The Force of the Horse

A Journey of Love

written by R.T. Fitch, author of “Straight from the Horse’s Heart

We leave the ponies in the pasture, today, and travel half way around the world on another mission.  Feel free to wash your mind out with this.

It was a gorgeous summer afternoon off the Atlantic coast of Southern Africa.  The humid November wind was blowing up out of the south matching the aggressive current fed by the nearby mouth of the Congo River.  I inhaled deeply as I hung over the rail just underneath the helideck of the offshore production platform.  Not only was there a bite of salt in the air but far away the breeze had carried the aroma of the native Plumaria tree blossoms, a very special and exhilarating mix.

I was alone, waiting for my pilot to come up from the galley, but as I stood and gazed down into the gray waters a bell went off in my head telling me that this was one of those “life moments” and it was time to turn on the internal “memory recorder”.  The thought made me smile as I leisurely glanced to the east and due to the clear air, I could make out the tops of the jungle covered bluffs some 25 miles away onshore.  Regardless of the fact I was standing on a man-made production platform, it was beautiful.

My eyes fell back down to the semi-clear water of the sea and just below the surface I could see the amber flashing from the sides of a school of Mahi-Mahi swimming by.  They lit up the water as they glided and flipped and their arrival around the platform scared a few flying fish who quickly took to the air and darted away from the school of predators.  What a sight.

I heard a door slam behind and a heavily accented South African voice called out, “R you ready”.

“Aye”, I replied and flourished a quick salute as I spun around.

“Let’s make haste, then” smiled Mike, my pilot, as he nodded toward the helideck stairs.

“If we get a move on we might be able to grab a second lunch at ye ole camp Dining Hall before she shuts down for the day, you think?” he quipped.

Falling in behind him on the ascending stairway I answered, “Works for me, Captain”

We quickly approached the sleek and shiny Bell 427 Helicopter.  Mike began his exterior pre-flight checks while I advanced to the aft cargo door, opened it and threw my backpack inside.  Although the helicopter can carry 7 passengers and 1 pilot it was just Mike and myself, today, so I had the luxury of sitting in the co-pilot’s seat with a panoramic view out of the forward windscreen.

As I walked around the nose of the aircraft and opened the port forward door Mike tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me that he only had one set of wired headphones, on board, and that we could not chat while in the air.

“No worries”, I replied and deftly pulled the inflatable life vest over my head.

Once firmly strapped into our seats I put on my dumb/blank earphones and looked over at Mike.  He had finished all of his pre-flight checks and had his thumb on the button to light off the first turbine, he looked to me for verification and I gave him a thumbs up.  Three minutes later we were in the air.

We slowly ascended in a rotating spiral to port which gave me a continual bird’s eye view of the facility we had just left.  It looked so small, it appeared out of place and its diminishing size reminded me that we are only miniscule guests when we venture offshore to visit our mother that is the ocean.  I smiled at the thought and as we leveled off and took an easterly course I began to scan the sea’s surface for activity.

Often I have seen schools of dolphins, hundreds of them migrating down the coast.  Several times when we have been flying low I have been blessed with seeing a sea turtle or two and last hitch, in September I was able to see a distant pod of Humpbacked Whales making their annual spring migration to the south.  They were far off but several of them broached and took in life giving air as the mist from their exhalation steamed far above the sea’s surface, it was quite a sight.

But today I simply scanned the horizon ever alert for any other aircraft in the vicinity and occasionally my eyes would drop down to the ocean’s surface just 1,200 feet below.

It was about 10 minutes into the flight when I first spotted him; he was well ahead of us and heading south just a few points to port of our nose.  First I saw the disturbance in the wave pattern while the glare from the sun prevented me from seeing beneath the surface but then the telltale plum of mist confirmed my suspicions, there was a Humpbacked Whale about 3 miles ahead of us, heading south.

I tapped Mike on his shoulder and pointed ahead, just a few degrees to port from our dead center track and he nodded with a smile.  Immediately the vertical speed indicator began to climb as he nosed the chopper downward towards the distant whale.  I waved to Mike when he hit 800 feet as I really did not want the whale to dive and disappear with fear once we were nearby.  He understood; in fact he did not alter his course more to the north to bring us right over the whale, instead he kept us heading due east and once we were abreast of the creature he banked shapely to port so that we could look directly down, out of our port window, while he kept the chopper in an a circular orbit.

It was breathtaking; looking over my left shoulder and only being a few hundred feet above this giant of the sea.  The water, here, is not spectacularly clear as the first several feet of the sea are covered by the water that drains from the Congo River.  But being that the whale was on the surface I got one heck of a view.  From above the white tail and pectoral fins were clearly visible, so much so that the two, side pectoral fins appeared to look like wings as this fantastic creature slowly swam towards to the southern waters of Antarctica where his mate should be waiting.

I knew that the whale would be able to feel/hear the rhythmic drumming of our rotor blades and I feared it might drive him to dive to the depths and out of viewing range.  I was just about to turn to Mike and ask him to bring us up a few hundred feet when I felt a chill run down my spine.  My body never made the turn to the pilot for as I watched the whale, he rolled onto his right side and pulled his left eye out of the water so that he was looking directly at me.  I looked at him and he was looking at me and as I stared I fell deep into ocean without ever leaving the chopper.

The sea was cool, soothing and alive with sights, tastes and sounds.  Not sights that you see with your eyes but sights that form images in your mind as a result of multiple inputs from your senses.  It was as if I could see and hear things from thousands of miles away.  And a part of me knew this to be true.  Even though the physical water around me was dark to the naked eye the world that I saw was bursting with activity and interaction.

As I studied the scenes that were playing across my consciousness I became aware of an urge, a drive that was actually the motor pushing my huge body forward.  I was late and I had to keep moving.  There was urgency in this realization as I was not where I should be and one of those alluring songs, playing through my mind, was the call from my beautiful mate, waiting for me in the waters at the bottom of the world.  She was waiting and asking where I was.  I was late, but I was coming.

A part of me was explaining, telling the story of the human boat, of being pursued, stabbed, wounded, and ultimately wrenching freedom from the grasp of my tormentors.  As I told the story my pulse quickened and I became aware of the painful stiffness at the base of my tail.  Each time I pushed downward with my fluke it sent a spasm of pain up my spine, but I was pressing on.

She cried back for my suffering and encouraged me to continue swimming south; she would wait, especially for me as our love knew no bounds.  As I swam she told me stories of others who were not as lucky as myself, those who did not escape and she feared that our numbers were falling.  Hence, I needed to continue so that she could bear a calf and perhaps, in our own small way, slow down the disappearance of our kind from this planet.  A part of me wept, ached and cried.  My human awareness began to join in the tears when a sharp jab drew me back into the light of the sky.

I quickly turned to my right to see Mike withdrawing his hand.  I was dizzy, blinked my eyes and tried to focus on the gesture he was making.  He was pointing out his window and talking on his microphone with much agitation.  I looked out into the direction that he had pointed and could see a small black dot, on the horizon, which was slowly increasing in size as it appeared to be getting closer.  Another helicopter, we were right in the flight path and we had to move.  I nodded my understanding and rapidly snapped my head back to the left to look at the whale.  He was gone.  Nothing; only a small dissipating wake was all that was left of his presence.  I felt a sinking in my heart as we leveled off and headed towards the coast and the high bluffs ahead.  The severing of our hearts was too quick, to abrupt I had no idea how to find a way back to my center…it was almost a feeling of vertigo that seized me while I craned my head around to look behind us.

The reflective glare of the sun lay heavy on the water but for one instant I saw it, several hundred yards behind us, a solitary image projecting out of the water quickly slipping downward under the surface, it was his tail…and as it slid towards the depths, it was waving, gesturing, and strumming the strings of my heart and soul.

A tear found the crevice of a wrinkle on my rightt cheek and followed its path down to my mustache where the taste of salt water burst into my mouth.  I watched the fluke disappear and as the surface of the water smoothed over, I noted that my right hand was performing as if it had a mind of its own; it was slightly raised and slowly waving good-bye without any conscious control of my own.  Good bye my friend, I have heard your story and seen your soul.  Good bye and find your mate, she awaits you as mine awaits me.  Good bye my brother for I share your battle.  Good bye and thank you for all you are…good bye and be safe.

I turned to the front and glanced over at Mike, he was watching me with a strange look that could be seen even through his sunglasses.  I simply brushed off the side of my face and shrugged.  We were over the coast and reality was rushing towards me at 200 mph.

As we circled the heliport and dove for the tarmac I closed my eyes and whispered, “Good-by”.  The jolt of the skids on the concrete brought me home…reality had returned but the taste of the sea lingered.

The blessing of that moment remains to this day.

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12 replies »

  1. A tale of the sea and of time immemorial, of our finite place in the universe and our reaching for the unreachable and finding love there instead.

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  2. The beauty of this world. The ability, to take a moment in our little time of life to enjoy the breathtaking life that this world has to offer is precious.

    Too bad it is lost on the horse whackers, the whale killers, the people killers, the terrorists, the child abusers, and on and on and on and on….

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  3. R.T. Fitch :We just need to be better than they are….and that is not difficult.� The hard part is outlasting them.

    Absolutely! As to outlasting them, I think in the 21st century it comes down to outlast AND out manuevering (out smarting them). The good news is we have the tenacity and passion for life and beauty; they are driven by money and no conscience. Former is easy as an “industry” becomes unprofitable; the latter a perpetual battle…something like, evil will always exists. Isn’t that the religious text? Don’t know, because atheists and agnostics also acknowledge “bad” humans.

    Thanks for sharing Mr. R.T. Hey, I get excited about a fox trekking across my property or seeing a bear! Of course, I don’t cultivate honey or raise chickens.

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  4. J.T., I’ve also seen Humpbacks off Cape Ann, Massachusetts. They feed in the up-welling waters around Stellwagen Bank, a sort of underwater mesa, in mid-summer. My famliy and I got an “up close and personal” look at these magnificent sea-rovers from a Whale Watch party boat.

    On the way out to the bank, interns from Woods Hole Oceanagraphic Institute told us about the area’s whales and other sea life. We were appalled to learn whalers from Norway, as well as other countries that refuse to sign international agreements to stop the hunts, continue to take increasing numbers of all types of the world’s whales, putting them even more at risk.

    Enough of the depressing part, let’s get back to the fun.

    An escort of dolpins surfed and played in our boat’s bow waves. We saw a couple of huge Finback whales (critically endangered) and a few Minke whales (treatened), but didn’t know if we’d spot any Humpbacks.

    Just as the captain announced it was time to head back to Gloucester we heard a crew member shout, “Humpback off the port bow!” We saw a distant splash, raced to about 800′ of the whale, and the captain cut the engines. There he was! Breaching and falling back, his great tail slapping the surface, then diving and breaching again. Suddenly he was joined by his playmates. They came even closer, and seemed to be putting on a show especially for us!

    It really was getting late when another crew member asked that we move quietly to the starboard rail. A Humpback cow and calf had surfaced about 50 feet from the boat! Mom was feeding and didn’t pay much attention to us, but the baby decided to investigate. It swam just under the water to within 20 feet of the rail, then popped it’s nose out to get a better look.

    After about 5 minutes, it slid back under and, to our surprise, surfaced on the other side of the boat, still close and totally unafraid! It stayed up for a few minutes and then joined Mom, probably to nurse after it’s big adventure. We were so excited, chatting and laughing all the way back to the dock. All agreed seeing these magnificent animals swimming free in their ocean world was an extraordinary experience.

    There is a now-famous photo of a number of adult Humpbacks gathered around a Cape Ann party boat, their noses well up out of the water, just checking out the company. Despite all the despicable hunters that chase and kill them, they remain as curious about us as we are about them.

    If you ever get the opportunity see Humpbacks, I guarantee it will be something you’ll remember the rest of your life!

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  5. R.T. you have a special connection with dolphins and whales 🙂 A few years ago I was in a small boat outside of Cabo San Lucas. A Grey whale (the size of an island) brought her baby to the boat, right to me and the baby came out of the water and actually kissed me then turned over and had me rub it’s chin, while the Mothers Huge eye just watched with trust. This was one of the most amazing things that ever happened to me….and it was in the Wild!

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  6. RT this brought tears to my eyes, a common occurrence these days when we deal with all around us. I have never seen dolphins or wales in the wild and it has always been a dream to do so, I wish I had made different choices in my life at times which would have taken me on a path towards animal conservation but then I would never have arrived here where I am today. I envy you this experience and hope before I die I get to see it too (adding it to the bucket list). I dont know how I missed this post but am glad that I found it. You are a very special human being, thank you for sharing it with us.

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