terrible phenomenon that is being called the “sixth extinction”—and any environmentally-conscious adult would want to protect the right whale. But only an outsider can have the privilege to look at the dynamics without nuance.

What I learn is that the people of Grand Manan have respect for the creatures they catch and sell, but they also are honest about how the lobster, the haddock, the clams are necessary sacrifices to their lifestyle. They live by the sea, use it, depend on it, can’t imagine being without it. They have a sense of the importance of preserving sea life. According to Brian Guptill, president of the Grand Manan Fisherman’s Association, there is already a “right whale mitigation strategy” and the fishermen have been “working to have no impact on the whales since 2006.” But barring the fishermen from going out to do their jobs in order to save the whale is also an attack on the families of the area—as well as an assumption that greed would prevent them from loving a world that floods up onto their coastline every day.

A part of me wishes we could see a right whale, just for the thrill of sighting something endangered, something that might disappear in my lifetime. Maybe I could snap a photo and share it with my friends and on social media, promote more awareness of the issue. But the right whale in the Bay of Fundy is the whale we want to see—to know that it hasn’t completely been wiped out—and the whale whose sighting will cause greater issues for the people of the region. And the only way to protect the whale is by islander commitment. Conservation requires the effort of the people closest to the creature. Allowing the Grand Mananers to fish for lobster is beneficial to both the families and the right whales.

I sight a dorsal fin, wonder who it belongs to—right whale, or not? My desires are contrary to what the reality of this place demands. I am a tourist because I want the Bay of Fundy to conform to the experience I long for; I am outside of the ecosystem.

The humpbacks we see on this whale watch are less playful than most. They do not exhibit the behavior that the “humpies” are famous for: pectoral slaps, spy hopping, tail slaps, breaching. One shy humpback finally dives so far under that it shows us its identifying marks: a beautiful filigree of white on the underside of its flukes. Someone asks Durlan which one it is. He checks his book, and after a few minutes tells us that he isn’t sure which whale we’ve just seen. Those marks don’t match any of the photos.

I can sense some excitement in Durlan’s voice, but also the curiosity. Who is this whale, perhaps diverted from its usual path? Why has it come here? What does it feel in these waters, and will it return to the Bay of Fundy in another year?

We are all outsiders to these answers, even Durlan and Peter. For as many guidebooks as we can flip through, for as many scientific articles we can read about humpback songs and echolocation and cetacean migration patterns, we will never know what it means for one finback whale to speed along with another two on either side. What knowledge they share between them of how the sea beats against their masses, what joy they might have in the going, what deep heaviness they might hold inside them—a vortex of emotion, so specific to the whale’s senses of time and history and place, that the human heart cannot expand enough to understand it. We can only imagine the mystery of it all.

So even as I am on the outside, I am irrevocably aligned with every person on that ship—visitor and islander alike—as our faces shift with glee and amazement when we catch sight of a creature that we might all call majestic. When we gaze at the open water, we do it as one look, a zoom in our eyes that ends with a collective gasp of astonishment.

And even in all the ways that I am an outsider to the whales themselves, in all the ways that my attachment to them is flawed and too figurative, it is this gaze that makes me believe in our communion too. I watch the whales, trying to glimpse some understanding into their bodies, their behaviors, their deep, dark underwater homes. I watch myself, too, trying to parse out what it means for me to make this trip, to stand near the railing, to feel all the things I do, to search for insight.

Someone on the boat laments that the humpback showed its tail, but didn’t present any more of its tricks. I don’t mind. I’m happy, really, that what we experienced was the whale on its own terms. It doesn’t perform; it lives. It goes on, despite my stare, as I must do too every day. Just as I won’t let myself stall in my wandering, my movement of thought, the whale makes it journey around the curves of continents.

How can I feel so apart from the creature and totally inside it, nestled against its enormous heart? How can I let its presence drift through me like a dream, and still know that the understanding I have of it is a fallacy? How can I understand what I was not made to know?

When we dock, I think about how I will remember wondering if a whale has a goal as it slices through the waves, or if it comes to a conclusion after it has arrived. By the time we are back on land, I know that I left the solid earth unsure what it would mean to ride miles from the shore. I hoped by the time I returned I would have found a place for myself in relation to the whale. But the whale is never a fixed point on a map, and neither am I. The one thing I can know for sure is that we both know the feeling of a dive.      

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