What if whales weren’t big?

August 2008

By David Roper

The four of us were sitting around a mesquite-wood campfire at the base of a canyon amid the hills way outside of Tucson, near the old Tucson to Tombstone stagecoach road. We had spent all day in the saddle, my horse and I following Joe Valdez and his pack mule. Joe was a small grizzled man who seemed, to this East Coast sailor who was in those days running a whale-watch boat, to be the epitome of the western wrangler. It was the wrong season for an overnight in the hills, but I’d talked Joe into it, saying I was an ocean guy and just had to try this.

All day during the ride, I kept trying to get Joe talking, asking what I hoped wouldn’t be stupid questions. But all I ever got back were a few grunts, yups and mebbees. That night, while continuing to remain silent despite my questions, he’d cooked some amazing steaks on the mesquite fire. Coyotes howled in the darkened hills above us. A small stream bubbled past. The horses were bedded down inside an abandoned old corral. Still no talk from Joe. But quite a day, regardless.

I gave up on expecting discussion, and said I’d be turning in, which meant just slipping farther into my sleeping bag by the fire. Joe simply nodded, continuing to poke a stick at the fire. And then, just as I was drifting off, he asked in the clearest, most earnest voice, “You ever seen a whale?”

Whales fascinate people. I think it’s mostly because they’re big. If whales were the size of mackerels, no one would care. If they hung out on the surface more, we’d probably barely notice. And whales and I have had some interesting times. The first time I saw one I was the skipper of a whale-watch boat out of Salem, Mass., in the pioneering days of whale watching. I was the captain, the “whale expert” and the expedition leader, all rolled into one. And I’d never seen a whale. But off I headed, bound for Stellwagen Bank, jam-packed with 135 curious souls, mostly from Ohio or one of those places west of Worcester.

“Just find the edge of the Bank with the depth-sounder, southeast corner, and you’ll be fine,” my boss said. “And here, take this,” he continued, as he discreetly handed me a whale guide through the pilot house window. “You can narrate about this great adventure with these big creatures while you’re looking for them. You can talk about finbacks, minkes, and humpbacks, and what a thrill it will be as they swim right up to the boat.”

And that’s what I talked about on the way to Stellwagen. But what I thought about was my job and what would happen to it and the $18 per head times 135 when all I found was empty ocean. In retrospect, I’m sure the people from Ohio wondered how, in the midst of this empty ocean and empty horizon, I would know when to suddenly stop and then show them whales. I wondered this too. But finally, bless their giant hearts, there they were.

The first was a humpback and her calf. The mother even “spyhopped,” coming right up under our bow and looking up with a very curious basketball-sized eye at the Ohioans and their Instamatics. One woman got real excited and blurted out to her heavyset lady friend, “My God, I think I’m having a whalegasm.” (I know, it surprised me, too.)

So that was the first time. There were dozens more over the next two years. Both the whales and the people came in all shapes and varieties. I even took 100 Salem witches out on their private Witch Whale Watch, though the whales were not as spellbound as the witches. I also took numerous school groups, including a Boston inner-city high school with some tough characters. About a mile from the dock, headed out to Stellwagen on a particularly rough day, the crew chief came up to the pilothouse. “Cap, I’m getting nervous,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “These guys are eying the booze, the candy, even the fire extinguishers. There’s a hundred of them and only two of us.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, advancing the throttles of the big 6-110 GM diesels, then feeling the 65-foot hull begin to pitch and roll. “You’ll be just fine in about five minutes. Nothing like a boatload of seasickness to calm an uprising.”

These days, when I sail back and forth to Maine, I’m often alone, and sometimes I really look forward to a whale or two for company. It happens rarely these days, but there’s always that hope that my old belly-shaped 31-foot sailboat hull will prove attractive to a friendly humpback. And then, maybe if it’s just the two of us out there, with no one else watching, something extra special would happen.

Hmmmm …. wouldn’t that make that lady from Ohio excited!

Dave Roper lives and sails out of Marblehead, Mass.