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.