I slept and woke and slept and woke and slept and woke in a cold Kia Soul on the side of the road in Iceland… and then I drove north to the whales.
In case I haven’t said this before: I LOVE WHALES. I have loved whales since I was a kid putting whale posters on my walls and whale sculptures on my dresser. When I was in college, I applied for a job, and in the interview when asked what kind of animal I’d be (because it was Iowa City, God bless it), I said “whale.” Whales seem slow and wise and peaceful, and who wouldn’t want to be all of those things?
I do. I want to be all of those things.
I picked a whale watching tour in Hólmavík because the tour was new and the town, a small fishing and sheep farming town in the Westfjörds, had not yet been pillaged by tourism.
I drove giddy and nervous. What if I got lost and missed the boat? What if we didn’t see any whales? What if this moment I’d been waiting for FOREVER ended in disappointment? How would I ever recover?
I didn’t miss the boat.
And I saw whales, three of them.
Three humpbacks: one for each passenger on the boat, our tour guide, Judith, joked. There were only three of us on the tour (excluding the guide and the captain): an older French couple and me. They’d been on whale watching tours before. This was my first. “I apologize in advance in case I lose my mind,” I said.
I don’t remember how long it took us to spot the first, but I was so at peace on that boat in that sunshine on that water, that I almost believed I really would be fine to not see any. When we spotted the spray from the blowhole of the first in the distance, my heart went KABOOM! I gasped. My hands covered my face. My eyes welled, and I whispered, “Oh my god, it’s happening.”
[I didn't get any good photos, because I was trying to be all the way there.]
The next 2-3 hours we spent boating around the fjord following three humpbacks who were feeding and resting and feeding and resting. There were no dramatics, no breaches, no meet-and-greet encounters at the boat. But I didn’t need any. I was there; they were there; and it was beautiful.
Our guide was a short, spunky British woman named Judith who is a wildlife photographer and travels the world leading whale tours. I turned 5-years-old again and asked her every question I could think to ask. These are some of my favorite lessons about whales:
1. They are “conscious breathers.” They have to be conscious to breathe. If it were an involuntary reflex (like it is in nearly all other mammals), they would open their blowholes underwater and drown. Researchers think that when whales rest, only half of the brain shuts down. The other half stays online to say “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Don’t breathe. Don’t breathe. Don’t breathe…” I think I might be a conscious breather. I am always forgetting. And I am always drowning.
2. The tail (fluke) goes up when they dive down to feed. The circular wake left behind on the water is called a “fluke print.”
3. Researchers can identify individual whales by the shapes and markings on their flukes as well as unique gestures. Two of the three whales we followed had been in the fjord long enough that Judith and the captain had nicknamed them. We followed Flicky (named for the way the fluke moved out of the water) and Vaf (Icelandic word for “V” based on a deep V cut into the fluke). They believed Vaf had at one point been caught in fishing nets and cut free. He had other markings all over his back that appeared to be scars. The third whale had only shown up two weeks prior, and they hadn’t seen her long enough to nickname.
4. Humpbacks can live 80-100 years, and females can breed from about age 7 all the way until they die. That’s a lot of damn babies.
5. Humpbacks are “filter feeders.” They swallow schools of fish and plankton in one gulp. This is why they don’t necessarily live and feed as pods or families: a) Because they eat so much in one gulp, they need extra food, and a pod/family would be too much competition; and b) They don’t need no sticking help for hunting.
6. This also means, however, that once a calf is mature, it separates from its mother and that’s that. Males, aside from impregnating a female, don’t have much to do with the rest of it. Whambamthankyoumaam…Good luck with the baby.
7. Humpback males sing whale songs. These songs have rhyme, chorus, and verse. All males from the same region sing the same song; but they only sing in the southern waters where they go to breed. From one season to the next, one male may change one part of the song, and then all other males in that region follow suit.
8. And finally: Females are bigger than males. They think it might be because they feed in the northern waters and then migrate south to breed where there is no food. After breeding, the males head back north to feed; but the females have to stay in the southern waters until her calf is large enough to make the trip. There is no food for them in the southern waters. The calf feeds off the mother while the mother literally starves. Researchers think the females are bigger, because they have to sustain longer periods of time without food and while nursing a calf.
Do what you want with that information, but I devoured it. The tour ended. I tossed my heart overboard and went to lunch to think and smile and write.
I grabbed a picnic table at a small café by the water and ate something with onions and peppers and cheese and potatoes. I drank wine. I smiled all the way through my bones. I scribbled pages and pages into my journal about how peaceful and happy I felt, and about how badly I wanted to hold onto the moment.
I brainstormed my future. What if after Fisher leaves, I retire early and become a whale watching tour guide? I could go back to school and learn to scuba dive and not get seasick and study flukes and flukeprints. I would follow the whales all over the world. I would toss my heart overboard again and again and again. (It is what I do.)
[I took a bathroom selfie at the cafe to commemorate what I was wearing the day I saw whales. And also partly as a joke to send to a friend who complains about too many "landscapes." Also, there are my journals. I'm glad I didn't accidentally leave them in a bathroom in Iceland.]