A winter's tail (Parts 1 and 2)
Part 1: The end of the drive.
There was, according to the sign, a hazard on the road ahead. Did this mean there were wild bears in the woods? Crocodiles? Raging torrents and steep sided chasms? Meteor craters? Thankfully it was just a pothole of modest proportion and there was no dangerous wildlife to be seen.
But the sign and the slightly bumpy road did set the tone rather well; as if we were going further than we really had, or would be more remote than we really were. At the end of the road, around a slight bend, the house sat with trees pushing in from all sides. In the darkness of the first winter weekend – one that extended to include Monday as well – the house looked remote and isolated. This was an illusion, but a nice one. The key was stiff in the lock, but a fire was set in the grate. The house was cold, but strangely homely. We lit the fire to deal with the first and set about exploring the benefits of the second. There were shelves full of books and baskets full of balls and the next morning the kids would discover a three-story tree house in the boundary trees of the back garden. Over the fire was a tray that would have once held the hot type for a printing press. Now it held a weird and wonderful collection of ephemera, souvenirs and probably beach and garden found treasure. There were tiny skulls and shinny shells. Fishing lures and foreign coins. A zippo lighter with a military crest and a slogan from Vietnam. (The lighter did not work, but it looked like it had seen years of service). On top of the bookshelves a leather flying-helmet sat on a pale foam head. On the wall, to its right, was a picture of the person to whom I assume it belonged. The fire started to do its job and the aroma of warmth and wood smoke pushed at the chill corners of the house. Doors which may have been shut for weeks – or could have be closed just yesterday – were pushed open in exploration. The ritual of bed choice, the game of find the light switch. Unpack. Spread out, settle in. A pool of light from the kitchen window warms some house close bushes. A possum – what else? – clatterfoots over the roof. It’s warmer to look in than to look out. We overdress for the short drive to the Pub to find dinner – the one-minute drive shatters any illusion of isolation: but it’s a nice game to play.
Dawn brings a golden sky through the trees and the whispered arrival of the kids. The house has re-chilled over night and they both want to share in the warmth of our bed: “and the little one said roll over”. Wattlebirds call from the branches and an Eastern Spine-bill lands just outside the window. I resist the calls to get up. It’s too warm in here and too cold out there. But nothing warms a house faster than the smell of toast and jets of kettle steam. Later we walk out the back gate and down towards Flinders to buy a paper, and the small bits and pieces that we need. With the slowness of holiday uncertainty we take two hours. We buy a raffle ticket for a trailer of cut wood that we would rather not win (not this weekend anyway) and price houses in Real Estate windows. It’s a Saturday without choir, karate or ballet. We can afford to slow down. We have all day.
We stand on a high point, looking at the sweep of sea below. Superb Fairy Wrens – not yet living up to their name – pick at the ground and sit, framed by the holes of a cyclone wire fence. Down on the pier a dog lies asleep, while its owner cups a cigarette from the sea breeze and watches his fishing rods. The pull and release of the waves moves the rod tips back and forth; a disruption to this rhythm causes his hands to flicker over the rod, ready to respond. Nothing else happens. It’s that kind of day; a winter blue day; a slow day for everyone.
Later in the afternoon we head to the coast to search for a blowhole. We go to the right beach, but we never see anything that convinces me that it’s a blowhole! Waves crash over the rocks, and now and then a larger wave – the seventh wave? – shoots spray high into the air above the cliffs. The dark stone and the surf foam contrast – two types of power, two types of landscape. On the beach the pounded rock has been ground down to black sand. The surf is chalky white, the sunlight bright and harsh. It’s a day for detail and a sharp eye. The waves roll the beach stones, chipping off the edges and rounding the rocks to pebbles. The energy of the waves picks up the stones and drops them back down again. They clatter against each other in a noise strangely similar to chips being dropped into a deep fryer. A huge log – long since taken by the sea – is cast up on the beach. It still floats in the waves and moves back and forth to the rhythm of the sea.
Bird Rock is capped, appropriately, by a Cormorant. We stand on a set of wooden steps and stare out to sea. We don’t really expect to see anything, but we look none the less. “Have you seen the whales?” says a man stood next to us. “Whales? Where?” – “Out there, past the change of colour”. And there they were – just visible to the naked eye – and better through binoculars, fin slaps and breath spouts and fluke dives. Also certainly Humpbacks – but just fine as just whales. I look around and see that the steps are lined with people doing just what I was doing – watching the whales. I don’t think that anybody had come there with the expectation that they would see whales and finding them by surprise was like a gift.
As ever, I point out the passing albatross to the standing watchers – but, understandably, people wish to watch the whales. They let the glorified seagulls drift past, and I keep watching. The kids squabble a little over the use of my binoculars, and in doing so, confirm at least one Christmas gift for the future. I had come looking for Sooty Oystercatchers, but had seen them only as distant shapes. I had not expected whales, but they were more than a welcome surprise.
Part 2: Summoned by Whales
There was a golden white strip on the horizon and the sky was pale lead blue. Thornbills were zitting to each other in the bushes and a Pied Butcherbird was calling from its tree top perch across the road. The longest night of the year was giving way to day, and the spiral towards spring was beginning. There was frost on the car and smoky breath fog in the air, a classic mid-winter morning.
As I drove away from the suburbs, with their heat leaking buildings, the temperature fell, shuffling towards, but never reaching, zero. Mists and fogs hung over fields and snaked along faint valleys; the airborne ghost of long drained waterways and buried rivers, where moist air still gathers, chills and fills in the lost spaces. Chimneystacks put forth the warm vapours of industry; smoke stacks without smoke. Car shapes and house shapes, cow shapes and horse shapes, firm to visibility in the mist. In the cold, with a blanket of solid air, the landscape looks old and less troubled than in the bright of the full day sun. The temperature clicks down to one degree and goes no lower. Flat beams of light slant over the fields and roads, and the mist recedes. On hilltops and through wall gaps I can see the sea. The ocean hot water bottle starts to warm the air as I drive over the bridge to Phillip Island. Pacific Gulls cap each of the light poles on the bridge and a pelican banks steeply over the roadway. Both seem to be welcoming me to a land surrounded by sea. I park in view of the ocean and walk towards the pier to find my boat.
People fish from the pier and check that their dogs are not swimming or being caught by other fishermen. Two dog-owning non-fishers laugh at the amount of clothes I am wearing. Their willingness to dispense fashion tips is remarkable really, given they were wearing soft cotton blue checked shirts and football beanies! However, they may have had a point, but the coldest I have ever been (outside of a cave) was on a boat, and the only jacket you can never wear is the one you leave in the car. By the time I find a seat on the boat I am warm enough to shed a few layers and take off my hat. One family is wearing less clothes than I now have in my bag. We are briefed on life jackets and the way to behave on the boat. I miss much of the part which suggests that running about screaming and shouting in the event of a disaster is a bad idea, because the family was complaining about the cold. Later on in the trip one of the kids is reduced to tears by the chill of the winter wind. There are times when I find the world deeply confusing.
Gulls follow the boat away from a town that borrows its name from one on the Isle of White - Cowes. The waves are small, the swell slight, the sun bright. The landscape of the sea is flat and calm; a water prairie, where the grass floats in cellular abundance near the sun rich surface and the cows sing to each other through the deep. It’s a good day to be out under a winter blue sky. It’s a good day to be summoned by whales.
I set myself on the port side of the boat and watch, determined (in a way that I hope nobody else will notice) to be the first person to see a whale. I am dressed, after all, for serious marine endeavour and finding a whale falls into this category. Predictably of course, a humpbacked whale surfaces on the starboard side, does the full fluke wave and disappears just as I arrive. The flat irregular circle of the dive – the footprint – and a slightly oily looking track of water are all that is left. People – me included – concentrate their observation and positive thoughts onto a small path of sea, willing the whale to reappear. Initially it does not work.
What is it about whales that captures our attention so completely that we respond to their summoning even in the cold of the winter; even in the half light of dawn; even at the risk of exposure in our children? Is it their size and their apparently effortless movement? Is it their silent arrival on the only stage capable of making them look small? Or an acknowledgement that they were almost lost, and seeing them now is a kind of reminder of rare success? Is it some mammal to mammal connection, a memory of school science classes that told us they are not fish, but air breathers and milk makers like us?
Whatever the reason, a hush falls over the boat, studded only by the anticipatory clicks and beeps of cameras held at the ready. The whale reappears and the camera concerto peaks – dozens of images are made and stored away, digital memories for later use. The (relatively) new phenomenon of camera back watching is well on show – a habit that reduces nature to just more TV. People are summoned by whales, but they watch them on LCD screens and through zoom lenses. I probably take more pictures than most – but I try to watch as well. Not every experience needs to be filtered through the lens of the golden ratio. The whale humps its back and dives, white water pouring in streams from its flukes. I can’t help but wonder if any snails are hitching a ride on the tail of this whale.
Our boat moves parallel to the whale and we both leave a slipstream in the winter sea. The whale breaks the surface now and then, travelling in a simple straight line, a compass bearing of its own making. And then there is a long pause between sightings and we begin to think that the whale has gone, tracked off under the water where we can’t follow it. But it suddenly reappears on the other side of the boat – just opposite my original perch.
It comes vertically up from the water until its eye, far back on the head, is out of the water. We watch it watching us. Or that’s what we like to think in the arrogance of human understanding that sees the world revolve around us, rather than around itself. An equally plausible explanation is that the whale is trying to dislodge the seaweed that is wrapped around the front of its jaw. But that’s a story that excludes us and it’s clear that most people – maybe even me – would like to think that the whale was checking us out, passing the time of day maybe and asking “what the hell are they doing?”
The whale rolls onto its back and lifts its pectoral fins high above the water – it brings them down with a slap and an appreciative gasp from the watching crowd. In a swirl of foam and disturbed water it dives down and we never see it again. I have no real idea for how long we watched. I could check the times on my pictures I suppose, but that would take away from of the undoubted mystery that centres on watching these animals.
The boat moves on around the island and we see no more whales. At Seal Rocks, we see seals; lots and lots of seals. The pups of last summer dive from the rocks and crowd the water around the boat. There are seals everywhere; underwater, on the water and, ever so briefly, out of the water. The mass of movement makes it hard to find a single subject to watch, but I see the seals cutting back and forth under the boat, under the water and the colours and shapes catch my eye.
Watching the whale was like watching a hunting cat – all self assurance and a sleek kind of grace. Watching the seals was like watching dogs chase sticks in the waves off the beach, attention seeking, big eyes and mild stupidity.
The seals were fun, but I was summoned by whales.