Animal Encounter—Bronze: Encounter at the Peninsula’s Edge

by Kevin Finucane

The blank expanse erupted into a shroud of bubbles. I couldn’t see, but I felt my guide’s wrist under my hand, pulling back quickly. He was swimming away. I tried the same, but my flippers wouldn’t cooperate. It was the first time I had worn them, or used a snorkel for that matter. I flailed my arms and executed some kind of half-sunken backstroke, careful to keep the flippers submerged.

My guide said whales don’t like the sound of flippers striking the water. The scene from “Jaws” with Captain Quint sliding into the great white’s mouth passed briefly across my mask as the white wash of water enveloped me.

The coastal water around Peninsula Valdés, Argentina, is teeming with southern right whales. Standing on the shore of the peninsula’s only village, Puerto Pirámides, you can see the massive creatures twirling above the water’s surface or leaping skyward, extending themselves upon the horizon. The water explodes beneath their weight.

Sitting on one of the high cliffs bordering the cove of Puerto Pirámides, your experience is different. The ocean is immense beyond the barren and undeveloped shoreline. Its coal-blue waters appear placid in the panorama, except for dozens of distant splashes breaking its surface. The far-off sound of each one, the result of 60 or more tons crashing against water, is delayed the same way that thunder follows lightening.

The whales’ courtships continue into the evening. Through the cracked wooden door of my posada, I hear their moans in the steady sea winds and the hollow bass sounds of their spouts.

The cascade of bubbles gave way to blue darkness. My guide’s wrist relaxed under my hand and I let go to blow water out of the snorkel and adjust the mask. The schoolteacher hovered on the other side of the guide. She tried to loosen his grip on her wrist and was pointing past me. I turned. The whale was no more than a few feet away from me.

Every day, companies operate whale tours from the modest beach port, a town of 200 that survives solely on whale tourism. Farm tractors crawl up and down the beach towing trailers with extended hitches. The tractors’ huge tires grip the sand and engines growl as they push several feet deep into the portal waters and through the breaking surf to launch broad-hulled boats bursting with tourists.

The right whale comes to Peninsula Valdés to breed and give birth in the tranquil waters.

Visitors from all over the globe come by the busloads. They are given matching rain slicks. Sitting on a cliff nearby, you can spend hours watching the boats crisscross and chug after the whales while tourists, in their veritable team colors, lean over the bow to take photos.

I don’t like crowds. They make me claustrophobic. I made a local contact at a scuba center. A few days later, outfitted in a wetsuit, I waded through the surf to a small inflatable boat. A schoolteacher from the village joined us.

“Do not touch the whales.” my guide warned me in perfect English. Right whales are playful and curious. They will swim right up to boats, a fact that helped earn their reputation as the “right” whale to hunt. These same qualities can make right whales deadly in the water, especially the younger ones who are more aggressive in their playful antics.

My guide sat across from me, appearing invigorated by the cold spray of ocean against his face. He told me about whale procreation. He demonstrated with his arm and a fist what he often witnessed firsthand. The straggly-haired captain with a wide grin behind him nodded in confirmation. I asked if it was dangerous to be near them during such an intimate moment. The captain nodded again and laughed. The guide shrugged and began instructing us how to use a snorkel.

The rubber boat beat against the waves. The schoolteacher sat beside the guide. Class was cancelled for the day. She seemed nervous, but eager to get in the water. The captain slowed the boat down and helped her light another cigarette. A boy from town rode on the boat’s inflated edge and dangled one foot in the wake. Without spilling a drop, he added water to his bottomless cup of maté tea from a thermos he kept under his arm. I inspected my gear. The flippers were outlandish and cumbersome. If I really needed to, I thought, I could take them off in a hurry. My hood felt constraining and the goggles too tight. I fidgeted with both. My guide watched my awkwardness and turned to the ponytailed captain behind him. The two looked toward me with open grins: They were all teeth.

We had been planning this trip for several days but there were delays. The local authorities had been watching the captain. He had a reputation of taking tourists out on private tours. He didn’t have a license to do more than provide scuba adventures and training. But the guide was known to arrange accidental meetings with the whales. It was illegal to intentionally approach a whale in the water. But after you gained the guide’s trust, which could be assured by $200 cash, the captain was willing to take some risks, as long as they traveled up the more desolate coastline.

The captain stopped the boat and pointed. In the distance, half of a tail, like a shark’s fin, stood up out of the water. I recognized it as a whale’s fluke, but it occurred to me that I didn’t know the Spanish word for shark. I did know the word for danger.

“Peligroso?” I asked.

“Mas o menos.” he replied, shrugging his shoulders.

We slipped into the water. As instructed, I gripped my guide’s wrist. It was important, he said, that we appear as one in front of the whale, so as not to frighten it. The water was clear and I could see the sandy ocean floor about thirty feet below. A massive black mass passed below me. I froze. And the guide pulled me along to swim farther away from the boat toward the deeper water.

“Remember, in the water, you are the tourist.” he had advised on shore.

I couldn’t see the bottom anymore. My guide’s finger flashed before my mask. I turned. A right whale hovered just a few feet away. It was eyeing us. The ocean floor felt as though it dropped and pulled my chest down with it.

At first, the whale was an indistinguishable grey form in the bluish water. It was immense, and perfectly stationary. I felt as though I was floating next to a massive hull, one that you could sink under and not escape from. I looked for its mouth, but wasn’t sure where to start. I knew that right whales don’t have teeth. But their baleen plates, which hang like Venetian blinds inside their mouth, are scary enough even if, as I learned later, these whales couldn’t swallow an orange.
Between splotches of white and sandstone callosities, I followed a faint line that dropped down from the top of the head toward the flipper.

Then I found her eye. It was much smaller than I expected. No bigger than a fist. I tried to empty my thoughts and find the center of it, as if I could somehow detect what she was thinking or what was coming next by gazing into it. But all I could see was her watching me, like she expected me to contribute something. I couldn’t. And the ocean felt limitless.

That’s when an explosion of bubbles erupted, disorienting us, until the water became clear enough for me to see the schoolteacher’s fear – and the whale looking back at me with her other eye. The whale had turned herself around, as if needing to confirm what she saw. Her fluke had passed right in front of us. I spent a week watching how those powerful tails could launch and balance their immense bodies above the sea. Easily, she could have swatted us all like flies.

We held still. I lifted my head so that my mask was half out of the water. The difference between how the whale appeared above and below the water line seemed like an optical illusion. Like an iceberg, the true depth of a whale can’t be seen from above.

We sank deeper. I held my breath. The guide’s arm felt as stiff as my own. The right whale inched toward us. I could reach out and touch her. “Don’t touch the whales.” I remembered the guide had told me. I didn’t move. Then the guide grabbed my wrist and furiously, we began swimming backwards.

This only encouraged her more.

She followed us slowly. The top of her head bumped lightly against our flippers as our hands splashed wildly. Just when I thought she would swim through and crush us, she submerged instead. We looked for her under the water and then checked back at the surface. We caught sight of her tail off in the distance and the ridge of her back sliding up and down into the swells.

We thought she’d passed us by. Then, surprisingly, she surfaced directly in front of us and pushed gently onward. We scrambled backward, each time more clumsily than before. I was nervous about the small patch of callosities on her head. They looked sharp and came closer to us with each turn. At one point, she pushed aside our flippers. Her head stopped at our chests.

The schoolteacher had had enough. Not to mention we had drifted quite a ways from the boat. Still linked together, we swam back. While the schoolteacher climbed onboard I clung to the side of the boat to catch my breath. The whale was gone.

The teacher caught her breath and lit a cigarette while I put on my mask to see what our guide was doing below. I found him standing on the sandy bottom not far from the boat waving his hands in an upward motion to fight the buoyancy of his wet suit. I was amazed at how long he could hold his breath. I swam until I was almost above him. Then it occurred to me that he might be encouraging the whale to return.

As soon as the guide saw me, so did the whale. The guide surfaced and offered his wrist to me. The chase resumed. We began to drift further and further from the boat. The whale nosed up again and again, each time closer than before, forcing us to flail backwards. If we fumbled, she stopped her advances and waited. Other times, she submerged beneath us and I could feel my flippers pushing water over her back as I struggled to stay parallel above her.

I waited for the tail, but it never came. Instead, she popped up behind us and blew her spout so hard it felt as though the ocean would crack like ice. Her spray fell down around us like warm rain.

Twenty minutes into round two of this exchange, the captain called us back to the boat. He seemed nervous, but we were too distant to understand what he was saying. I looked around the water for something more ominous. The ocean seemed suddenly deep.

The guide and I swam back as quickly as we could, my flippers trailing me uselessly. The whale didn’t follow us. She seemed to know that it was time-out.

Back at the boat, the captain said there were some trekkers on the desolate beach with cameras. He didn’t want to take any chances. The guide was still in a frenzy of excitement as he climbed into the boat. It’s rare that they ever come that close, he said, between breaths.

On our bumpy ride back along the coastline, the whale’s size appeared to grow from that of a standard tour bus to a double-decker. The captain relaxed and his smile returned. The teacher laughed between puffs of smoke as the guide mimicked the whale’s eye peering at us. I wondered what the whale was thinking, if anything in her had changed, or if we mattered to her at all.

Back at the port, the tractors growled up and down the beach. Ships pregnant with tourists bobbed out to sea. The outdoor café was filling up. It must have been noon. A young boy let go of a wide-brimmed hat. It spun in the wind and across the sand. A man chased after it into the tide. The day had not changed at all. We anchored the boat and the guide carried the captain, piggyback style, above the surf to the shore.

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