15 August 2014

Whale Song

It was still dark when I woke this morning.

The sun rises late on the Island.

So too do I.

I could tell that a storm was brewing just from the heaviness in the air. There was the cliché calmness and as I stood on my little balcony sipping the first of my many coffees for the day I scanned the horizon.

The fulminations I was seeking soon appeared and as dawn broke I heard the first rumblings of the tempest.

I love the storms of Singapore. Not just because they provide relief from the heat, but also because they are often spectacular and loud. Sheet lightning illuminates the black skies and the clouds look like dark bruises.

They are beautiful.

They really are.

When the wind picked up and rain started to fall I retreated inside and poured myself a second coffee. Large droplets soon turned to sheets and my windows steamed up. I was entranced and somewhat mesmerized by the water that ran down the glass panels of my window and for a trice my memory flashed back to a magic moment in another storm in another place.

A long time ago.

My retrospection took me back to a place called Fraser Island in Queensland – in my homeland of Australia. I was visiting my friend Philip who had only just graduated as a marine biologist and was working in a town called Hervey Bay. His job was to study one of the great wonders of the natural world – the annual migration of the humpbacked whales.

Philip was living the dream.

It was late in winter in Queensland and within an hour of my arrival in Hervey Bay we were out on the water in Phillip’s boat.

I was very excited.

We didn’t have to wait long. Still in sight of land and only minutes after we dropped anchor the first of the whales appeared. It broke water less than a hundred meters from us and I gasped out loud in both surprise and delight.

I remember looking at Phillip and seeing his exultation at my joy.

He was grinning from ear to ear.

The enormity of the majestic creature and the moment made me laugh out loud and I think I may have clapped my hands in jubilance. Before too long another whale appeared and then another – and then a mother with her calf.

We were surrounded.

The whales threw themselves in the air and Phillip told me that they were playing and were showing off. At one point one of the whales came so close to the boat that if I reached out I could have touched it.

I recall locking eyes with the whale and seeing great intelligence and wisdom there. I remember that moment as if it were yesterday.

These are sentient animals that are as curious of us as we are of them.

We just bobbed about on the water for what might have been hours relishing the animals as they played around us. The sky was blue when we ventured out and so transfixed was I by the sight that I didn’t notice the storm clouds that had gathered and were sweeping towards us. The sudden calmness that precedes a storm descended abruptly – although we could see the squalls rapidly approaching.

I think sensing that we had to return to shore - one by one the whales descended to the depths and I felt an immediate and profound sense of loss.

I remember Phillip smiling knowingly at me at that moment and he put his arm around my shoulder to give me some comfort. The ocean was still then and it was very quiet. When the first streaks of lightning appeared in the sky and a dull boom echoed my friend moved to the front of the boat where I thought he was drawing the anchor.

He wasn’t though.

He dropped a boom into the water and passed me some headphones – then he put some on himself. The sound I heard was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was mournful and beautiful and haunting all at the same time. It was a canticle and paean that was as close to a sense of pure spirituality that I have ever experienced.

I could not help but to well up.

It was whale song.

Before too long the wind whipped up and the skies grew dark and we became drenched with the downpour. Thunder clapped noisily and the boat rocked wildly as we pulled up anchor.

It was a wild ride back to shore.

As I write this now I can vividly remember that day when the whales danced and played and then sang for us when the storm swept in.

I doubt that I will ever forget it.

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