Close Encounter

I don’t know what makes me linger to look across the cove. I’m bringing the formed bread out to the porch to proof in the cool evening. The door sits open behind me as I set the dutch oven down, but I step forward instead of back.

Maybe it’s the delicious chill of breeze on my arms. I’ve been reading too long by the fire, down to a thin tee while I wait for water to boil on the woodstove. So I’m there in the stillness to see it, just past the sandbar: a plume of spray, fading.

No way. It’s too close, too shallow. But it comes again, now that I can hear it:
Phwhwhwww. A spume. Humpback whales in Sunnyside Cove.

The door is still open behind me, but I’m pulling my boots on, running. Across the goosetongue patch, the rocks, the kelp, I race to the waterline. Twenty feet off, a whale blows, rises.

Whales’ pace is commensurate with size. I take double-digit breaths waiting for their next one. I wrap my arms around my thin blue tee, stare down the inlet.

Seagulls wheel in front of low yellow clouds. A whale surfaces, breathes, sinks. The above-water part between the dorsal fin and tail is as big as my canoe.

I watch until I see a tail: sure sign of a whale diving deep. I go back inside.

It’s my one night at Sunnyside home alone. Dana and her crew left this afternoon; my friends are arriving tomorrow; and Rick’s in town playing basketball tonight.

I check the rhubarb crisp, consider making tea. But I keep hearing whale sounds. So I go out to look again.

Closer than ever, fifteen feet offshore of the point. The whales surface in intervals, breathing, rolling, turning in the shallow water so their side fins breach.

I run out again. There’s an urge to be close to something so huge- a need to stand there and see: how big is it, really? Can I feel that mass of muscle if I’m near enough?

The water rises just before the exhale, mounding over the whale’s back. The ridge in the water, the blow, the breach, recede. A rush of water shushes along the shore: wake, displaced.

I’m still down by the water line, watching the whales circle, when motor noise alerts me to Rick coming home.

“Rick!” I yell across the water. “Whales!” I signal with the flashlight on my phone. I run over to him while he ties up the boat, run back to the whales by the point.

We decide to get the canoe. The whales aren’t moving off, so we figure we can get pretty close in a boat.

Down the long low-tide beach we carry the canoe. Quick on the calm water, we paddle. In the fading light, the sky is silver; the sea black. We chase toward the sprays and sounds.

Pretty soon, we hear whales off both bow and stern, forty feet and seventy. We wait, watch, guess their moves. We always see whales from afar. This time, can we get close?

We’re thirty feet out from shore when the far one blows. Then the near one blows between us and land– twenty feet away. They’re syncopated: the far whale blows, then the near.

I paddle in towards land. The far whale blows. Three. Two. Holy shit.

The water directly off the bow is rising. Four feet in front, a ridge. And then–
Breach. Four feet ahead, a side fin rises, higher than the boat, higher than me. The canoe tips in the displacement, wobbles.

The fin is a dark triangle, white underside. It cuts the water in a sweeping curve. Our canoe drifts still closer as we sit stunned. I don’t even reach to stabilize. The leviathan must be right below us in the black water. The water moves.

We see a hint of the massive body emerge, then sink. The fin sinks back down. The water roils. In our little canoe, all we can do is sit there. And then it’s past. The wave of displaced water rolls a susurrus down the rocky shore.

Hands shaking, I paddle to shore. Close enough for tonight.

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