I sit holding my hands, knuckles white. Matt is drinking instant coffee and eating instant oatmeal. We are on the Seahorse moving west, leaving Mission Bay Marina.
I do not want to be on a boat in the Pacific Ocean searching for whales to swim with. As much as I try to psych myself up for the unique week ahead this dread remains. It is the honest and depressing truth. I am abashedly afraid.
The day is pleasant with a cool breeze only California can claim. I look beyond the boat railing for land but the waves kept rolling, forming that slanted horizon of earth and sky. When we slow down forty-five minutes later I am unprepared.
To a rational person the fortune of swimming with the blue whale is a delicious opportunity. To me it is a death rattle. Anxiety ebbs and flows through my body. I realize there is no preparation in confronting my one fear. There is only fear, and the doing of that fear.
We trolley and listen for that fatal exhale of our first whale. In the fill time we gear up. I struggle to relax under the weight of my bulky 7 ML wetsuit, forehead painted with the sign, “This-is-my-nightmare-get-me-out-of-here-now-please-and-thank-you.”
Matt is my antithesis. His grin is luminous. He is the first ready and the first in the water. He is sipping the sweet nectar of life and basking in every morsel. He deals with me calmly, kindly. He understands the depths of this fear I’ve carried with me from pre-adolescence but makes no excuse for me. He extends his hand. An invitation. I accept and dive in to the Pacific Ocean. We board sea kayaks and the search begins.
Slowly, quietly we paddle in the direction of the first blow. We wait.
Seven minutes, eight minutes, nine minutes, ten…. and she releases.
“Whoosh!” the air soars violently. We know her location. This train with no tracks continues to barrel her way through the deep blue. She is very much alive and mammoth. Her skin is coarse metal.
I shriek and cry a little, or a lot I can’t remember. I don’t know if the two come from fear or the beauty. Perhaps both.
We follow. Paddling quick and vigorous we inch closer, closer… luck lands the terrified woman-child right on top of our first whale. (That’s me. I’m talking about myself.)
“Get in the water! GET IN THE WATER!” screams each person stuck on the Pacific Ocean with me. Panicked by the elated yelling I find my own arms betray me as they lift my stiff body into the frigid water. I am face to face with a 100 foot blue whale.
There is a line in Beasts of the Southern Wild that has stuck with me for years. Hushpuppy, the five-year-old protagonist says in voiceover, “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes, I see everything that made me.” This plays on a loop in my head during my first encounter with this beast.
This thing? This enchanted creature… why have I been so paralyzed? THIS magnetic and graceful creation is delicate, pure. Her elegance consumes my eyes, ears and fingertips. With each ticking second I am drawn close and deep. I hold my breath. I do not leave. All that exists in the big, big universe is my rapidly obliterating fear and me.
She didn’t wave at me. She didn’t linger for a quick, “Hello dear, how are you?” or send me on with a symbolic head nod or clever wink. She kept to course, moving swift and fluid, dissolving into the 2,000-foot deep ocean floor.
Perhaps she knew I needed her. Perhaps that’s why she blew right under my kayak, of all the kayaks and square inches of the Pacific Ocean. If I’m to be honest with myself I can’t tell you if I believe her instinct brought me to her or vice versa. Maybe it was merely a serendipitous force uniting us, our union raw and honest.
We continued this pursuit everyday for the next 5 days. I’d be untruthful if I told you I overcame my anxiety. In fact, each whale encounter left me more nervous and anxious than the last. I experienced a routine flush of stress when waiting in the kayak even up to the last day. The fear albeit less vocal still lingered, whispering, teasing my courage. Each time I would muster the nerve to propel myself back into the daunting waters. Yet like the first encounter when I laid eyes on the whale for those fleeting moments, I would melt back into her trance, fated to relish in fervor and gratitude, forever changed by the wild.