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“I don’t want to go.”
I tell my dad when he says we are going whale watching. I tell him that whale watching is a waste of time and money—you never see any whales and besides, I get seasick. But he doesn’t listen. He just tells me that it will be a good experience. He tells me he has already paid for the boat tickets so there’s no backing out. Then he tells me about The Whale.
How many times have I heard about The Whale? Too many. So many, I have lost count. As he speaks I see images of myself, other times when I have listened to the story of The Whale—me sitting lazily on the couch with a book, me standing on a tall ladder picking apricots and apples from our orchard, me spraying water over a soapy car. My father finds the story of The Whale to be inspirational, uplifting, and completely true. I think it is a bit silly, and a lot exaggerated.
The story is about my father when he was a young boy. He is out fishing in his tiny boat, hoping to catch something to bring home to his mother in their little house on the hillside. After hours of unlucky waiting, he is ready to head home when suddenly something tugs at the line in his hand. Hard. My poor young father is hurled into the sea, and he cannot swim. He flounders wildly, trying to reach his boat and pull himself back in, but the current is too much for him—it is sending him farther from his boat, closer to death beneath the choppy waves. Just as the last bit of strength leaves his arms and he is about to let the water close over his head forever, he feels something bump against his foot. A shark, my father thinks, and laughs deliriously. The nickname the older schoolboys had for him was Shark Food—since that’s what you would soon become if you were too weak or too small to work as a sailor on one of the big ships that sometimes landed in the harbor. My father was small for his age.
The something brushes my father’s leg again, and suddenly he feels something pressing against his body, lifting him out of the water. He gasps in shock as a massive tail emerges from beneath the waves, with him riding on top. The tail flings my father back into his boat with a quick flick and he lands safely, coughing and hacking, his eyes wide with amazement. As he watches, the tail lifts higher towards the sky before crashing down again, sending a wave rolling towards my father’s little boat. The wave swamps the boat, but pushes it far away—very close to the shallows of the beach. My father is wet, cold, and tired, but he cannot help but stay perfectly still and watch as the tail disappears slowly beneath the waves, waving a bit as if in goodbye. When my father finally has the strength to pick up his oars and begin rowing back to shore, he spies something in the bottom of the boat. A large fish. The whale has given him even more than his life.
At this point in the story, my father looks over at me and smiles with satisfaction, just like always. I roll my eyes and turn away, just like always too. If we have to go to watch some whales, I say, we might as well get it over with. I stomp out the door and start to braid my hair as I walk down the steps of the hotel. The sun beats down on my head, and I stare down at the pavement, annoyed at having to leave the comfortable, air-conditioned room. My father bounces along beside me all the way to the harbor, telling me that I will have fun, that I shouldn’t worry, that if I feel seasick I should just throw up over the side he’s not on. Ha ha, I say sarcastically, but he just smiles.
When we get to the dock, we immediately spy the whale-watching boat. I am expecting one of those large, pristine, white catamarans I see tied up everywhere. But no. Our boats are speedboats. And they are bright yellow. I take one look at them and groan. My father just pushes me along, and we tell our names to a young lady with a clipboard. Her hair is beautiful, black as ebony, and is done up in a braid like mine. She is very nice. I decide maybe the trip won’t be terrible. We inspect the squashy yellow seats while we wait for the rest of the group to arrive. You put one leg on either side of the cushion, like riding a horse, and hold on to the bar in front of you. It is actually quite comfortable, once you get the hang of it. I turn my face to the sun and soak up its warm rays.
Once everyone arrives, the young woman introduces herself as our guide and tells us what is going to happen. We will speed out of the bay into the open ocean. There, we will slow down and scoot along looking for any whales. If we have any questions about the land or the water, feel free to ask her. I smile at her as she turns around to go sit at the back of the boat. Then I turn my face out to sea. Sea lions pop up and roll along jovially beside our boat in hopes of some fishy treats. Pelicans stare stoically at us from their perches along the pier. I start to cheer up a little as the wind ruffles my hair. Maybe this won’t be so bad, eh? My father asks, slapping me on the back. I immediately begin to frown.
And once we get out of the harbor, I really start to frown. As soon as we pick up a little speed, the boat begins to rock from side to side. Side to side. Side to side. I feel sick. I lean forward on the rail in front of my seat and stare at the bottom of the boat. Please let me not throw up and embarrass myself in front of all these people. Please. My father laughs at my stricken features and I vow to push him off the boat if I don’t die first. Suddenly, our guide calls out to us. We are about to head out into the open ocean. The engine powers up and we speed ahead. We stop getting jostled by every whitecap that comes along and, almost immediately, I begin to feel better. I am beginning to wonder why we had to wear bathing suits when we are safe and dry in our little boat when we drop into the trough of a wave. My stomach plummets down into my toes and I gasp as gallons of icy water come spilling in from all sides. My father yells something to me, but I am too cold to heed his joyful remarks. As soon as we crest that wave, though, the hot sun warms my arms and feet. I feel energy coursing through my body. Maybe it’s the salt getting into my blood, I think wryly. I can begin to understand my father’s love for the sea, and the magnitude of the sacrifice he made when he moved inland and married my mother.
The boat is bouncing crazily over the water, and my hair is coming loose from its braid, whipping my face. Water sprays up, soaking my face and body and I laugh with the sheer speed and exhilaration of it all. I can taste salt on my lips as the seawater evaporates in the warm sun.
Our guide yells out information to us as we speed ahead. The whales may decide not to appear today. But, just so you know what to look for, they often show just a fin or a tail—a darker, rougher color than the ocean, but still very hard to spot. We can barely hear her over the rush of the wind and splash of the water as we careen over swells, crashing down into the basins before zooming up the next wave. I definitely don’t expect to see any whales with the water stinging my eyes like this, but it’s still exciting.
I don’t know what makes me look. Maybe I hear a slight splash that seems too loud to be the sloshing waves. Maybe, out of the corner of my eye, I see the sun glint off something that is too dark and smooth to be a wave. Whatever it is, I turn, and that’s when I see it. In a move featured on movie screens, coffee mugs, and postcards everywhere, a great black tail lifts out of the dark water, reaching towards the sky in a spray of foam.
I open my mouth and shout the word “whale,” pointing my finger at the swiftly disappearing fin. Everyone on the boat turns, wildly swinging their heads from side to side, their eyes skating over the whitecaps in search of something a little sleeker, a little darker, and a lot more elusive than the ocean. But there’s nothing there anymore.
When we get back to shore, my dad asks if the trip wasn’t all that bad after all.
“No.” I tell him. “In fact, I might do it again sometime. Now tell me again about The Whale?”