In April, on the island of Terzoza, the morning breeze stalls and local skuas resting on the wind expend an extra avian calorie to flap themselves aloft again, dipping past the first eco-turistas of the season arriving on the beach at Sambrina Bay. The black sands are as promised in the cruise line’s brochure. The birds scan for morsels amidst the alabaster thighs and doughy arms of an aging group who hail from Hamburg. What strange manatee they seem from on high.
A dozen women lay out a meal to share—Schweinshaxe, Grünkohl, and ample chunks of marzipan. A tiny girl in a yellow dress yawns her candy-sour breath and dashes down to the lapping waves and back. Besides their guide, Rolf, there is only one other man, a Greek perhaps, who joined the excursion late and seems out of place among them.
The sparsely peopled rock of Terzoza is an orphan strewn far from sibling isles along the mid-Atlantic rift—the great wound of the earth where Pangaea was torn asunder. An extra day trip by shuttlecraft from the main vessel, this particular lagoon is well worth the jaunt during the Proxigean spring tide—A supreme vantage to behold the rutting of randy whales. Hook-up central for all spry cetaceans in the Atlantic!—boasts a new publicity spiel, trying to cater to a younger demographic, though the median age of today’s visitors appears to be just this side of mild stroke.
The first whale of the morning, a young humpback, uproots from the skin of the sea, undulating aloft—hang time the equal of any Jordan leapage. It thunders back down with a thousand-gallon halo splash. The sound reaches shore a few seconds after the sight as the Frauen scurry to aim lenses in the same vicinity for more wonderment.
The Germans, who have been told these waters are too rough for a boating view, notice the canoa, an old whaling vessel, rocking on the swells out near the twin haystack rocks. Only one person can be seen aboard the dilapidated craft, which would hold half a dozen on a whaling run, and from the sun bloom of long hair, seems likely female.
“A stunning one,” remarks a Frau focusing her 200-mm Zeiss. The Greek grabs her camera without asking permission and as he sights the woman out upon the waves a sliver of smile graces his knife-scarred face.
Muriel Woods, alone on the vessel, yanks the rubber of her wetsuit flush and zips it sealed. Still a world-class beauty in her nebulous forties, her sun-taxed skin [End Page 163] Pollacked with delicate freckling; a large part of a brief It-Girl look she’d enjoyed (Paris Vogue and Numéro covers). Once glorious auburn locks have dreaded into an array of gorgon tendrils from lack of a proper brush, living on harsh Terzoza all winter, burnished by the elements back to their true ruddy hue.
A massive Balaenoptera musculus begins to climb verticular and time—slows—down. Muriel awe-freezes as the great blue whale rises so close she can gaze deep into a magnificent eye at the apogee of the thrusting, all the way back to golden filigree in a retina reflecting the low sun. She could almost stretch her fingers out to touch the metropolis of encrustment clinging to its elephantine skin. Muriel feels an intimacy both fearsome and sublime, as if this vast creature has peered into some dormant chamber of her soul, as the rorqual slides back, exploding brine across the boat. The single biggest creature she has ever seen. The largest the world has too.
A vivid childhood memory wells up—of three ill bowheads contorted on the sands at Cannon Beach when Muriel was twelve. Her father, Gus, trying to ease her horror.
Whales never really get a chance to sleep, Murie. And they must remember to inhale and exhale each time—for all their lives. But if they can steer clear of a whole world trying to kill ’em—a few live on for centuries. Oldest animals on earth...