North Carolina coast with dunes

Whale Watcher

By John Colman Wood

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Finalist : Terrain.org 10th Annual Contest in Fiction

On the morning of the second day, Bob saw a whale and her calf about a mile off shore. He might have missed them. But a line of pelicans had been cruising past just above the water like they do, and he was watching them with binoculars when he saw the dark curve of the whale’s back, and then, a moment later, the smaller curve of the smaller whale. The sight thrilled him. He’d seen plenty of porpoises, small pods of four and five patrolling for fish or playing in the water. But he’d never seen a whale.

He longed for the sight of any wild creature. He once saw a turtle while kayaking in the estuary behind the island. Just the head and the tip of its back. It was the highlight of his year. The turtle was swimming in dark, swampy tidal water. He thought it was a leatherback because of its extraordinary size and because it was that time of year. Earlier that week he’d seen a nesting turtle’s tracks in the sand. He’d have loved to see one scramble up the beach. He knew people who had watched turtles lay their eggs. Every year he walked the beach at dusk and dawn, but he’d never managed to see one.     

Wildness was, in fact, what he came clear across the state to see. It wasn’t as plentiful as it used to be. The national parks pretended to be wild, but their trails and shelters and camping grounds turned them into suburbs. The sea, however, could not be managed. Not like a forest. There were no trails in water, no parking lots. There were marinas, of course, the Intracoastal Waterway, and the cottages that rimmed the shore like flotsam. The fish were probably nothing like they’d been. Surely there were fewer. The birds, too. And the shorelines, and all the beach combers. But if he looked out at the sea, at the water itself, especially in the early morning, when there were no boats, or swimmers, or fisherman in the sand, he saw what the original people, the first humans, must have seen. The sea had always looked that way. Where else could you see that? That’s what thrilled him. It was the water, the unending expanse of it, that drew his attention. What hadn’t changed was the play of the surface, the ripple of wind on water, the rolling waves and crests, hurling white caps over themselves like a bathing woman flipping her long wet hair over her head and showering the air. If his gaze was right, and the sun, the spray made a rainbow.

So when he saw the whale and her calf he felt he’d seen Eden itself. The rest of the day he scanned the water for another. Many times he thought he saw one, but it was only a rolling wave. That evening he drove to the seafood store and bought a whole pound of shrimp as a treat for himself. The shrimp were as near to krill, the food of whales, as he could think. He peeled them and fried them in butter and garlic and dusted them afterwards with sea salt and smoked paprika.

He rose early, wanting to see dawn and to experience the place before the beachcombers and fishermen arrived. It’s not that he minded them, but he liked to have the shore to himself for an hour or so as night turned to day. It was another thing he appreciated about the view of the ocean, the way sky transitioned into sea such that sometimes, in certain weather, he could not tell exactly where one left off and the other started. It was the same with sound. The surf sounded like wind in his ears, and wind sounded like waves. He felt he’d discovered where east and west actually met. Early in the morning he alone was their witness. Birds swam in air, fish flew in water, and early on, until full light, he was the only one to see.

One thing he enjoyed about vacation was not watching the clock. He was a lawyer, a shark for developers who were transforming his sleepy little mountain town into a green Mecca for moneyed pilgrims. He charged by the hour. But as a way to improve his chances of seeing a whale again, the next morning he tried setting himself a schedule to scan the waves with binoculars. Every 15 minutes for three hours in the morning, and again for an hour toward sunset. He disliked having a schedule, but he disliked the thought of missing whales more. He didn’t set a timer; he just wore a watch, and because there was no timer to remind him, he checked his wrist every couple of minutes and found himself obsessed by time. After a day of that, he backed off the clock and just made himself sit in a chair in the sand and scan the sea frequently. Haphazard, he told himself. But that didn’t make a sighting any less likely. Whales weren’t exactly clockwise.

After scanning for whales, he took a midday walk. He watched the sanderlings skitter beside him where the waves ran into the sand. Their little legs scurried so fast he could hardly see them, just the round white feather balls. They weaved among themselves ahead of him as he walked, and when they tired of that, or feared him, they took to their swallow wings and glided around behind. Small as they were, they were as constant a presence as the waves.

He watched a pair of terns. He thought they were squabbling. Royal terns. Unruly black feathers spiked back from their otherwise graceful white heads. Their bills were red. Otherwise they were white. Sleek and firm. Agile in flight as falcons. One of them today had something in its beak. A minnow. The other cried and gave chase. They tumbled acrobatically in the air over the sand, one crying, the other, bait in mouth, leading. Then they swooped to the sand.

A large herring gull flew in perilously close to the pair. They took flight. The one without the fish harassed the gull that had harassed its partner. It seemed to be providing cover, or at least distraction. Maybe they hadn’t been squabbling after all. The second drama prompted him to reinterpret the first and wonder whether what they’d been doing before was a sort of courtship ritual or play. The terns had functioned from the beginning, squabble or no, as a pair, and they did seem to cooperate against the gull. It made him wonder. There was more than sex to pair-bonding. He felt the lack of such close collaboration in his own life, and he felt inferior to the terns.  

An osprey soared by on its morning rounds. Often he’d watched osprey work the section of water in front of the cottage, and twice that week come up with some long and slender fish. The osprey held it in the talons of both feet, one in front of the other, so its length aligned aerodynamically with the bird. He thought he noticed the talons kneading the fish to kill it. Those osprey had flown inland then, to whatever roost they had in mind for eating. It was too late in the year for young. The osprey above him now had not caught its food yet and continued to follow the water near the shore.

The next day the sea was calm. He’d seen no whales the day before, and no porpoises, and he was glad, because there had been fishing boats speeding up and down all day, and he worried for the whales when he saw the boats. He supposed the whales would steer clear. He didn’t know, but he thought so. They were supposed to be smart. Some believed they were smarter than humans. He imagined that was true.

He sat in a wooden chair on the front porch. The ocean rose and fell, as if it were breathing, and the sun lay on the water like mercury. Birds, pelicans mostly, patrolled the air above the surface scouting for food. The calm water made it easier to make whale scans. There were fewer false positives. A boat with an awning over the wheel trolled by, fishing, he supposed for striped bass or drum, or maybe just to pick up bait for deeper water. He ignored the boat. He caught himself napping. The easy rollers and the quiet surf lulled him to sleep.

He awoke to the whisper of a bee. It must have been attracted by the sweetness of the tea on the table. There were flowers among the dune grasses below his cottage; he’d noticed bees working them. On calm days, he heard them. In a breeze, he heard the grasses shimmering.

He went inside and poured himself another mug of tea, adding a spoonful of honey. When he re-emerged, he saw, far out, the snaking back of a whale, three quarters of the way to the horizon—at least a mile or two. He hurried to his binoculars on the porch rail. By the time he lifted them to his eyes and adjusted the focus, there was only steely water to look at. He watched and watched and regretted that the binoculars, though they increased his vision, narrowed the scope and made it difficult to see outside the circle of focus. He did not see the whale again. Still, he was thrilled by this second brief glimpse. After years watching for them, two sightings in less than a week. He hoped there would be more. He was no longer sleepy, and he’d barely tasted his tea.

Late in the morning, he swam. He was alone, no one watching, and while he felt he was a friend of the sea, he wasn’t sure the feeling was mutual. He didn’t wander far off shore. He liked to be out beyond the breakers, where swimming was easier. He enjoyed the gentle rise and fall of the incoming waves, the weightlessness of his body in water. He was a strong swimmer, not especially fast. Steady. He’d swum competitively in school but not since. Nearing retirement, with hair like steel wool, and weather cracks at his mouth and eyes, and long body fit for its age but thicker and softer in the middle than he liked, he swam for pleasure now, but also with desperate determination.

He wondered, as he often did as he swam in the ocean, if any porpoises were nearby, and if they would sense any kinship with him, if they would feel the connection to him that he felt to them. He wondered if they would approach, try to greet, and how he would know. How would he respond if they did? They would probably scare the bejesus out of him. He wondered whether they might even be unfriendly, whether they might ram him the way they rammed threatening sharks. It would be understandable. All the evidence suggested that his species was their enemy. If he saw a shark it would never occur to him to wonder whether that shark, of all sharks, might be sympathetic. Porpoises were large and so much stronger, so much faster. He wouldn’t stand a chance.

How had that happened? He’d started out feeling kinship and connection, then hostility, and it was all in his head. He hadn’t seen a porpoise. There was probably none around. He was getting worked up about something that was not going to happen. Even if they were nearby, they’d ignore him. All this streamed through his head as he stroked back and forth along the shore, face down in the yellow-brown water, seeing blurry shapes and shadows that he tried hard not to think about. Perhaps fish or jellyfish. There were all sorts of ways to make contact with wild things in the sea, all sorts of ways the wild was just there beside him, outside his reach.

In the evening he poured himself a glass of whiskey. He allowed himself the one. He sat alone on the porch and watched the green sea turn to gold with sunset and then to gray. The whiskey drew him close, the way a lover might were they arm in arm.


Next morning after the whale watch he swam again. He tried to spend at least half an hour in the water every day, sometimes, if the sea was rough, pounding waves, other times rising and falling easily in the rollers. He could not see much, despite the goggles. He had the idea that he was nuzzling the waves, entering them as a lover perhaps, or the way an infant snuggled close to its mother’s breast. It was never deep enough. The surface held him off, trapped him in its meniscus. His arms dug into the water in front of him and pulled through, and he could feel his body glide across the water. The greasy ease of it pleased him. He enjoyed listening to the sound of the water in his ears. Sometimes he thought he also heard the low moan of a whale call. But he knew that, unlike the sound of water, the moan was in his imagination.

He swam farther today, following the sand on his right, watching house after house slip past as he turned his head for air. It was hard to keep a straight line. Every 20 or 30 strokes, the waves, small as they were, pushed him toward the beach. Sometimes he drifted in too close.

He hadn’t thought about the surfcasters. Usually he swam when they weren’t fishing yet. He’d been so enthusiastic about the calm water today that he just kept going. Fishermen arranged themselves about a hundred yards apart. Sentinels with rods, they guarded the beach, especially on weekends. When they were out he made a point to swim between them, or far enough off shore to avoid their lines. He thought maybe they thought he was a nuisance. He also thought maybe he drove the fish toward the fishermen, like a beater drives birds to shooters. He knew it didn’t work like that with fish. He doubted they’d take bait if alarmed. What did fish make of him, he thought, galumphing across the water? Anyway, he didn’t really give a damn about fishermen. He hadn’t given any of this a thought today and wasn’t paying attention to who was on the beach.

He felt a painful thud on his right side and then the tremble of something else across his back. He thought at first he’d been shot. He had no idea what it felt like to be shot, but the idea came to him like that. The pain was hard and pointed. When the hook grabbed him, he knew it was more complex. He still didn’t know what it was. Ideas flashed in his mind in the moment it took to stop swimming and lift his head. Shark? Man-o-war? As soon as he lifted his head, he felt the piercing scream of a hook tear at his left side, or it was the tear that produced a scream. They came together. He could not distinguish between them.

He figured out later that the shot on his right had been the large lead sinker, shaped like a pyramid, and what flipped across his back was the leader and hook. He knew he’d been caught. He looked toward the beach. The fisherman panicked, tried to reel in the line, but when he heard the scream, he let it out.

The swimmer discovered that he could touch bottom with his feet. He found the line and held it to protect himself from the fisherman pulling on it again. He tried once to reach around and free himself from the hook, but the hook was set deep and he couldn’t see it, and his lame attempts produced only more pain and probably sank the hook even deeper into his flesh.

The fisherman, meanwhile, was wading into the water toward him. The swimmer walked toward the beach through the waist-high water.

“What the fuck?!” he said. It just came out.

“I’m sorry,” the fisherman said. “I’m really really sorry. Are you okay?” He looked like he was going to be sick. Then he began to babble, like talking would help. “I saw you coming and I thought I could cast the line out beyond you, that you’d just keep swimming through—”

“Help me get this out,” the swimmer interrupted. “You’ve really caught me.”

“I didn’t think I’d actually hooked you,” the fisherman said. He studied the hook buried in the swimmer’s side, the muscle below the armpit, latissimus dorsi. “I just thought I’d try to pull the line out of your way. I’m not used to swimmers. No one swims here, or if they do they just wade around.” He stopped himself. “I don’t know how to get this sucker out. I’ve only ever done this with fish.”

“Let’s get up on dry land,” the swimmer said. “I’d just as soon you do it right.”

The fisherman was a skinny young man in Bermuda shorts and sweatshirt the color of concrete and whatever dross was behind the seat of his truck. His face was stubbled like he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days. Maybe he was on vacation, too. There was a big raspberry birth splotch rising up one side of his neck along the jaw line. His breath smelled of cigarettes. The swimmer put all that together later. At the time he was trying hard to see a part of his own body his neck wasn’t designed to let him see.

“I’m sorry,” the fisherman kept saying. “I never meant to hook you. You were just swimming and I was just fishing. I couldn’t believe you’d swim in front of me like that. I thought I could pitch the line over the top of you. I thought you were scaring the fish. They weren’t biting. I’m really really sorry.”

“Just concentrate on the hook.”

“I will. I will. Just I’m not sure how. Actually, I know how, but I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”


“The hook has a barb. It won’t come out the way it went in. With a fish the thing to do is push it through. That’ll mean making a new hole with the point and pulling the rest of the hook on through.”

“Just do it.”

The swimmer was beginning to wonder whether he ought to drive himself to the ER and have them pull the hook out. But he couldn’t imagine it was such a big deal. He’d seen fishing hooks. They were little things.

The fisherman fetched a pair of pliers from his tackle box, clipped the line away from the hook, and after warning the swimmer that this would hurt, grabbed the eye and pushed it through.

The swimmer shouted.

The fisherman stopped.

“Don’t stop. Do it quick.” He almost fainted.

The fisherman was tentative. It took a couple of tries and more force than he’d thought. The hook had to be pushed through both skin and meat.

There were tears in both their eyes when next they looked at each other.

“Do you want to come up to my place to let me dress that?” The fisherman asked. “Put some disinfectant on it at least? A bandage? Something?”

“No, thanks,” he said. All he wanted was to get away, to get home. He waded back into the water and began swimming home the way he’d come. He didn’t have far to go, just a quarter mile or so, but he was vain. He didn’t want to walk away like a wounded soldier, naked in his Speedo, for all to see. He thought, probably foolishly, that the salt water would be good for the wound.

He dabbed iodine on with a wad of toilet paper. The two holes, one more of a tear, weren’t large. He covered them with a couple of bandages. It took two because the strips were small. He poured himself a dribble of whiskey because that’s the sort of thing they did in books and movies, what men did, and he spent the afternoon thinking of himself as the fish that got away. It amused him now that it was over. He went to the grocery store and bought some hamburger.  He was off fish for a while.

He’d heard people talk about the veil between one life and another. He didn’t believe in an afterlife, at least not like what most people imagined, retaining  memories, their separate ongoing selves. But he liked the image of a veil, a translucent curtain between one form of life and another. He felt that way with other beings, other animals, including his own species. They had other lives, and for the most part they were beyond the veil, inscrutable. But now and then he caught a glimpse. He sensed that about the sea. The water’s surface was the veil between land life and aquatic life, and he was a prisoner of one side, though he was allowed briefly to penetrate the other. Merely as a visitor. As a swimmer he marveled at it, wished he could go deeper, see farther. He returned as often as he could. He was a tourist, seeing shadows, tasting salt, feeling the sting in his eyes. He wished he were fast, that he could swim with the porpoises and whales, even as he knew that contact would only ruin it. Surely they would flee. If nothing else, he’d spook the fish, their reason for being. No, there was no way for him to be, to really be, with porpoises and whales.

The day before he was to return to the city, he scanned the sea without expectation. He’d seen the whales. He contented himself with those brief glimpses. He’d seen the birds, too, Paleolithic shapes in the sand, a sudden storm with its pelting rain raising a mist. He was more than content. It had been, all and all, the best visit to the beach.

When he saw the black curve on the distant water, he didn’t believe his eyes. After days of mistaking waves for whales, he now mistook a whale for a wave. He studied the water and anticipated the next rise and then it came. And there was the calf. And he thought, what joy! His heart jumped. He pumped the air with his fist.

He felt the sudden need to swim toward the whales, to lessen the distance, if only a little, to share the water briefly with them. He was already wearing his suit. He grabbed goggles from the porch, running now into the waves, diving at last into the biggest one and stroking hand over hand forward into the oncoming hills. Before, he’d always turned at some point and swum along the shore, so as not to get too far out. But now there was the elation of potential contact. The only thing to do was to swim closer, like taking a step toward a sunset, and in that way to step into it.

He counted 50 strokes. He stopped and turned to confirm he was moving in the right direction. He looked out to sea and could see nothing but a hill of gray water, a roller that brought the horizon near. He rose and fell on the wave, and at the top he saw, or thought he saw, the whale again, and though it was out surely a mile or more, he thought it was not so far, that he would draw closer. The swimming, always an effort, seemed effortless, and he felt fast as ever. He was churning through water at a pace he’d never before achieved. The swimming took over. It became all important, as much an achievement as seeing the whale. More so.

He’d left the shore, entered the sea like never before, though he was still only maybe 200 yards from land. The water felt finer, deeper, greener, more original and profound than the whitecaps and shallows by the sand. He sensed the rollers and kept himself perpendicular to them, rose and fell with long strokes and steady kicks. He relaxed in the crawl, reaching forward, taking time, rolling to the opposite side with each stroke, feeling the joy in movement he’d always imagined porpoises felt. He knew he was not as fast, not as fluid. No matter. He felt he was experiencing something like what they must feel in their world, perhaps it wasn’t so much about speed or movement as it was contact with the water itself, feeling it spill evenly over his body, making use of it, not just with the pull of arms but with the turn of hips and the churning of feet. His shoulders cut the water each in turn, and his torso rolled to follow and then his legs. He’d never swum so well.

He stopped counting strokes. He swam and swam. Eventually he paused again, saw how far he’d come, then twisted to see toward the horizon, wondering where the whale and calf were. He did not see them. He treaded water. He spun around again. He thought he was half a mile from shore, maybe farther. He’d covered the distance quickly. He’d never been out this far, except on a boat or ferry. He wondered then what it would be like to swim beyond sight of land, to experience nothing but sea, and he thought that was surely unwise. But even now, in so many more directions, the sea was all that he could see.

John Colman WoodJohn Colman Wood teaches anthropology and ethnographic writing at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His novel, The Names of Things, was a finalist for the Chautauqua Literary Prize. He is also a beekeeper with a dozen hives. Bees gather nectar and pollen from plants in the region surrounding their hive; in that sense, honey expresses the flavor, or essence, of a place. “Whale Watcher” is part of a set of linked short stories called The Anthropology of Bees.

Header photo by Darwin Brandis, courtesy Shutterstock.

Culbin Sands

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