Home > Dreams, Family, Love, Personal > The whales beneath my duct-taped sneakers

The whales beneath my duct-taped sneakers

I took a train, a bus, a ferry and a boat to reach the unpopulated British Columbia island I called home my eighteenth summer.

I spent that summer researching killer whales, a creature with which I’d fallen in love while taking a Marine Bio course. Most of the time I did so from the main research island, but I spent the last few weeks at an outpost atop a cliff.


My view atop the cliff

I witnessed many wonderful things there, where I was able to occasionally spot a dorsal fin as I listened to whales squealing happily as they rubbed their bellies against pebbles nearby.

One particular moment stands out almost two decades later.

My cliff partners had hopped on a boat for an island party the night before. I insisted I wouldn’t go, despite abundant badgering. I was true to my word, too, which I celebrated by spending the night tossing and turning inside my tent, certain every rustling I heard outside was a bear or other feral creature intent on eating me. Even the scuttling of tiny mice sounded ominous alone in the deep dark of night there, but minute by eternal minute the night passed.

A fog rolled in over the Johnstone Strait while I tried to sleep. Even by morning light, I couldn’t see more than a couple hundred meters. I didn’t bother watching for whales. I hadn’t heard any radio reports they’d be near, anyway.

I was immersed in non-research activity when I heard something that sounded like a burst of air from a whale’s blowhole.

Naw, couldn’t be, I thought. I ignored it.

I heard another one.

Bemused, I walked up to the cliff’s edge and peered over.


Books were our currency

There beneath my duct-taped shoes, a mother whale rolled over and displayed her belly.

Her still orange newborn calf began nursing from her.

“Ohwhyohwhyohwhydon’tIhaveanyfilminmycrappycamera,” I cursed quietly. I regretted my lack of money and lack of film for but a moment, deciding instead to savor with my own eyes this miracle of life I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to witness.

I stood quietly with heart overflowing.

After the calf finished nursing, mom and baby swam away. I stood there for at least several minutes longer, trying to reconcile every dream I’d had for my summer researching orca with the beautiful moment I’d just witnessed.

When one of my research partners showed up an hour or two later, having chosen to hike the long way back instead of wait for a boat, I was still picturing that sweet whale baby feeding beneath me.

“You’ll never believe what I saw!” I told her.

Then I told her.

And she couldn’t believe it.

“But I’ve wanted to see that forever! I’ve been here summer after summer after summer wanting to see that, and I missed it for a stupid party?!”

(For context, this lady used to kayak over to a research assistant located by himself at another outpost. Together they’d sit and drink tea in total silence, savoring both the company and their temporary freedom from the violence of words.)

“I’m sorry,” I said, but I wasn’t really.

I liked her, don’t get me wrong. I wished she’d seen it. I wished I had pictures I could have shown her.

But, forever and ever, I knew, I would remember the joy of witnessing that unexpected moment. For having faced my fears of the dark and being alone on a cliff far removed from civilization as I knew it, I would forever be able to carry with me the magic of standing solo, unafraid and free atop a cliff, connected eternally to life beautiful and foreign and somehow, all at once, no longer foreign at all.

I remember the moment and wonder where that mama is now. I wonder where her baby is. If the baby was a boy, he likely still swims with her. If the baby was a girl, she might well have started her own family away from her mama.

In that case, I wonder if she still dreams of her mama.

I surely do.

I surely do.

  1. January 28, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Memories like that stored in your heart’s storage unit are beyond precious. Things to take out on dark days and darker nights and hug to yourself.
    Thank you. This is beautiful. And yes, I am envious.

    • January 28, 2015 at 9:09 pm

      This post was inspired by another one I read earlier this morning. Since I read that one (about another nursing whale), these memories of Orcalab have warmed me.

      I’m so glad for those weeks. They were rough, but they were beautiful, too … and they taught me so very much.

  2. January 28, 2015 at 9:01 pm

    Why did you have duct tape on your shoes and why was the calf orange?

    • January 28, 2015 at 9:14 pm

      I had next to no money. I was only able to make the trip north because an ex-boyfriend loaned me some money. So when my cheap shoes fell apart, my mom sent me the only (cheap) replacements she could afford. They fell apart, too, leaving me with a choice between improvising with them or walking around barefoot while waiting for another pair of cheap shoes to arrive. I made do with duct tape and found I didn’t need another pair of shoes as long as I had more duct tape at hand.

      Orange color:
      Good question. We wondered in one of our meetings if exposure to air faded the orange, but my idle searches haven’t turned up anything confirming that (or confirming any other explanation).

  3. Natalie on the rocks
    January 28, 2015 at 9:21 pm

    Wow! What a beautiful experience! Thanks for sharing!

    • January 29, 2015 at 2:13 pm

      Thank you for reading! I’m so glad for the blog I read yesterday morning that carried me back. 🙂

  4. January 28, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    How very amazing! Lucky you! What a great memorie! Nature treated you well!

    • January 29, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      It really did! Before Orcalab, I’d dream waters would lap up over wherever I lived and I could swim with the orcas that swam in those shallow waters. I don’t know why I came to love them so much, but I fell in love with them long before I met them … and remain very much in love almost twenty years later.

      • January 29, 2015 at 3:04 pm

        I believe that we have a deeper connection with certain creatures. One we can not explain.

  5. January 28, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    This story was so beautiful it made my heart ache. Thank you.

    • January 29, 2015 at 2:19 pm

      Thank you for reading, and saying so. ♥

      My heart is so full when I think of orcas. Those days. When I think of being on the cliff and seeing daily a place I’d read about, that had inspired me. though the story I thought of when I looked that way was a sad one, it was sweet, too. It connected me to the people whose passion for orcas helped fuel my own.

  6. January 29, 2015 at 5:29 am

    Oh, wow!

  7. January 29, 2015 at 5:49 am

    The word is overused but this time appropriate: how AWESOME.

  8. January 29, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    This touched me. Thank you for sharing such a powerful memory.

  9. January 29, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    What a beautiful memory! I think it is amazing the way these moments can stay in our minds forever, as vivid as the day they happened. I don’t have many of my own, or even one as amazing as yours, but they are still there… somewhere.

    • January 31, 2015 at 8:44 am

      Sometimes I’ll share a memory with Anthony and he’ll ask why I haven’t shared it before. “Because I didn’t have reason to recall it before!” It’s some little thing that usually dislodges any particular memory; in cases like this, I’m most grateful for those little things. 🙂

  1. January 30, 2015 at 11:35 am
  2. February 28, 2015 at 12:31 pm
  3. December 6, 2016 at 5:36 am
  4. July 2, 2017 at 9:06 am

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