Forty-five feet it measured, at least that’s what the Captain informed me. I had read many books, an infinite number of books it seemed. I knew how large they could become, knew how they fed, swam, even reproduced. Yes, I was well versed in the facts surrounding the leviathans. But no amount of reading could prepare me for the majesty of these behemoths.
That’s how it began. I had found this handwritten piece around 2013, but it was written many years before while I was home from college working the summer in a bug zapper factory called Klenatron. Scribbled onto a yellow pad of paper in green ink, on the top I had written “Dedicated to Dixie,” who I vaguely remember as an attractive woman my age also presumably a student working the summer. I have no memory of ever having a substantial discussion with her, so likely I was too intimidated to speak. I wasn’t particularly social then.
I had been whale-watching off the coast of Massachusetts the week before. Taking a boat out of Gloucester – home of the famous Gorton’s fisherman – and saw a record number of whales, mostly humpbacks. As a budding marine biologist at the time I couldn’t help but be impressed. Apparently “Dixie” inspired my putting the feelings I experienced on paper.
I went on to describe how whales often breach – leap out of the water and splash violently on the surface – how they were mammals, how they fed, how they reproduced, their intelligence.
The creature I am watching now is a humpback whale. It is named for the arched dorsal surface especially evident when it dives. It’s most noticeable feature, however, is the long, paired pectoral fins. There is no mistaking what type of whale you are seeing once a humpback raises one of these appendages high into the air, almost as if waving to spectators.
Humpbacks are baleen whales, as are the pair of rorqual (finner) whales I saw that day. I contrasted them with toothed whales like the sperm whale, the kind that inspired Moby Dick. I offered some scientific tidbits, mixing in some personal reflections for flavor.
The piece was incomplete, obviously something that I had written on the spur of the moment intending to submit to a magazine. I neither finished it nor submitted it. Bracketed notes to myself show I planned to add information on fluking, blue whales, and the closeness to the coast of humpbacks versus blue or gray whales.
I ended rather abruptly without finishing a sentence:
“Blow at eleven o’clock,” the Captain calls out. I turned to see a humpback raise its head out of the water to scan the horizon in a behavior called by scientists [“spy-hopping.”] Like breaching, no one is positively sure why whales [spy-hop]
As I reread my early attempt at narrative nonfiction I think about my time at Klenatron and the other blue collar jobs I worked before getting my first paid job as a marine biologist (and long before becoming mostly an office scientist). Those were simpler days, not counting my apparent unrequited fascination with “Dixie,” but not necessarily more fulfilling. I was happy to see that I had the writing bug early even though I never seemed to finish what I started (a problem that continues to the current day). In addition to my professional writing – reports, scientific papers, memos – I toyed with more creative written expressions even then. I always seemed to be writing for newsletters, both for the companies I worked for and the scientific organizations I led. Once the blogosphere erupted to aid my distraction, I started writing blogs. A writing/social media website called Gather.com fueled my interest, which while getting in the way of my doctoral studies, led to my current blogs, website, and three professional published books (plus two specialty e-books), with more books in progress.
So I suppose I should thank “Dixie” for being my early inspiration, even if I can’t summon more than a vague memory of the inspirer. Maybe I should finish the whale piece and submit it after all these years. Inspiration – where are you?
David J. Kent is an avid science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.