When you come upon it, you can see first a growing roiling in the water. It is the upper tip of the bait-ball of frantic fish, swirling in a seething sphere, desperate to escape the dark shapes of predators below. The predators are first sea lions, twisting beneath them and letting out strings of bubbles to confuse and herd the fish. The swim beneath the school, forcing it ever upward toward the barrier of air above.
Next the seabirds see this and begin to land on the water, swooping down. Some plunge beneath the surface and come up with fish. Not many birds this afternoon.
The seething on the surface becomes more frantic. We cut the engines and drift closer. We can’t approach them under power closer than a few hundred yards, but the currents are pushing us closer, turning the boat so that the stern is pointed toward the emergence.
Dozens of sleek brown shapes burst from the seething water and plunge back in, gleefully devouring fish. Perhaps forty sea lions who have corralled the meal to the surface where it is trapped and then begin eating at will. The few birds who are present are scared off by the sea lions, but hover nearby. Fear and desire and delight all at once.
We’ve seen flickers of vast shapes just beneath the surface, have even heard their distant breath, seen the tips of small dorsal fins and the bulge of emerging tail flukes, but when it happens, everyone is struck, everyone is suddenly overwhelmed by silence. The only sound is of hairs raising, eyes widening, heartbeats quickening.
The sea lions suddenly depart, and I know what is happening, biologically, behaviorally, I am very familiar with all of these behaviors, could write a paper about them. And I know it’s going to happen, but knowledge has not prepared me. Two massive black heads emerge from the seething water, mouths open, baleen visible in strips, devouring fish. You can hear their sudden wet breath like an entire room emptying of air at once, then drawing it luxuriously back in. They slip back into darkness, are followed by a third, smaller head, a juvenile does the same.
From this point onward, for almost an hour, there is incredible silence. We are close enough that the whales can see us and we can see them. We can hear every detail of their breath and even sense the rush of displaced water as they come up again from below. It falls into a rhythm. Sussurus of seething fish, rushing splashes of sea lions, then an intake of silence, and the rush of sound as three or four meters of humpback whale erupts from the water. We can see individual shafts of baleen, the glint of the sky in their dark eyes, the bright spots of barnacles and the scars left by them.
I am not in church. I don’t know any of the people we’re with. But suddenly we’re a congregation, sitting at the edge of our seats. We’re Zaccheus in the tree, straining to see. We just breathe together, quietly shuffle so that others can see. Listen to the occasional flicker of camera shutters.
Then they depart, passing beneath us, invisible in the gloom of the ocean. The fish disperse, decimated.
Do they think of us, passing underneath and breathing on the other side, an odd linear shape silhouetted by the sky? We’re certainly thinking of them.