browsing category: Non-Fiction

Non-FictionWinter/Spring 2024

Bridget A. Lyons — Beneath the Surface

As the evening wore on, the humpback whale’s breathing became increasingly labored. From my vantage point on the beach, about fifty yards from her fluke, I could tell she was struggling. For three days, I’d watched her swim back and forth, her spouts and their accompanying bellows progressively deteriorating. On the third night, the whale’s signature blowhole sound was reduced to an occasional wheeze.

I lay in my sleeping bag dissecting the music of this creature’s fading breath. Each humidified sigh lasted a second or two longer than the previous one, seeming to confirm my assumption: A whale was going to die a stone’s throw from our camp.

This was my fifth sea kayaking trip along the Baja California coastline, working for an outdoor school that immersed young adults in an ecosystem where serrated desert ridges plunge into deep turquoise bays. Our group had paddled a remote stretch of the Gulf of California for eighteen days to get to this beach. From it, we could almost see our trip’s final destination, a spot just north of Loreto, on Baja’s Highway 1.

When we’d first pulled up to this campsite, we’d asked the students to decide how they wanted to spend their last three days in Baja. We could make a big crossing out to Isla Coronado, a dramatic hunk of rock about two miles offshore, or we could stay put, spending the remaining time exploring adjacent bays, snorkeling, and fishing without moving camp. Much to our disappointment, the students elected to stay put. They worried that a norte wind might whip up and strand us on the island, forcing them to miss their flights home. It appeared that our proximity to the pick-up made them anxious to return to the lives they’d been so eager to escape from three weeks earlier.

Just after the group voted against the crossing, a student had spotted the back and spout of the whale. “See!” he shouted from the water’s edge. “We’re supposed to stay here after all. It’s a sign.”

I rolled my eyes at Tanner, one of my co-instructors, then hurried down to check it out. In the protected bay we’d recently paddled across, I only saw disturbed water—the unusual ripples that suggest someone or something is just under the surface. Then, a charcoal-colored lump crested, and I heard a long, moist exhalation. I gasped. It was a humpback. Not an uncommon sight in January, but no matter how many whale respirations I experience in this lifetime, the intimacy of a giant mammal’s air exchange always takes my own breath away.

We typically saw whales from a much greater distance, identifying them by the patterned clouds emitted from their blowholes: their breaths. Contrary to popular opinion, whales don’t spout water. They exhale, and the air and mucus emanating from their lungs is so warm and moist that it condenses into a shape we can see. That shape, when it comes from a humpback, is balloon-like. This was one of the facts I knew about them—one that I’d already shared with the group earlier in the course.

I also knew what humpbacks looked like, since they are among the most commonly spotted whale species. Our whale most likely had a fully black or dusky gray body. As it did laps across the cove, it lifted a pectoral fin out of the water, revealing the logic behind the creature’s genus name, Megaptera, which means “big-winged.” White splotches decorated its big wings, forming patterns that, like human fingerprints, are unique to each individual and allow researchers and avid whale watchers to track and identify them.

Scientists have determined that humpback whales live in all of our planet’s oceans and that each marine area has its migratory routes, some up to 3,000 miles long. The North Pacific population spends its summers in Alaska, where krill—the tiny crustaceans they eat—are plentiful. During the winter, adults mate and give birth in the warmer, gentler waters of Hawaii or Baja’s Gulf of California.

“That’s some of what we know about humpbacks,” I said, gazing back out toward the middle of the bay where our whale had temporarily submerged. “Quite a bit, really, given that it’s not as easy to study them as it is to study other animals, since we don’t—and can’t—keep them in captivity.”

“Gracias a Dios,” one of the students said, without taking her eyes off of the water.

I nodded, keeping to myself all of the things we don’t know about humpback whales—one of which was about to become painfully apparent to all of us.

◊ ◊ ◊

After our first night on that beach, I walked down to the waterline, now a bit further away from our camp as a result of the ebbing tide. I saw a dark spot break the surface, then heard the telltale watery exhalation. The whale was still with us. This was not a good sign. It was swimming quite close to shore, as if trying to attract our attention. It hardly needed to; half of our group already sat transfixed on the wet sand where we’d pulled up the kayaks the day before. I looked at Joe, my other co-instructor.

“It’s freakin’ dying out there, isn’t it?” he said.

I nodded. “Sure looks like it. I mean, it didn’t sound all that vigorous yesterday, and now it sounds terrible. Why else would it hang out in water this shallow?”

Joe exhaled. “So, not only are we not going to sit here on our butts for three days, we’re also gonna watch a dead whale float into our camp? He turned and walked away. “What a way to end a course.”

By late afternoon on that second day, the whale had come even closer to shore, and its exhalations had both slowed down and grown further apart. It was still crisscrossing our little bay, but it was doing so with significantly less speed and energy.

When the whale came within a hundred yards of the beach, we prohibited the students from snorkeling and swimming. Not only was it dangerous for them to share sea space with a sick marine mammal—it might behave unpredictably—we were concerned about the effect we might have on the whale’s final days or hours. We considered the stress it must have already been experiencing with twenty human beings hovering nearby, witnessing its decline. But, of course, it was impossible to know what this creature was feeling. We hardly knew what we were feeling.

I told myself that this was bound to happen. Animals are constantly dying in the wilderness, and by choosing to spend months at a time camping and traveling amongst them, I increased my chances of seeing one pass. This was not just any animal; it was a humpback whale, one of only about 100,000 in the world. They’re among the largest creatures currently alive on the planet. They’re majestic, dignified, and gentle. I didn’t want this whale to die, but even more than that, I really didn’t want it to suffer.

That night, after rolling around in my mummy bag on the beach, I gave up and reached for my glasses. If I wasn’t going to sleep, I might as well stare up at the V of Taurus and fixate on Aldebaran, its prominent red giant. In the life of that star, the total amount of time we would spend on this beach would be a microsecond. I needed that perspective.

◊ ◊ ◊

On the first day, I mustered up some enthusiasm for a hike up the arroyo that opened into our campsite. With a couple of students, I headed out with the plant ID books on a mission to learn the names of three new cacti. We did it, but we also acknowledged that walking away from the ocean felt strange, like we were turning our backs on reality. At the same time, Tanner ran a paddling skills clinic for the students in the cove around the corner. He collapsed next to our camp stove when he returned and said, “It just feels weird to be over there because we can’t be here. We all know why we can’t be here, and it’s hanging over us like a storm cloud.”

“The students only went with you guys to keep you from feeling rejected,” Joe said. “Let’s face it; they don’t want to hike, and they don’t want to work on boat skills. They don’t want to do anything. I say we throw in the towel on trying to rally them.”

So, the next day, we shifted our focus to finishing novels and baking cinnamon rolls with what little flour we had left. We watched the students get out of their camp chairs and wander down to the water. They’d stand there and stare out at the lethargic whale, then stroll back up and lie down under their tarps. There was no fighting it; both our group and our course were disintegrating—to the soundtrack of increasingly labored whale exhalations.

That night, Joe rolled out his whale joke collection over dinner. “What’s a whale’s favorite sandwich?” he asked. The other two of us glared at him while munching on our bowls of margarine-covered macaroni. “Krilled cheese!” he shouted, cackling loudly enough for the students down the beach to stand up and look over towards us. “Okay, how about this one. Why should you never make a contract with a whale?”

“I’ve heard this,” I said. “Hang on…I think it has to do with breaching…”

“Yeah, yeah. ‘They’ll eventually breach it.’ You got it.” Joe paused and took a swig of water from his Nalgene bottle. “Okay, this one’s the best. Two whales walk into a bar. The first whale says, ‘OOOOOeeeeeeeAAAAAhhhh…’” What followed was about two minutes of his best humpback whale song imitation, complete with clicks, screeches, gurgles, and groans. Beautiful when coming from the animal itself; intolerable when coming from a giddy human stuck on a remote beach.

The students stood up and looked our way again. I held my hands over my ears until he stopped sounding like a sick Wookie.

He made a conspiratorial face, smirked, and said, “So, the second whale says, ‘I don’t get it.’”

I shook my head and offered a half-smile.

Part of the reason this joke works is because we really don’t get it. The otherworldly music of humpback whale song has confounded scientists since they first heard it about forty years ago. Not only do we have no idea what’s being communicated through the complex sequences of vocalizations, but we also don’t know why whales are vocalizing in the first place. The prevailing hypothesis has been that whale song is, like bird song, a mating call. Because only the male humpbacks sing, this might seem like an obvious conclusion. However, birds’ mating calls are fairly simple, very repetitive, and quite short. Whale songs are composed of sounds ranging from high frequency squeaks to drone-like rumbles. They’re extremely variable, and they can last for up to a half hour. As a result, some scientists have begun to think the singing has something to do with navigation. Perhaps it’s their form of echolocation. We simply don’t know. Our world view, which is firmly rooted in our own senses and life experiences, often gets in the way of our ability to understand why other animals do what they do.

Researchers have managed to find out that the same population of male humpbacks typically sings the same song, and that the song changes from year to year. Scientists have traced the lineage of different populations’ melodies and found that new themes and variations appear when groups interact. They’ve witnessed what can only be called “cultural evolution” while tracking the spread of specific phrases across the oceans. As individual whales make their epic migratory journeys, they end up swimming near whales from other populations. Just like us, they hear and steal each other’s material.

I love knowing that there are sophisticated musical performances happening in the sea. And, I especially love knowing that, while we have some idea how these concerts happen, why they happen totally eludes us. As someone whose job it was to explain the natural world to my students, I appreciated the moments when I had to shrug my shoulders and say, “No one knows.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The third day at that camp—our final day in the field—was dedicated to “doing evals,” as we called it. The students wrote evaluations of us, we wrote evaluations of them, we wrote evaluations of the course, they wrote evaluations of the course—we stopped short of writing evaluations of their evaluations, but instructor teams frequently joked that we might as well. Not many of us enjoyed this process to begin with, but it was especially hard to do when we’d spent three days sitting in one place. Did Jenny show leadership? Had Tim shown initiative? Who knew, and who cared.

Still, we did what we needed to do. Tanner, Joe, and I tried to keep the focus of our comments on the eighteen days leading up to our stagnation point. Not all the students followed our lead. I distinctly remember one telling me that I was unsupportive of the group’s decision. “She had a bad attitude about our final camp,” he said, “and she seemed distracted by the whale.” How could I not be when I was wondering what would happen when we woke up to a beached giant? Were we supposed to call it in? If so, to whom? Would some group of people from the university or animal control or the Loreto fire department show up with knives and ropes? Or would we just watch the vultures do what they do best? And, just as significantly, would I break down and lose it when I saw a huge, lifeless eye staring back at me from a foot away?

We did all the standard end-of-course things that night: We talked about what it’s like to reenter the frantic world of television, telephones, and traffic; and we prompted the students to journal about what they had learned in their three weeks of wilderness travel. We even played “birdie on a perch”—a silly game they adored that involved pairs of students (one a birdie and one a perch) jumping on each other’s backs when the designated caller screamed either, “Perch on a birdie!” or, “Birdie on a perch!” We just did it with less energy than was the norm. The presence of the whale was inescapable.

◊ ◊ ◊

After the three of us consumed the last of our lemonade crystals, I went down to the beach alone and laid my sleeping gear out on the sand. I crawled into my mummy bag and stared straight up at the empty, inky sky. I sang my way through “Hotel California” and “Dust in the Wind” to keep myself from obsessing over when—or if—the next thin breath would come.

At some point, I must have fallen asleep because I opened my eyes to a pink-splattered sunrise, the kind of brilliant sky-wide impressionist painting we often witnessed while launching our boats for a move. It only took a second for me to snap back into the hyper-alert mindset of the previous three days—the one that was closely attuned to the whale’s breath.

I didn’t hear it as I rubbed the salt and sand from my eyes. I didn’t hear it as I lay there thinking about the breakfast of fresh milk and homemade banana bread that awaited us. I didn’t hear it when I stood up to pack my gear. And, I didn’t hear it as I walked down to the water’s edge to pee, fully expecting to stumble into a gigantic carcass along the way.

Down at the wet sand, I squatted in ankle-deep water and sighed, releasing a combination of relief and sadness into the chilly pre-dawn air. She had gone elsewhere to die. It had been a rough way to end a trip, but it was ending. I felt no wind on my face, which meant we’d have an easy paddle around the corner, putting us at the trucks within an hour. After I pulled up my shorts, I stayed where I was for another couple minutes, scanning the pastel-smudged horizon. Behind me, I could hear rustling nylon and clanging pots, the sounds of my human companions who would soon join me by the kayaks.

I took a few deep breaths and clasped my hands behind my back to stretch my sore paddling muscles. Then, I looked out towards Isla Coronado and saw it—the familiar balloon-like spout, backlit by low-angle rays. I was surprised that the whale had been able to muster up the energy to get all the way out there. She was going for one last big swim, I thought, and I strained my eyes in an effort to spot a fin or a part of her back.

I didn’t see either of those things. Instead, I saw a second spout—much smaller and thinner, but still balloon-shaped. The spout of a baby humpback whale.

My hand flew to my open mouth as I watched the pair leave the cove, the condensation of their breaths vanishing along the horizon and their bodies under the surface, invisible to me.

Gracias a Dios.



Bridget A. Lyons is a writer and editor living in Santa Cruz, CA. A collection of her essays, Entwined: Insights from the Intersections of Species, is forthcoming in January 2025 from Texas A&M Press. Find her at

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