This is the story of an encounter with a very special friend.
Yesterday, I was sitting in the deckhouse and working on some info posters about wildlife we have in the area when I heard a commotion out on deck. After straining my ears, I concluded that someone had seen something.
Now, since setting off from Cape town, we have seen a lot of diverse marine life. So much so that when a pod of dolphins plays at the bow or a whale plume is seen at the horizon I almost don’t look. Don’t get me wrong- all interactions with marine life fascinate me- but yesterday I was in the flow of my work and didn’t want to interrupt it.
That was until I realised that it could be flying fish. I am yet to see them gliding across the water and many people onboard had already spotted a shoal while I was sleeping down below. That was why I eventually and reluctantly dragged myself outside and peered over the edge of the ship, looking in the direction that the others were straining and pointing.
And then I saw it.
First a pale jaw, then a dark eye. The glassy waters distorted her shape. A sleek grey back surfaced and slipped back into the abyss. A modest fin appeared- I was surprised by its size- no bigger than one of a surfboard- in comparison to the broad shadow concealed beneath.
That was when I ran to grab my camera.
She can’t have been more than 3 meters off our port side and she was watching us, exploring Europa’s hull and mirroring her effortless glide through the waters.
When I returned from the ship’s bowels, everyone on watch had gathered on the poop deck alongside a few sleepy sailors who had crawled out of bed for the occasion. All non-essential jobbies were abandoned with the mutual understanding that this was more important. It’s not often you get so close to such elegance, wisdom and curiosity. It was humbling, to be escorted through the home of such a mammal.
The whale came up for breath and a plume of water erupted from below. The air in her lungs was so warm that moisture condensed into steam and rain fell as she exhaled. Her back once again softly receded as the same small fin sliced the sea open. I was frantically adjusting the camera settings and hopping around the deck to get a good angle. I wanted to picture her alongside Europa, to capture the moment so it could be shared. It’s a shame that pictures never tell the full story because this was a story I wanted everyone to be part of. It felt important.
She flowed the ship, slipping behind and then to our starboard until dusk- where the sailors were called to dinner and darkness concealed her mass.
We suspect she was a fin whale but have no way of knowing for sure. But that doesn’t matter. Her wise eye and the air of curiosity she purveyed were far more impactful than taxonomic classifications. For a brief moment, the crew and her shared an unspoken bond across language and species. I think that’s magical.