Sometimes you’re favored with fair wind and following seas, and sometimes you’re blessed with no wind and a broken engine.
The area known as Penguin Bank, south of Molokai is known for its abundance of visiting humpbacks –the very place on the earth where we were, at that very moment, stranded.
In Hawaiian waters it is illegal to chase or harass the humpbacks in any way. Boaters are forbidden to approach closer than 100 yards. But whales aren’t held to the same standards as humans. They came as close to us as they wanted. Over the next few hours we counted dozens of whales, adults and babies, until we grew tired of counting. Breaching, slapping, blowing whales. Deep-diving whales, their tail flukes in the air, then gone. We ate our dinner in the cockpit, enjoying the show, our lack of power momentarily forgotten. All Hawaiian sunsets are rich, but this one was particularly memorable –not so much for the color of the sky as for the whale spouts, shimmering in the brief tropical twilight.
After dark the sea seemed to turn to obsidian. There would be no moon that night. Gradually even the stars were blotted out as haze and volcanic mist settled like a curtain around us. There was still no breeze. The blowing and breathing of humpbacks seemed to grow closer as the night deepened. Great rushing exhales. Deep moist sighs so close I felt that if I reached thought the lifelines, I might touch one.
As the night progressed we could hear a new whale sound, down below where the fiberglass hull amplified it. A ghost-like humming — moans, groans, squeaks, and rubs that gave us chicken skin all over again. We were eavesdropping on whale song.
These songs are believed to be part of the mating process, or perhaps a territorial proclamation. To Bob and me that night, adrift among the whales, it was the sound of extraterrestrials trying to make contact, only our ship had landed in their realm. We were the aliens. And they both outweighed and outnumbered us.
An average adult humpback is 35 to 45 feet in length; Topaz measures 36 feet on deck. But a humpback weighs many times what our full-keeled sloop weighs. What if one surfaced beneath us? What if one rammed into us? What if they resented our intrusion into their boudoir, their nursery, their own Club Med? What if they wanted a reckoning for all the humpbacks slaughtered by our ancestors and for the whales that continue to be harvested by humans in other parts of the world? We were at their mercy.
Bob and I took turns maintaining a deck watch through the night. We saw signs of only two vessels — the familiar running lights of an inter-island barge and the working lights of a local fisherman off Molokai. Occasionally the VHF would squawk and a brief transmission would follow, but for the most part the night was thick with the above-decks sounds of whales breathing and the eerie tunes of whales singing below. The GPS indicated we were drifting in a slow circular pattern. In spite of my excitement-tinged-with-anxiety, I eventually drifted off to sleep.
The sun rose on a silky, rose-colored sea. To starboard a cetaceous sentry raised its tubercled head above the water as if to have a better look at us. (Biologists call this behavior “spy hopping.” Whales are believed to be able to see well both above and below water — a sort of bifocal vision, due to the irregular shape of their corneas.)
Bob and I stared back, spellbound. To look a whale in the eye, what a rare opportunity! Then the whale dove down beneath our boat, its gray bulk directly beneath us. We waited and watched for it to resurface. Long minutes passed, but we didn’t see it again.
“Hey, feel that?” Bob said, finger in the air.
“What, my pounding heart?”
He laughed. “No, the wind. We’ve got wind, mate. Let’s make some sail!”
Diamond Head’s distinctive shape grew larger as we approached Oahu and the Ko’olau mountains became more vivid. Waikiki came into view, a crescent of dazzling white sand and high-rises. By the time we had the channel markers in sight we noticed the whales were no longer with us. We had reentered our own world. And had other worries on our minds, for our breeze had died. Luckily, we got a tow from a friendly yachtie who heard our request on the radio and a temporary slip at the very accommodating Hawaii Yacht Club. With Topaz safely moored it was time to crack a cold one before we tackled our engine problems.
Sometimes you just get lucky.
— copyright Linda Collison, 2005. Reprinted from Sail Magazine; September 2005