Friday, August 28, 2015

Following the humpback whales in Greenland

There!, the captain yelled, pointing into the distance. Humpback whale! 

We have just boarded the boat and are hardly out of the bay. The colourful houses are stark against the coastline and the ice that dot the water's surface can't really be described as icebergs yet. It is windless, hot, and the perfect day for whale watching. 

On days as calm as this, you can see for miles around. It is against this glassy sea that the captain first spots a spout that is barely there. He throttles the boat urgently. 

In no time at all, we are close enough to hear the whoosh the whale makes as it exhales at the surface. But that's not saying a lot - by best estimates we must still be at least one kilometre away from it.

We slow down and inch towards the whale - who by this time has been joined by another.

As we start focusing our cameras and binoculars, I glance back at the captain.

His weathered face scans the sea intently as he mentally calculates the spot where the whales will next emerge. The captain grew up on the sea - he knows the whales' behaviour inside out, their feeding ground, and how to differentiate between the various species based on the shape of their spouts. He has an almost clairvoyant instinct with them. On this trip he has proven to be rarely surprised.

Except for one exhilarating moment.

The whales dip below the surface in unison. We wait with bated breaths - quite as if the ghosts of us were thundering through the depths with them - as we train our binoculars near the position they were last seen.

For five minutes, nothing.

The captain readjusts the bow of the boat, aiming it at the patch of sea it was last seen. Binoculars and cameras are lowered as we start wondering if the whales have finally gone away.

But at that precise moment --

A humpback whale explodes out of the water beside us, so close I can see the individual knobs that speckle its jaw. Its skin is black, darker than I imagined, and it glistens under the strong midday sun. The spray from its blow-hole hits our faces a few seconds later, and we collectively gasp at the surreality of it all.

All too soon it's gone again, with nothing left to hint at the gargantuan encounter except for a shadow, and then a ripple that fades back into the mirrored sky.

No other whales come as close to us that day. But the weather is pleasant and the scenery unrealistically beautiful as we drift between the icebergs, anyway.

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