Following The Water Spirits

By Joe Zentner ~ Photos by Mary Syrett

They are the planet’s greatest travelers, following well-worn paths across continents and around the globe. Some routes are literally beaten into the ground. Others are invisible trails in the air or on the water.

The travelers are long-distance wildlife migrants: geese, cranes, butterflies, whales, caribou and songbirds. Their annual journeys are events of power and profound mystery. Who hasn’t been moved by the sound of migrating geese honking high overhead on a chilly spring night? The naturalist Aldo Leopold called it “goose music,” a sound that stirs a primordial nomadic urge to join in that powerful desire to be somewhere else.

We can’t follow the geese, but it’s possible to put ourselves in the flow, and perhaps tag along for a short distance. And in the months of January to March, the Columbus Passage between South Caicos and Grand Turk, in the Turks & Caicos Islands, is a good place to follow Atlantic Humpback whales, as they migrate from their feeding grounds to calfing grounds.

We all anxiously scanned the horizon off Grand Turk. A gull hovered over the bow, twisting its head back and forth, begging for a handout. With a shriek, it flapped away, presumably looking for the richer pickings of a fishing trawler. The ocean seemed empty.

“Oh, my God,” a woman suddenly exclaimed. Rising out of the water, a jump away from the side of our boat, was an enormous black head, the corrugated white chin festooned with barnacles. It was the size of an automobile. For some 30 seconds the head stayed there, then, slowly, it sank and was gone.

Whales have swum so long in our subconscious that actually seeing one, so familiar and yet so awe-inspiring, is vaguely disturbing. Your mind skitters from the reality of a creature twice the length of your house.

Armed with cameras instead of harpoons, nature lovers still visit the sea off the Turks & Caicos Islands in search of one of the largest creatures on earth. These mystical monster-mammals regularly lure the adventurous out onto the seas to view them, twisting the senses and tossing the stomach, all in a quest for a view of the animals that drove Ahab mad.

There has long been an almost mystical connection between humans and whales. They are, for instance, the first animals mentioned in the Bible: “And God created great whales.” (Genesis 1:21) With their gargantuan shapes hinting at a similar largeness of spirit, whales captivate humans, as do few other animals.

Whale evolution
All sea mammals are descended from land-based ancestors. Even the air-breathing whale, with its fish-like shape, has ancestors that walked on land on four legs.

Researchers have recently uncovered a 50 million year-old fossil in Pakistan that appears to be a “missing link” in whale evolution. The newly discovered animal, named Ambulocetus natans, was able to move both on land and in the sea. It apparently swam in a way that combined the methods of modern otters and seals — by flexing its spinal column and paddling with its back feet. It did not have the characteristic fluke of modern-day whales, but perhaps moved its spine up and down, as they do. In today’s whales, this energy is transmitted to tail flukes, which dramatically move enormous quantities of water and propel the animal forward.

How the land-based mammal got into the sea involves a fascinating story of evolution. Some 60 million years ago, ancestors of modern-day whales were four-legged animals living on the shores of estuaries and lagoons, where an abundance of fish and shrimp enticed them to try wading. As nature favored those creatures best equipped for swimming, evolution began reshaping them. Some 10 to 15 million years ago, their bodies grew, forelegs shrank into flippers used for balance and steering, and hind legs disappeared.

To propel themselves through water, whales grew tapered tails ending in paddle-like flukes. The nose in most species moved to the top of the head and became separated from the mouth, thereby enabling whales to feed without filling their lungs with seawater and breathe without sticking their heads up.

The insides were restructured too, enabling whales to move, feed and communicate entirely underwater. As a result of these transformations, whales are now helpless on land. If stranded on a beach, they can barely breathe. Unhindered by gravity and with abundant food supplies, whales grew into the largest creatures that have ever lived.

Taking a look
Soon after we were underway on our whale watching excursion from Salt Cay, our guide spoke up: “I’ll explain now what to look for, because when we get out on the open sea, it may get rough. To spot whales, scan the horizon for a misty ‘blow,’ which indicates that a whale or whales are near the surface. Slick spots on the surface of the water may be ‘fluke prints’ — a kind of transient footprint left by a forcefully downward-sweeping fluke.”

He went on to describe some typical whale behaviors to look for:
Spouting: A whale breathes through the blowhole (nostril) on top of its head. The spout is the explosive exhalation of breath through the blowhole upon surfacing from a dive. The moisture-laden air vaporizes into a steamy column. Each whale has its own signature spout in terms of size and shape.
Breaching: This occurs when a whale leaps partially or entirely out of the water and then slams back into the sea with a huge splash. This is a spectacular, exuberant and high-energy display for which there is no single accepted explanation among whale experts. Possibilities include courtship display, warnings to other whales, shaking off parasites, and just plain having fun.
Spyhopping: Some species of whales, including humpbacks, will thrust their heads straight up until their eyes are clear of the surface, basically standing on their tails while looking around. Sometimes they rotate slowly to get a full 360 degree view.

Suddenly, without warning some 200 yards to port, a giant gnarled finger lifted out of the water, probing the air, seeming to beckon, and then sank beneath the waves. The “finger” rose up a second time and then a third, crashing back with a slap that sent water spraying in all directions. It might have been the finger of God, or the hand of fate in a water-sequined black glove. No one onboard said anything.

Our captain explained that we had just seen a whale flipper, belonging to a young male, he reckoned. As he angled the boat in for a closer look, the whale continued to wave its black flipper at us, lolling about in a swell. Engine idling, we waited for the magnificent creature to breach, although evidently he had other things on his mind.

Question: Does whale watching bother the whales? The nearly unanimous answer by whale experts, is no, so long as it is done responsibly. The great majority of whale-watching operators are careful to follow the National Marine Fisheries Services whale-watching guidelines.

Before we knew it, it was time for our boat to head back. A person is fortunate indeed if she or he witnesses a full display of whale antics. But be advised: everything does not happen on one trip out. You will probably have to make several trips to see the whole whale “show.” Part of the fun of whale watching is anticipating that particular moment when you may get a spectacular, if rare, visual and/or photographic picture.

February and March are the best months to observe whales off the Turks & Caicos Islands. When a whale-watching outing does encounter whales, the effect on passengers is sometimes overwhelming. Many people don’t really expect to observe a whale, and proximity to the mammals can be jarring.

For all their bulk, whales move through the water like spirits. One will appear– a giant block — and then vanish. You wait for it to reemerge where it disappeared, or close by. But the elusive creature fools you, emerging in its own good time, where and when it chooses. Singly, in a group, swarming around the boat, or swimming on the horizon, there is no getting away from the magnitude of whales.

Whale watching has done much to educate the public about the plight of whales. The more people know about these graceful creatures and the oceans they live in, the better off the environment is likely to be.

But while our concern for whales is helping save them from extinction by commercial hunting, we must at the same time ask how are they to survive if we destroy the oceans themselves? Pollution has, in fact, replaced the harpoon as a mortal threat to whales and in its own way can be far more deadly. If we ignore the dangers of tanker spills, industrial contamination and human carelessness, then nothing can really be done to save the whales.

If the whales someday are gone, gone too will be the poetry and symbolism that whales provide. By respecting their right to live and coexist peacefully with us, there is at least a possibility that we can find harmony with our environment and our fellow creatures, and perhaps even with ourselves.

Joe Zentner is a 63-year-old burned-out professor and freelance writer who, because of extreme insomnia, writes only between the hours of 2 and 7 AM. He is fond of watching reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies and drinking Grey Goose vodka. His most recent contribution to the literary world was the article “Monument Valley, Filmmaking and Mythology,” published in Desert USA. Joe and his wife Mary Syrett regularly visit the Islands; however, because of an extremely spoiled elderly cat named Babe, who eats only selected pieces of albacore tuna, they usually don’t stay very long.

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