Solstice and the Whale

…Though we wear false skin, we will move / with the living animal, / immersed in its element, spy on / its vast migration — the whale carries / all it has and knows with it. / We will learn its way to swim.

The road north. Follow it. Sing. / Fall in a new trajectory: / every leaf, a frog / every crow, a fisherman / each child, a creature shedding skin.

Prepare for the whale, / the secrets of the body / how to carry place with you / in times of migration.

–Esta Spalding, excerpt from “North,” Carrying Place

Humpback breaching on the solstice -- photo by David A Brenner

There is something special about the summer solstice in Alaska. Maybe it’s because the light that day lasts for a whooping 22 hours or maybe it’s because the whole coastal town seems to be wishing you a “happy solstice.” Either way, it is a great day to celebrate life.

I think the whales knew this too.

That morning (June 21st), I took an 8am boat from Seward to go sea kayaking for the day by Aialik Glacier. There is little that can revile the awesome presence of a glacier (more on that soon) but our two-hour journey past Resurrection Bay gave it a good challenge.

Everything was out that morning — sea otters floating, sea lions groaning, Dall’s porpoises cruising, bald eagles diving. The world could not have been more awake.

We had barely made it out of the bay when we saw the spray from a blow hole and a very long wait to the dorsal fin (think: one-one thousand to five-one thousand). Fin whale. Second longest whale in the world. It stayed at the surface for awhile until the high arch of its tail signaled a deep dive (fun fact: dives can last 15min and close to 1000ft).

There were more fin whales waiting for us out at sea, including a calf. Then we found the humpbacks — a whole pod lazying about on the top of the water like house cats stretching their bodies in the sun. One would dreamily roll on its back and slap its pectoral fins together, then repeat; each time, its speckled white underbelly shining in the sun. The word that comes to mind most is play. This thirty-ton-plus mammal plays.

I was mesmerized. And then I saw it fly. It disappeared for a moment and then, out of the calm sea, it sprang — eyes, nose, fins, tail. It held itself in the air — almost like it was deciding whether to go further up  — and then slapped its body back down on the water. I saw it breached not once but five times. And every time felt more unbelievable.

I am generally pretty hesitant to place human emotions on animal behavior but I like to think that that humpback felt joy. Joy to be in that sun. Joy to be in that water. Joy to jump, like a child on a hill, to see if it can fly.

There is much to learn from the whale. There is much to learn from everything in our world. From the smallest speck to the big shows of strength, nature is truly awesome. It is harsh. It is joyful. It is life. And that day, the whale showed me how to celebrate it right.

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