A Whale Of A Time

A big encounter triggers big thoughts

Forty feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, I look up, down and all around. Nothing but blue water. Suspended in the sea, I exhale and watch my bubbles rise to meet the world above.

Off in the distance, two boxcar-sized shapes come into focus. I squint through my mask. The looming figures come closer. My brain short-circuits, and it takes a few seconds to figure out what I’m looking at. No—it can’t be. But it can’t be anything else. Two humpback whales! Quick, short breaths, lots of bubbles racing toward the surface as my mask floods. C’mon, Amy, get a hold of yourself. I clear my mask, and poof—the whales are gone. What the heck? Did I dream it? Am I experiencing nitrogen narcosis, an alteration in consciousness that can occur while diving? All I know is that I’m starting to wig out.

With rapid fin kicks, I find my two dive buddies and try to ask in sign language if they saw the two whales. Divers have many hand signs for different animals, but we don’t have one for “whale.” The chance of seeing a whale while exhaling bubbles in scuba gear is about as likely as finding a mermaid. With wide eyes and much hand flailing, I try to sign, “Did you see two enormous animals?” No go. They don’t understand my question. Just then, the whales reappear.

The two cetaceans come in for a closer look at the three bubble-blowing divers. One whale is larger than the other, likely a mother and her older calf. The smaller of the pair is the curious one, approaching us as the elder shadows its every move. Circling, barrel-rolling and weaving among us in giant figure eights, the whales share their sea for what seems like a lifetime. The larger whale glides by me, and one of its huge eyes locks with both of mine. The eye is a portal that transports me back in time to a glimpse of the history of life on Earth.

Roughly 375 million years ago, the first fish wiggled its way onto land, giving rise to terrestrial-dwelling vertebrates—mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Some 50 million years ago, a goat-sized four-legged mammal species, called Pakicetus, lived on land at the edge of lakes and riverbanks. It hunted both small land animals and freshwater fish. Over time, a relative of Pakicetus evolved to live in and out of brackish water. This species, Ambulocetus, used its tail to swim and had large feet that were more flipper-like than the long legs of Pakicetus. Next on the evolutionary journey, a species called Dorudon lived entirely in warm seas 40 million years ago. It had proper flippers and tiny hind legs and gave birth to its young underwater. Within the next 10 million years, the descendants of Dorudon evolved into modern whales.

The ancestral lineage of the two humpbacks swimming before me began in the ocean, moved onto land and returned to the ocean. If I had X-ray vision, I could see that the bones in these whales’ flippers form a five-fingered forelimb eerily similar to my own arm. Will there come a time when whales evolve to live on land again? Will there come a time when the descendants of my own species evolve to live in the ocean? Big thoughts evoked by big critters make me realize that we don’t get to choose the time we’re here, but we do get to choose how we spend the time we’re given. We share our planetary world with so many weird and wonderful beings. I’m amazed that we don’t spend every waking moment with our mouths agape in sheer awe. Or at least a few moments.

In the blink of a whale’s eye, I snap back to the present. A quick check of my air gauge tells me that my time underwater needs to end soon. My dive buddies and I ascend to the surface and make our way to land, like the first fish so many ages ago. Our encounter with the whales spanned a mere 17 minutes. During that blip of time, two creatures—one marine, one terrestrial—came together. And for 17 minutes, all was right with the world.

Inspired by wild lands and their significance to both wildlife and people, Amy Gulick is a firm believer in the power of visual stories to engage, inform and move viewers. Celebrating the wild and the photographers who use their images to raise awareness is at the core of Gulick’s work featured in Outdoor Photographer.