Boys and Water

Part 3

Humpback whale breaching

Whale Watching

I was standing at the stern railing, beside the companionway that led to the lower deck. Like many others on board, I had a very simple camera which I had gotten for my last birthday, and I was eager to take whale pictures.

I was at the stern because, as soon as whales had been spotted, everyone had rushed to the bow, and there were so many people there that I couldn’t get through them to see.

So, I stood at the stern. Had anybody asked me how old I was, I would have replied, “Six years, nine months, and eleven days. I don’t do hours or minutes yet.”

When I was in daycare, I had become interested in whales. Most of my friends were interested in dinosaurs, but whales became my passion. I looked at pictures of whales in books and asked someone in my family to read the words to me. That was the way I learned to read before I even went to school. By the time I was five I could read the books myself, sometimes needing a little help with a word or two.

I learned about different kinds of whales. I learned where they lived, how and what they ate, and how they acted. I learned about them having babies and guarding them at first. So, I was very eager to see whales, but until now my parents had told me I was too young. I secretly believed that their reason had more to do with my older siblings not caring at all about whales. At last, my parents gave in and one day in early August we drove to Provincetown and got on a whale watch boat.

Once the man on the microphone had stopped talking, we rode for a long way, at least it seemed long to me. I kept wondering where the whales were. At last, the boat slowed and that was when everyone moved toward the bow, leaving me at the stern.

If you’re wondering why I was standing alone, there were two reasons. First, I was the youngest of six children, and I knew my parents were keeping an eye on my brothers and sisters. Second, I’m a rule-follower. My parents knew that I always followed the rules. When we left the harbor in Provincetown, the man on the microphone had talked about the rules on board, which included no running, no standing on the seats, and never, never standing on the railings. So, I didn’t do any of those things. I just stood with my feet firmly planted on the deck.

Once a whale was spotted, when the boat turned the right way, I could briefly see the whale, but only briefly, because the whale was only on the surface for a few seconds. Even for that I was thrilled. My first whale.

I stood with my camera ready, eagerly awaiting a second view. That was when I heard a sound behind the boat. I turned and looked straight into the eye of a whale which was spy-hopping.

If you’re wondering what spy-hopping is, it’s when the whale stands vertically in the water with its head above the surface. As I watched, the whale seemed to be looking at me. Maybe it’s wondering who I am, I thought.

My heart began racing. A whale, right there close by, just it and me! He seemed to be staring at me, making my whole body tingle. I knew it was silly, but I waved at him and smiled. I was so absorbed in what was happening, I nearly forgot to take a picture.

Soon the whale disappeared. I guessed the man at the bow with the microphone hadn’t seen my whale because he was busy with one near the bow. I waited eagerly, hoping for another view of ‘my’ whale. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The whale surfaced on its side, floating parallel to the stern with a pectoral fin waving in the air. It was as though the whale was waving hello to me, just me. Usually, when whales do that, they slap their fin on the water before they turn, but my whale didn’t, so nobody knew it was there. I quickly took a couple of pictures.

After the whale turned and floated, it blew through its blowhole. The shape of that blow, as well as the color of the pectoral fin and the shape of the whale’s head all spoke to its being a humpback whale, my favorite.

The whale dove, and I was afraid that would be the last I’d see of it. But I waited patiently. I knew that the whale wasn’t there to entertain me but to eat.

It was about twenty-five minutes later that it surfaced again. It didn’t just float in the water, it breached, rising straight up in the air and hanging there for a moment before it fell to the water with a huge splash.

The splash alerted everyone on the boat and suddenly people were rushing toward the stern. Before they got there, the whale surfaced, blew, floated for a moment, and then dove, raising its flukes in the air. I got a picture of the bottom of the flukes which were almost solid black with just a tiny bit of white around the edges.

I knew that the pattern on each humpback whale’s flukes was different and that the whale could be identified by that pattern. The man with the microphone announced that the whale was named Midnight, and it had been around for a few years.

I sat down for a bit, very satisfied by what I had seen and hoping my pictures came out. Later, I stood again and got fleeting views of other whales near the bow or off to the side.

When the boat began to return to the harbor, my family came back to our seats and we ate lunch. I told them what I had seen and that my whale’s name was Midnight. They didn’t believe me, but I knew what had happened.

I asked my parents if I could adopt Midnight. Mom told me I could if that was how I wanted to spend my money.

I knew that adoption was possible as the people who research and sometimes save the whales used adoption money for their work. I understood I wouldn’t be the only person who adopted him, but I’d know that he was partly my whale.

At home I emptied my piggy bank, found that I had enough to do it, and sent in the money. Soon I received a document of adoption, information about Midnight, and a small stuffed animal which only barely looked like Midnight, but that was okay with me.

When my photos came back from being developed and printed, even though some were a little blurry they were clear enough that you could see the whale and what it was doing. I showed them to my family, and then they had to believe me.

I took the adoption papers to school and told my class about my trip. When I told them all I’d seen, I showed them the photos and even though there were a couple of skeptics, I didn’t care. Whether they believed me or not, I knew what had happened and that was all that mattered.


Boy paddling in kayak


When I turned eight, my dad took me kayaking for the first time. Mom was concerned that I wasn’t old enough, but he insisted I was, and we went.

At that time, he had a two-man kayak, and I was always in the front. Before we even got into the kayak, we put on our life vests and helmets and fastened them securely. We pushed out onto the water, and very quickly I learned to love it! We paddled on ponds for all that summer and the beginning of the next one before we moved to rivers. The rivers were not swift, and they had no white water.

From Dad I learned how to paddle so that I went in a straight line, how to turn quickly, how to back up, and what to do if my kayak turned over. The first time we flipped, we both landed in the water. He showed me how to hang onto the kayak, which wouldn’t sink, and how to turn the kayak back up and get into it again.

For my tenth birthday, my present was my first one-man kayak. Soon, Dad and I were out on the water, each in his own kayak. At first, he stayed very close to me, but as I grew in confidence and he could see I knew what to do, he began distancing himself.

I loved being out on the water. The kayak made virtually no sound as it moved forward, and I learned how to paddle without making even the tiniest splash. I could only hear the little ripples in the water. I became much more aware of my surroundings. I observed the slow currents in the rivers, how the river turned a corner so the water on the outside of the turn moved faster than the water on the inside. I watched for birds and other water life. Occasionally I saw turtles sunning themselves on logs. I watched cormorants as they dove for fish. I even saw a few otters floating so low in the water only their noses could be seen.

When I turned 12, Dad took me on more challenging rivers, ones that had some white water. First, he told me how to deal with the rocks which were causing the water to be white, how to observe where the water went through and how fast it moved.

One day, he said he thought I was ready to try a little white water on my own.

I paddled downstream, heading to the first rapids. I knew that Dad was right behind me. Sizing up the rocks as I approached, I found a way through them. I paddled towards the passage and the water carried me through quite quickly. Beyond the white water, the river returned to its steady current.

When Dad had also paddled through successfully, we went on to the next rapids. Again, I was able to maneuver my way through. But at the third rapids, I wasn’t as successful. There didn’t seem to be any passageways through, and I encountered the rocks before I was ready. The kayak flipped and I suddenly found myself in the water. The life jacket buoyed me up and prevented me from slamming on the rocks, but when I was below the rapids, I saw that my kayak was going on without me.

Aided by the current I swam quickly to the kayak, turned it right side up, emptying as much of the water from it as I could before climbing back in.

But then I had another challenge. The paddle had moved on also. Fortunately, Dad was there, and he retrieved it for me.

We decided that was enough for the day, so we pulled up to the shore, got out of our boats, and carried them onto dry land. Then we hiked back to the car and drove it to where we had left the kayaks.

On the way home, Dad asked if I had been scared. “Only when I realized I didn’t have my paddle,” I said.

“So you’ve learned that, if at all possible, hang onto your paddle. But there’s another lesson here as well, which is: ‘Never kayak alone’.”

As we continued to kayak, we took on more demanding rivers. Then, one day, Dad said we should try paddling in the ocean. For that we needed bigger, stronger kayaks, so we rented a two-person one.

Dad had kayaked on oceans before, and he showed me a few things to keep in mind as we went. It was great fun, but I think I preferred the serenity of rivers and lakes.

One day, when we were paddling separately on a river, the current began to move faster, and before I knew it, the river was emptying into the ocean. Not only was the current strong but there were cross- currents as well, and I found I couldn’t really manage or steer the kayak.

Suddenly, my kayak and I were in the ocean being battered by large waves. It didn’t take long before I overturned. I have to admit that I was scared because I felt I had no control over what was happening.

Of course, my life vest kept me afloat, but I was quickly separated from both my kayak and the paddle.

For a few seconds, I panicked. Then I said to myself, get hold of yourself. You’re safe for now. Give up the kayak and swim to shore.

By swimming sideways to the beach and slowly angling in, I managed to reach shore, though it was a struggle.

When I stood on the beach, I saw my dad in the distance, still in his kayak. He was towing mine toward shore.

He slowly pulled in and onto the beach.

“Well,” he said, “that was a little adventure, wasn’t it? Later we’ll think through what happened and how you can prevent it again, but for now we need to get you dry.”

I lay on the beach in the sun and even my clothes were soon dry.

“How are we gonna get back to the car?” I asked.

“I arranged with your mother to pick us up here,” he answered, smiling. The less you say to your mother about what happened, the better it will be for both of us.” He gave a conspiratorial grin and I grinned back.

When Mom arrived, the first thing she said was, “How did it go?”

“Great,” I answered. “I did tip over once but was able to recover safely and all is well.”

Looking behind her, I saw Dad, with the grin still on his face.