The Whale Crier
It’s me and her. And some distance between us.
We both come here in midwinter. For me, the cold ocean, the isolation and the southerly wind gusting up from the Antarctic restore my sense of spiritual symmetry so keenly askew after months of grind. The miscellanies of suburban streets, shopping centres, delays, deadlines, cut-offs, clamour and din are washed away with an ebb tide.
There’s no rain this afternoon. It wouldn’t matter to her or to me for that matter if there was. But it’s fresh.
On the dunes the low scrub dances and gossips unperturbed in the harsh, thrilling wind. The white salt crystals crusting the sea heath catch the late light; the coast bonefruit throws long, exaggerated shadows across the sand with its tiny tubular flowers.
We are both alone. We have been migrating a while now, away from the familiars of our lives. This unaccompanied journey is necessary. It is sustaining for different reasons for both of us.
She surfaces again and a spray of white-water plumes above her. Voluntary breathing. She’s a Southern Right. I can’t see the callosities I am expecting but the light is fading and she’s far to the right of the bay. She’s logging most of the time: floating, with an occasional turn where I see a pectoral fin or her flukes in the dark water. She’s magnificent.
I have heard of coastal towns that employ a whale-crier. Perched high on the limestone cliffs overlooking the vast waters of the cape, the crier waits for a sighting then rushes into town to announce the arrival. The camera-wielding tourists, who have been waiting for this news, flock to the nearest lookout; kids with ice-cream smeared faces trail behind. Even the hard-edged townspeople join the throng and concede a satisfied nod at the sight. The spectacle is witnessed with jubilation. Finally, each mammal in turn departs. That’s what I’ve heard.
But here, neither of us move to go. Because we both belong here. This is where our paths intersect and, for a moment, we are suspended, logging together in this place.
Her memory of this migratory path is passed down through generations of a now remnant population devastated by the pelagic excursions of our ancestors.
For in those days, the whale-criers served the whalers. These leisurely cetaceans who sought sanctuary in the shallow waters near the coast were easy pickings. They were known as the ‘right’ whales, and then as Right Whales. Their teeth were boiled out of the jaw and worked into scrimshaw; their bodies were rendered for lipstick and margarine; corsets and parasols were fashioned from their bones. Their prized ambergris full of indigestible squid beaks was added to perfume.
Today, she is listed as vulnerable in some places, in others she’s threatened or critically endangered. Recovering. She’s recovering now.
So, while we find a home in this bay together, I will be her crier. I will celebrate her arrival here and mourn her departure.
Jenny Knox is a writer, based in Perth, Australia.