Dancing With Whale: Revi Part 2
Yep. That's me dancing with a Humpback. Smooches Gracias to Frida for capturing the most sublime and wondrous moments of my life! Following uncaptioned pics are Frida's too.
Our last day at the remote Revillagigedos dawned with me feeling like I had pretty much busted through my life-smothering exercise addiction. I didn’t mention it before, but my health and fear-related anxiety had resurged, digging its sharp, jagged teeth into me since summer when another of my vivacious sisters died young and unexplainably in her sleep. I wondered, as the sun rose and dive tanks were being filled, was the two weeks without running on land or swimming in the open water enough to change my state of mind and thus, my daily habit, forever? Did I need some punctuation at the end of my purgatory-like sentence? Some big finale of a WAKE UP!? Well, I was about to get one.
For our last day in the Revillagigedos islands we (Frida, César, and I) decided to dive the notorious Boiler one last time. Paul sweetly agreed to stay dry in the Zodiac/dingy to drop and retrieve us in this open blue water site that can have swift currents capable of whisking us out into the Pacific. This hard-to-find dive site is an isolated pinnacle rock about ½ mile from shore. The Boiler formation is made of geological layers making it look like a giant stack of pancakes with coral and colorful fish swarming and flowing all over like fluorescent, frenzied maple syrup. The name comes from the way the surface of the water can look like it’s bubbling over due to all that activity just a couple meters below the surface. It is sadly famous for video footage that our fellow trimaran sailor, Terry Kennedy, got in the ‘90’s of a horrendous slaughtering by humans of those trusting, giant manta rays. But the video got attention and helped get the entire archipelago protected by Mexico as a national park and marine reserve. I have personally wanted to dive this spot since I was a kid watching Jacques Cousteau in his blood red cap.
César’s video of the top of the Boiler on a more typical, fishy day. It's long in case you want to use it as a Zen like screen saver.
When the three of us dropped in we were surprised at how not fishy-busy it was. I turned my back to the big blue to study a murex snail attached to the rock and checked on my buddies. They were excitedly motioning me to join them several meters out from the pinnacle. There, hanging upside-down, was A HUMPBACK WHALE, a full grown but young male. I could not wrap my head around it. We slowly approached with our vulnerable bellies open to him.
As I was swimming toward the whale, I felt an unsettling bump on my right shoulder. I turned to see two dolphins beside me perhaps saying “Hey, come play with us too!”.
The humpback let us get close and hung there, head down and tail up, for a minute or two. Then it seemed our luck ended as he swam up for a breath, gave the surface a thundering tail smack and was gone. So we thought. I happened to look down below me and there he was, coming right up under me! I had to back up so as not to get dangerously lifted by his head and back. It felt like the Earth had opened below me and a living, breathing skyscraper was being erected right in front of my face!
The next time he surfaced for a tail smack a giant manta ray appeared right above us. Cesar and I swam up under the manta to give her bubble tickles. Frida backed up to get a photo of the manta and when she checked to see how it looked she noticed the humpback photo-bombing in the near distance. The humpback had an irresistible emotional gravity pulling us, so, out into the blue, towards the whale we went.
When we rejoined his side the humpback started to do a bit of fin swinging, tail wiggling, and spinning. The whale was dancing! THE. WHALE. WAS. DANCING. At least that’s what it seemed like from our human perspective. Later, we wondered if he was trying to warn us of a dangerous presence. But, for those 20 minutes we three were in absolute ecstasy dancing with a humpback!
It’s rare to get just a few moments on the surface of the water with a whale and it almost never happens diving, but our big guy seemed unfazed by our bubbles. He gyrated right through them, approaching me so close once and really looking into my eyes that I felt he would have liked to be touched or even held onto.
Over and over, he’d hang upside-down, gyrate and spin with us, then surface for a tail smack and return to us again. Once while dancing together, the whale sang. People! THE. WHALE. SANG. I found myself audibly weeping and moaning into my air-giving regulator. I am crying right now as I type this. It was as overwhelmingly wondrous and sublime as giving birth to my own son yet more enigmatic and with the knife-sharp edge of fear missing. Later, César said he was thinking that he wished everyone in the world could have this experience. Frida said she was in awe but felt a huge responsibility to get photos for us all, since César’s GoPro wasn’t working. (Yeah, he knows, biggest GoPro fail ever!) I remember thinking that I could have just died right then and been A-OK with that. Perhaps I should not have had that thought.
Once our dance partner swam away for the last time we three were alone in the blue with no idea where to swim to return to the Boiler. That’s why we had Paul waiting on the surface to spot our inflatable orange buoy we were just about to send up on a line to show him where we were. And that, dear friends, is when the stripes of a 4-METER TIGER SHARK appeared about 10 meters away. Frida is a shark researcher and interested in tiger shark behavior and they’re one of the species César hoped to get a glimpse of, but tigers are notoriously elusive. So, of course, they followed her, and I went with them. (I know, I know, you can just hear the JAWS baseline at this point) but that’s what dive buddies must do. Plus, with a tiger shark, just one step down in size and voracity from a great white, being alone and on the surface didn’t seem like a brilliant idea to me.
Once my buddies got a better look and the apparently pregnant tiger momma-to-be swam away (Yeah, premature Whew!), the buoy was inflated and sent up to the surface while we tiny homo sapiens dangled, waiting to see if our inflatable dingy appeared above us on the surface. Sure enough, there was Paul circling once to let us know he found us, and we weren’t lost at sea. As usual we hung there at our 5-meter-deep safety stop letting dangerous excess nitrogen escape from our bloodstreams before surfacing all the way. That’s when the big momma tiger shark (let’s call her La Patrona – The Boss Lady) re-appeared and seemed alarmingly interested in us. She swam by quite close to check us out and we could see her lateral line standing way out along her body (Can you see it in the photo below?). She was literally feeling the vibrations of OUR EVERY HEARTBEAT with each pass. This, Frida had taught to me, is why it’s critical to be very calm (meaning very not ME) in the presence of potentially dangerous sharks.
Then La Patrona passed even closer at the same time two large Galapagos sharks appeared and started circling us too. (I swear, things CAN always get worse.) I grabbed onto César’s jacket strap and Frida grabbed hold of his tank with her knees, preparing to use her camera with both hands as a shield. Our hope was to look like one big, intimidating beast instead of what we were: three vulnerable humans dangling from a micro-string in the open ocean. My buddies kept their eyes on the tiger while I occasionally turned and faced the Galapagos sharks so they’d be less likely to sneak in unexpectedly from behind us.
Paul's video of a Galapagos shark just to give you an idea what was happening behind us.
Then things took a disturbing turn. (Yeah . . . I know, right!?) La Patrona stopped making side passes. She faced us, putting her pectoral fins down instead of out, a sign of her being agitated and more likely to attack. All I could see was her foreshortened nose and toothy mouth as she approached to WITHIN TWO WEE METERS of us, the human bait ball. No photos of that exist as Frida's camera was now a shield. We blew bubbles to hopefully scare La Patrona and she backed off just a bit. My eyes kept scanning the surface, searching for but not seeing the dingy anymore. Paul was likely just drifting, oblivious to our situation, with his feet up and the motor off to save gas while he waited for us to finish our 3-minute safety stop that was feeling to me like an eternity.
Now we were equally afraid to stay below as we were to surface where we’d be even more vulnerable to attack. What to do? Would the tiger shark lose interest? Then, as the Galapagos sharks passed closer to us, the tiger did what tigers do. Just a few meters from us, and still facing us with fins down, she decided to let the Galapagos sharks and maybe us know that she was the boss of this situation. (Not that we needed that confirmed.) She jerked her head to the side, BARED HER TEETH, and SNAPPED. I can still see it like an after-image from a regretful glimpse at a perilously bright sun. She came within a couple meters of us yet again and I remember trying to make a lot of bubbles while simultaneously attempting to calm my heartrate with yoga breaths I had just learned. When she went out of view again we thought it might be our last chance to make a break for the surface, hoping that Paul and the dingy weren’t too far away to grab us before she did.
Frida and I popped up first and there was Paul, in sight but not close. We waved urgently. Paul seemed relaxed and happy, thinking we must have something to show him, so he motored slowly. Then he must’ve read our faces and zoomed. The moment my head was above water all my controlled calm evaporated, and I was a mere brain stem on top of an adrenaline skin-sack intent on fleeing the water on a vertical trajectory. I yelled, “GET ME!” and hurled myself into Paul’s hands. God, I love his hands. He instantly picked up me with my dive tank and gear on (maybe 200 lbs) and threw me into the bottom of the dingy so he could do the same for Frida, plopping her on top of me. César was last and had the where-with-all to abandon his $1000 worth of professional gear before launching himself into the dingy, flicking Frida’s dangling fin out of the water. At some point, from the bottom of the pile, I realized I was still breathing through my regulator. We were amazed to be alive, bruised, but fully limbed!
Paul continued to be our hero. Not only did he MacGyver things on the boat when they weren’t working but he single-handedly sailed our post-adrenaline threesome all night back around the cape in unexpected 30 knot winds and 3–4-meter waves. Encountering just such seas was one of my biggest fears at the start of this trip. Not anymore. That night, when those waves hit, (and man, did they HIT) I mostly slept through it!
We are all still processing what happened on many levels:
Academically - Was the humpback, a species known to show intra-species altruism, trying to warn us and/or let the tiger know this was his territory with his tail smacks? What about the dolphins who bumped me? Were they trying to convey a warning? It sounds crazy, but when we looked back at one of Frida’s first humpback photos the tiger shark was already there in the distance and we didn’t see her! How close was the tiger to attacking and how could we have best defended ourselves if she had?
Professionally - What things should we have done differently?
Mentally – Were we over-confident?
Emotionally – I can’t speak specifically for Frida and César but I know we were all left profoundly changed by that dive.
For myself, that last Revillagigedos dive will be the marker I use to check in on my relationship to the present moment. Every day, every person, every experience in my life is now like a dancing and singing whale who I can choose to take for granted or engage and dance with. You might think I’d wish the tiger shark encounter hadn’t happened. But I needed her too. Remember, I am stubborn. La Patrona is the necessary, toothy compliment to the whale dance. The pregnant tiger shark, an apex predator needed for a whole and healthy marine ecosystem, is also, I believe, a necessary component in the human psyche's ecosystem. She is my reminder of the inevitable death that awaits me and those I love. She keeps me wide awake to the present, whale-daning-singing moment. In her honor and in honor of my sister who mothered me, I now ecstatic dance every single day on the foredeck of Triplefin because I AM ALIVE. For now.