I’ve never seen a whale with my naked eye.
Trying to focus binocular lens and my attention to the surface of the water, way over there. I first search for the lighthouse, a landmark that centres me, and from there, I begin scanning. It reminds me of Body Weather dance training and how much work we do with moving our eyes slowly. My head taking these watery vision globes on a journey. The best approach is to relax the eyeballs, let them sit back in their sockets for the ride. This is a new context in which to practice though, eyes straining to look without blinking for extended moments. I’m curious now to talk to well practiced nature watchers about their embodied experiences of staring through lenses for hours. Already designing Feldenkrais lessons in my mind that could support such a physical commitment to watching other species. I am looking for a humpback whale that arrived a week ago in these water, just outside my front door.
Moving slowly to the left between the green no 9 and red no 10 buoys that mark the deep channel of water. I then move my head to the right towards the three bridges, to Incholm Island, searching for buoys 6 and 5, then 14 and 15. These buoys have become a new language of measuring this watery space.They mark out the deep highway that most of the ladened cargo ships take when travelling up and down the Firth of Forth.
I try to search calmly, to make the line of looking as smooth and continuous as possible, like a soft Feldenkrais lesson, luxuriating in the process, rather than following my minds frantic enthusiasm to dart about looking desperately for a flicker of inky whale skin.
A friend said on a social media chat, that whale watching is like looking for a needle in a haystack. I keep scanning the ever changing texture and movement of the waters surface, waiting for someone to break it. A breach of the whales belly, a flume of salty, fishy water from a blowhole.
It’s been over a week and I haven’t caught sight of anything out of the ordinary. But the urge to see this other being has taken hold of my thoughts. I am feeling a genuine excitement in my belly and it feels great to feel that feeling. It keeps me focused in a time when I feel untethered during this winter lockdown. So many watery metaphors could be attached to the unfathomable sense of time this past year.
I’ve been grabbing moments to look out the window between keeping up with parenting, work and general life, so it really is like catching a shard of time in which to grasp a glimpse of Barney the humpback whale. I’m feeling optimistic, even though the odds are pretty low for a commitment of a few minutes a day for a sighting.
He is out there, eating his fill of Krill and other fish abundant at this time of year. I learn all this on the Facebook group dedicated to Forth marine mammal watching. I see pictures of Barney’s tale (he has barnacles on his tail, hence the name) and many shots of him breaching, flying, baring his incredible body to the skies, splash landing back into the sea.
We are lucky, we have this view of the sea and then hills from our flat, looking northwards across to Fife way. As my work and play in mountains has stopped this year, I have looked closer to home. A reminder of why we moved here, north of the city. I see the snow covered hill range (Ochil hills) and my heart aches for a winter mountain day. I inspect them closely through binoculars, immersing myself in the details of their contours, snow line and weather systems interacting with them. I look at maps and plan walks I will do, as soon as I can drive further than five miles.
We watch the ships, fishing boats and leisure yachters go about their business amongst it all.
But now there is a whale out there, everything changes about my perception of this liquid space.
My first thoughts are, it’s quite dirty this water here, industrial, sewerage run off when it rains, why would a whale want to hang out here? Barney is quite young as far as the FB group information goes. A large population of whales head south of the equator in winter, to breed and some younger males stick around to feed. My research is certainly not been extensive. I’ve not been pouring over books to find more information. I’ve just been looking out of the window, when I can.
This past year I have also been swimming much more and through winter (I have now invested in a winter wetsuit, a form of commitment to myself, a game changer that gives passage to actually swimming than dunking.) This sea swimming has been a slow process during a pandemic. Lockdown has challenged my nomadic ways that are deep rooted behaviours, created through the decades of working as an artist.
My work itself often explores and brings attention to place, but how much did I really know this place ten minutes down our street? I know a lot of folk have been asking and feeling the same thing. This renaissance in outdoor appreciation is one of the more positive aspects of this difficult time. I look forward to the future when we can explore places together physically again. Barney has brought me into my immediate experience of home, out of a fog or a creeping haar that we get rolling off the sea here. Daily challenges have been so immediately in front of me, I often can’t get enough distance to see what’s going on in my periphery. Eyes widening, edges expanding now, return to the languages and images from a dance training to remind oneself from time to time.
Barney he has brought this vista to life, a vibrant space to learn and understand.
I imagine him underwater at night, sleeping vertically, slowly turning in the tidal rhythms. I worry about him getting hit by a tanker. When I see posts about recent sightings, I’m second guessing where he is under the surface and how he might be feeding, moving. All of this is imagined and animated as though it is a wildlife documentary, after all, that is the only experience I hold in my mind about whales. Day dreaming about whale life.
One day I stop for a moment and my partner looks through the binoculars for the first time. Sod’s law, he sees the final moment of a breach after about a minute. I cant quite believe the injustice of it all. If only I had kept watching. How can I possibly do anything else now, I need to stop everything and just whale watch full time. What a work that would be.
The following Saturday, it is the yachts that lead me to my first sighting of him. I can see people on the FB group chat are getting quite upset about their presence and there is much tension about this subject. But that day, they allow me to hone in on a small area to watch. Without them I don’t think I would have managed to use my small window of time to finally catch some sights of him.
I don’t know how to describe my joy at seeing this cetacean. I’d spend too long trying to find the right words. It was joy, with a sense of opening my eyes to the world again with my whole self, for the first time in months.
Barney has moved on now, new feeding grounds to explore, driven by his appetite and needs for nourishment. But I am grateful to him for his short visit to our neighbourhood and a reminder that some of us are not tied to a 5 mile travel ban.