The soft evening sun lured me out of the house to enjoy the last day of daylight saving time. My wife and I drove to the public beach access at the point of Emerald Isle and walked over to the beach to try to get some photos of the black skimmers that had been congregating along Bogue Inlet. Once we reached the wide flat sand spit that meets the inlet, it was clear that the skimmers had found an alternative roosting site since none of them were in sight. Under a cloudless sky, we then decided to walk across the sand spit and then head east along the beach. Hundreds of horseshoe crab shell molts were scattered all over the beach and someone had created a horseshoe crab totem with dozens of the shells. With our imagination unable to decipher what the creator of the crab pile was trying to convey, we started walking east.
We didn’t get far when a modern day Paul Revere in a pickup truck pulled up and excitedly told us that three pilot whales were about two miles east down the beach, swimming just behind the breakers and heading our way. The crier’s excitement was contagious as he continued down the beach telling all the people that were fishing, walking, jogging or sitting along the beach. It wasn’t “the whales are coming, the whales are coming”, but it was pretty close. “In the fifty years that I have lived on this beach I have never seen this,” he exclaimed.
I quickly stowed my camera in my backpack and we began to quickly walk down the beach towards the whales. I soon realized that I was walking alone and turned back to let my wife catch up. “GO!” she said, and I went.
I took off in a sprint with my backpack jumping around and pounding into my back like a jack hammer. Way down the beach I saw a pickup truck moving slowly towards me and assumed that they were watching and keeping pace with the whales. As I ran I kept my eyes glued to the water just behind the breakers. After about ten minutes of running I began to close in on the truck and saw a number of dolphins swimming behind the surf.
Then, to my amazement, the whale exploded out of the ocean and fell over on its side with a tremendous splash.
It didn’t completely breach, but it did get about half of its body out of the water. Due to the size, I immediately knew that this was not a pilot whale but a humpback whale on its migration to southern breeding and calving grounds. This is the type of whale famous for its mysterious songs and vocalizations.
My excitement caused my digital dexterity to evaporate as I clumsily fumbled to get the camera out of the backpack. I waited for another breach that did not occur, but the whale did, however, continue to surface with a misty plume of exhaled air. This “spout” is actually water vapor that is expelled under great pressure at about 240 miles per hour and has a fishy smell.
It was obvious that the town crier had already informed everyone on this stretch of beach about the whale as people stood like the Easter Island statues staring out over the ocean in stunned, jaw-dropped silence. As the whale approached, some people were pointing as others were taking video or pictures with their phones. The calm sea made the viewing easy as every so often the whale would surface and “blow” before melting back into the sea. As the mammal began to get closer to the end of the island, the numerous sandbars near the inlet forced the whale to swim further offshore into deeper water. It moved out past the whistle buoy heading towards Bear Island and the exhale plume of its breathing soon became distant.The occupants of the escort truck turned out to be friends of ours and they invited me to ride on the tailgate as we kept pace with the whale. As we continued down the beach I made feeble attempts at anticipating where the whale would surface again to get a decent picture. I was only able to get a couple of blurry images of the “hump” as it slipped back under the water.
People that had never met now talked to each other like old friends about the magic that they had just witnessed. One rugged-looking old-timer that seemed indifferent to the whale sighting turned to me and started to speak. The judgmental side of my brain was already starting to make me cringe as I expected some type of negative comment. “Coolest thing that I have seen in my life”, he said, or something to that effect, as his words were laced with a salty tongue that doesn’t need repeating.
As we walked home, we talked about the excitement and joy that had infected everyone. It made me think that if anyone, regardless of political affiliation, economic status, age, race, religion or ethnic heritage, could see a whale in the wild that they too would be filled with this joy.
And this gives me a glimmer of hope, that as a society, we have the capacity to make a difference to protect and preserve our natural heritage that is more important to our spirit than we realize. It made me think that maybe we can overcome the somber story of the 1975 David Crosby and Graham Nash song, To The Last Whale, and that future generations will experience the joy of whales.
As we walked up our driveway, we both started laughing as we realized that the whale-induced intoxication caused both of us to forget that our car was still at the public access parking lot.