Eye of the Whale
by Aaron Peterson
The men knew they had reached their destination when the sun wouldn’t stop shining.
It was a typical December summer, and in December the sun never sets on the ice at the bottom of the globe. Instead, the world becomes gripped by a harsh, eternal twilight where neither the sun nor the stares have full control, but are forced by some cosmic justice to share the sky. The land itself is Old Man Winter’s last, greatest stronghold, white and desolate, an illusion of purity that harbors only cold, bitterness and death. It is the seas where the life flourishes. Beneath the bare, iceberg-ridden, storm-tossed surface lies hidden a bountiful garden of plankton, multitudes upon multitudes of microscopic plants and animal which make a feast for krill, minute shrimp that come in numbers so vast the sea turns pink. Herring, anchovy and cod feed on the krill, and in turn bring leopard seals and penguins to feed off of them. And then finally there are the whales. Fin whales, sperm whales, minke whales, and the blue whales, at one hundred and fifty tons the largest animal that ever lived upon this earth. It was the lure of the whales that brought the humans.
For most of the voyage, Danny Wilder wished–fervently–that the sun would just disappear behind the horizon so he could finally get some real sleep, if sleep was even possible aboard the Molly Brown. The antique piece of junk had never seemed seaworthy, and Danny credited it more to luck than the skill of the crew that they made it this far. Now, as the boat chugged doggedly through the frozen sea, Danny stood proudly at the bow, digital camera hanging precariously from his neck, nose and ears numb to the cold, clutching his yellow raincoat closer in anticipation. The whales were here. He had already spotted several, including a mother with her calf, and seeing them up close dispelled any doubts as to what he was doing here. He was on a mission to stop the wholesale slaughter of these magnificent beings. Standing at the bowsprint of the Molly Brown, he had justice on his side, and he was excited.
Danny had joined this mission as a chance to see the world. He wanted liberation from the stifling authority and civility of the college environment. There was a real world beyond that, and he jumped at the chance to spend a semester at sea. Sea had a slightly different feel back home, though. As the little boat plowed through the frigid water, any glamour was gone, and he found himself on a boat surrounded by fringe scientists and radicals. There were the whales, though. The absolute will to save these beautiful, remarkable animals from untold slaughter at the hands of foreigners was enough to keep him going. The water was rough that day, and the clouds perched on the horizon were black and threatened a heavy storm. Blacker still was the watery depths above which the Molly Brown bobbed, a frail shell that was all that kept them from the terrible majesty of the elements.
“We got her.” The captain said emphatically without moving his eyeballs from the radar screen. The projection showed another ship, three times the size of the Molly Brown. She was the Yokohama, flagship for the Japanese whaling fleet. The fleet had broke with the international moratorium on whaling, and planned a harvest of several hundred whales. Though it seemed too abstract a month before, the idea of all that slaughter tied a knot in Danny’s throat.
The Molly Brown was closing in on the Yokohama. From a distance, the Japanese whaling ship looked almost innocent. Danny knew better. He knew that on that boat were men who toiled day and night readying harpoons, guns, cranes and colossal saw blades for cutting away chunks of blubber and flesh. The boat carried a reddish brown paint job, to mask the layers of caked blood.
The plan was simply to drive the ship out of the hunting grounds. There was shaky legal ground here, but no violence would be used, under any circumstances. No one would even have to leave the ship.
Danny’s concentration broke as someone yelled, “Thar she blows!” The Yokohama was engaged with a whale, a truly awesome creature. Danny grabbed for binoculars. Men stood at the edge of the ship, throwing spears and shooting at the beast, for the harpoons had not pierced its thick hide. The leviathan shook with fury, thrashing and bellowing great whale bellows, a haunting, penetrating sound that stays in your ears, vibrating inside your head long after its maker is gone. Every time the whale thrashed, the whole ship shook. Danny watched with baited breath. Suddenly, the harpoon lines broke, and the whale tore free, and dove, down, down into the darkest depths where no human could ever hope to follow it.
Out of the corner of his eye, the young man in the yellow raincoat saw something else. A man who was operating the harpoon was thrown, thrown in an arch high into the air, and was noiselessly swallowed by the fearsome waves and angry storm.
Danny reacted instinctively. The Yokohama would need time to prepare its lifeboats and send out a search team; the Molly Brown’s boats were already prepared, in case the situation called for it. He acted without thinking, like an animal who guards its young, as he pulled himself into the inflatable raft, and lowered himself down, into the raging waters.
“Did that flaming idiot kid just do what I think he did?”
“Yeah. He just took the boat, and plunged himself into the water.”
“That’s a rubber raft. It’s never gonna hold in a sea like this. He shoulda left the guy alone.”
“Do you see him?”
“No. Just the water.”
The yellow lifeboat bobbed wildly up and down, tossed by the waves, and the sky took its vengeance out on Danny, pummeling him with torrents of raw liquid, pinning him to the floor of the boat and causing him to bail like a madman to keep from going down. After what seemed an eternity, but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, the clouds had lifted, enough to see the faint, unreal twilight, where the sun surrenders its power but never truly leaves, staying on the edge of the horizon at all times.
At first he didn’t realize that the lump floating a few yards away was a person. So when the lump raised an arm out of the water and waved it at him, he couldn’t believe his senses. The man had been at the mercy of the Antarctic Ocean. He should be dead. Yet when Danny pulled the raft along side him, and hauled him aboard, he looked cold and shaken, but breathing clearly. Danny looked at the man he had just pulled from the frozen sea. He was a young man, only a few years older than Danny himself. Despite being freezing, Danny gave the Japanese whaler his rain jacket, which the man folded around his quivering shoulders.
They sat in silence for several minutes, while they both caught their breath. The young whaler spoke first, in very fast Japanese. Danny shook his head. He tried to talk back to him, but quickly realized that the man did not speak English, and Danny spoke not a word of Japanese. Then the young man made an unmistakable gesture of thanks. Danny decided to try again. Pointing to himself, he said, “Hello. My. Name. Is. Danny. What. Is. Your. Name.” Still shaking slightly from the cold, the man pointed to himself. “Ichima.” He said it slowly, but loud enough for Danny to hear him. “Yokohama.” “Yeah. Yeah, you’re from the Yokahama.” Danny thought about the boat, and figured it must have left Ichima for dead. He didn’t express this, however.
Instead, he asked him something unexpected. “Why, do you kill them? The whales I mean.” The young man stared back uncomprehendingly. “Why,” he asked, pantomiming a shrug, “do you,” he pointed, “kill,” – he mimed a gun, “whales?” He moved his arm through the air, trying to mimic a whale. Much to his surprise, Ichima laughed. He reached down to his trousers, which were entirely soaked through, and pulled out the lining of his pocket. It was empty. “Oh. Money. For your family?” He rocked an imaginary baby in his arms. Ichima nodded. It was weird. Danny had never imagined talking to one of the whalers before. They were the enemy. Suddenly, things were a lot more complicated. He asked more questions, but found they had just about reached the limits of their conversational abilities. The two men were slumped in the life raft, freezing cold, unsure of rescue, numb to hope, when something amazing happened.
The water in front of the raft shifted. It poured down away from the surface like a fountain, and a great, grey-blue head emerged from the water. A colossal plume of spray showered the gaping castaways. They stared at the whale. The whale returned the gaze with huge, old eyes that hinted at some unseen, ancient intelligence. Gazing into that black abyss, Danny saw through the creature’s head into its mind, into its memories. He saw migrations of thousands of miles, the endless ocean spread before him. He saw continents that he had never seen before, distant shorelines, a lagoon that he came back to every year. He saw other whales, member of his pod and other pods, and he heard their language, a kind of strange music, underwater hums and hymns, with an eerily beautiful quality to it. He saw encounters with boats, and those strange animals called humans, so small and yet so dangerous. And as he kept up the connection, he saw farther back in time, beyond even this whale’s own lifetime and into a deeper collective memory. A memory of a dog-like animal who decided to leave the dust and dry of the land and explore the sea, where over countless generations he grew to this great size. He saw more boats, more human-animals, and more death. He saw confusion over why this need to kill, to take endlessly until there is nothing left to take. But in his bottomless black eyes he also saw understanding, a shared understanding that cut through the millennia and explained things beyond what Danny had ever dared to fathom.
In an instant the whale dove back under the water, and disappeared from sight. A few minutes later the Molly Brown pulled up along side the life raft. Danny and Ichima were carried to safety, and Ichima was returned to his own boat - enemy or not, they couldn’t very well take someone hostage. But as the Yokahama pulled out, perhaps to return to calmer waters, Danny stared out at the open water, a mirror reflection of the twilight sky. He wondered about Ichima, if he was going back to his family and what he would tell them about the whale, if he felt the same way he did. He hoped so. His gaze returned to the sweeping Southern Sky. The sun and the stars managed to share this subtle, mysterious, beautiful world. Why is it so hard for us to do the same?