It’s Spring in Spain and the whales have returned to the coast of Catalunya. A small population of fin whales take up residence here from around March to June each year. As they came back, I also returned as a volunteer with the Edmaktub research team, who are using non-invasive procedures to study these whales, the second largest animals on earth.
On my previous trips, I hadn’t seen eye nor tail of a whale, but this time, we got lucky of sorts. Just as we turned to go home, one of the research assistants on the starboard bow cried “un buf” — Catalan for a whale blow.
It was surprisingly hard to see and hear a fin whale’s blow. They were always far away, and the waves were choppy with the wind coming straight in our faces. This was not the blue Mediterranean of your holidays, but rather Homer’s “wine-dark sea”.
There were two fin whales which circled out boat from afar while we cut the engine and watched in silence. Their long brown bodies arch in the water until a tiny falcate dorsal fin cuts through the last of the foam.
Calmly I waited, finger poised on my camera button to capture that critical moment (individuals are identified by the unique shape of the fin). As the last one disappeared, I felt sure that I had caught it several times. However, when I replayed my shots, all I could see was a blank white square, the first time that that had ever happened with my camera. It was a bit like when people spot Bigfoot and at the critical moment “the camera jammed”.
Their time at the surface was miniscule and the whales never came close enough for us to see the heads, although on other trips the crew have seen these massive animals come right up close. The best view I had was when a whale surfaced right in front of us, some forty meters away and I could see the black sweep of its tail descend beneath the surface, water streaming from its sides.
I am not alone in my failure to get more than a passing glance of a fin whale. In Moby Dick, Hermann Melville even uses the fin whale as a metaphor for all the frustration we face in our lives:
a cry was heard from the mast-heads, announcing that the Jungfrau was again lowering her boats; though the only spout in sight was that of a Fin-Back, belonging to the species of uncapturable whales, because of its incredible power of swimming … Derick and all his host were now in valiant pursuit of this unnearable brute … Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.
It doesn’t do to get too fixated on one animal. Earlier in the day, the sea had been very calm and our boat had been surrounded by tunafish. Their great grey heads arced out of the water, staring at you with those round empty eyes. Their heads barely look real, more like papier-mâché masks.
The tuna were feasting on schools of sardines. The sea was churned up with their activity, while gulls crawked overhead and dive-bombed the action, trying to snatch whatever scraps they could.
It wasn’t lost on me that while I was inwardly bemoaning the lack of whales, a life-and-death struggle was being played out beneath the surface around me.