In the harbor, moon jellies pushed their smocks through the tide as the steady barking of sea lions tickled the gulls into frenzied screams. On the Bay today at the edge of the Monterrey Canyon, three humpbacks: two adults and one calf fed in the deep. We spotted dorsal fins and spouts; the vessel (Monterrey Bay Whale Watch) glided near. We assume that since there is a juvenile less than eight months old closely dive feeding with an adult that this is mother and calf. An escort abides the sardine filled waters too.
A behavior I have never seen: side lunge feeding. There were chin slaps perhaps to ward off sea lions and tail slaps for maybe the same. The Bay was choppy with a thick film of fog obscuring the coast. So much so that it felt like we were at open sea.
The naturalist started to tell of the altruistic nature of the humpback. Humpbacks have been known to intervene when orcas hunt not only other humpbacks’ young but also the calves of grey whales and sea lions—choosing to protect those vulnerable to orca attack. There was even the article from the BBC in January of 2018 of the humpback pushing the human diver away from a shark that was in the nearby swath of ocean.
But is this true altruism? Is that not a crossing of Umwelten cables? The impulse is to ascribe something human to the whale: the idea of compassion––that the whale does not want other prey species for the transient mammal-eating orca from the grief of losing their own young. To ascribe meaning in human paradigms and Umwelten is anthropocentric and belittling but there is no way outside of relativism that I can think to make sense of this.
I see deep into myself, then, with each humpback eye that finds me mid-breach.
The naturalist says that the portion of the brain pertaining to “emotions” is far more developed in Orca physiology than human—the implication is that the orca can feel more than the human can imagine, that as important as social organization is for us, imagine it for beings already in possession of senses that we do not have words for other than the clumsy:
On the way back to shore a small pod of Risso’s dolphins swam in a line. Each adult can grow to one thousand pounds, the biggest dolphin in the Bay. I have been hoping to spot their mottled backs.
Imagine: the method humankind employed to first sight whales is the same method used today.
With relaxed eyes to avoid tunnel vision scan the horizon for plumes of mist that shoot into the sky at least fifteen feet. A ghost tree. The arteries of lungs reaching tendrils and fingers of fog into the atmosphere.
We are connected by breath and story we have been telling for over one thousand years.
It was breath today that brought tell of the same mother and calf pair we spotted a couple of days ago, a breach, a chin slap, lunge feeding, where the humpback dives deep and corrals anchovies against the surface of the ocean and how with open mouths they extend the ventral pleats of their throats and the silver bodies skitter into the sky, bouncing off of whale rostrums into throats full of water the whale uses its tongue to expel. What fish were frenzied, catch in the baleen plated hanging from the roof of the whale’s mouth. They swallow live bodies of fish in their throats no bigger than an orange.
Imagine the great creature could mouth an entire human but fail at swallowing us, choking on an arm—throats too small? A diver off of Cape Cod was trapped in a humpback’s mouth and expelled with few bruises. He was making his final peace before the eternal silence swallowed him. He would have frowned as the whale dove with him—but that did not happen, nor was the whale’s intention malicious—so they claim.
What Do You Want from the Ocean When She Can Eat You Whole
Poet, memoirist, and translator, Rajiv Mohabir is the author of four books of poetry including Whale Aria (Four Way Books 2023), Cutlish (Four Way Books 2021) which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and recipient of the Eric Hoffer Medal Provocateur. His poetry and nonfiction have been finalists for the 2022 PEN/America Open Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award in Poetry and in Nonfiction, the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, and both second place and finalist for the Guyana Prize for Literature in 2022 (poetry and memoir respectively). His translations have won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2020. He is an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Colorado Boulder.