by Hazel Morfett
The dark eye of the whale focused contemplatively on the thick clumps of seaweed streaming past. The fronds brushed up against her skin, which like her eye, took in the colour and shape of the fresh green plants. Blinking slowly, she rolled towards the surface, pulled a deep gasp of empty air into her lungs, turned her fins, and directed the movement and power of her body downwards.
Below in the depths, her family circled, noses touching tails, grandmothers of hundreds of years covered in thousands of barnacles brushing up against last year’s babies, smooth as silk and bright pale grey. She slipped in and around them, the water holding her vast frame as it would until the day she’d sink to the ocean floor and only her bones would rise elegant and stark from the rocky sands, visited occasionally by the younger members of her family. Whales know that what has come before still lives in the present, that somehow what was still is, that time weaves strands more tangled than the seaweed.
She sang the good, healthy seaweed news, her throat vibrating with her huge tongue, closing her eyes slightly in pleasure as she felt the song of her family in return. Everyone was pleased. The sea was thriving, all the terrifying and senseless signs of decay that had marked so much of the last generations’ experience had abated. Something great had shifted.
Holly took her headphones off and looked concernedly at the increasing choppiness of the wave peaks, the grey-green sea was starting to rock her boat more insistently. The sonar beeps of the pod of right whales circling below her faintly reached her ears, and twisting she held up one earphone cup and again scrutinised the many dots on the screen. The numbers of whales had been increasing year on year, 2102 had seen all records broken for birthed calves, and the paper she’d published on their health and numbers was widely reported by the government as proof of ecological recovery.
Holly knew what it had taken for environmental scientists like her to be taken seriously by governments. Their increasingly stark scientific warnings had been ignored as the early 21st century barrelled down its fire-riddled, flooded, and unstable path, and her ancestors had been part of a group of protesters desperate to call attention to the destruction that loomed on the horizon. Finally in 2054 the international ban on cruise ships and trawler fishing had come in as part of the creation of the emergency marine nature reserves and kick-started the age of recovery. This was all ancient history now, there was 100 years between now and then, although Holly knew some of the whales underneath her had lived through it all.
The gulf stream would never return, the warmer climes in the northern hemisphere it sustained had been stripped, leaving only tepid ocean waters full of jellyfish. But the southern oceans were still wild, so entire ecosystems had headed south, leaving behind the diseased and rotting kelp on the Arctic shores. The whales had adapted their migration routes, following the healthy seaweed. Holly wondered if this change had felt as terrifying and uncertain for them as for the humans, who’d faced the breakdown of the planet’s interconnected systems, too much rain leading to flooded lands and endless sheets of dark cloud, followed by too much sun, drought, fear, and crop failure. She watched the sun glinting across the vast mirrored sea surface all around her, heard the gentle thuds of the waves on the boat and she thought about how these eternal rhythms - migrations and tides -had somehow remained through all the changes. In the distance the enormous orange buoys bobbed, marking the edge of the massive marine reserve.
Holly picked up her radio and called in to shore, reporting the increasing wind speed and her intention to return home with the day’s data. It wouldn’t be long until it was time to dive and tag the spring calves, something the whales not only accepted but the pods, curious and trusting of the scientists’ regular and unintrusive presence, had started to show up for. They approached the boats themselves, mother’s appraising the hulls and the divers who clipped tiny sonar tags onto each baby’s tail fin. These moments were, in Holly’s eyes, her inheritance from a recovering and wild earth and they profoundly moved her. There weren’t words for being that close to benevolence that swam so deep, and she felt tears and the rise and fall of her chest swelling with happiness as she navigated the boat back to harbour. It was what was in between the words and facts of the reports of the planet’s recovery that spoke loudest.
An older female whale briefly broke the surface 50 meters off the boat’s prow, spray spilling off her black shining body, tail sliding up through the wave crests and then disappearing into the swirling water.