Passing through the furthermost finger of Hospitality Point, where there are cobbled jetties populated with pelicans and cormorants, a gray whale erupts the waters and draws sudden breath.
“Do you get seasick?” Yippers asks. He’s actually Yip—Keith Yip (though everyone refers to him as Yippers)—and he is piloting the boat. We’re a two-boat caravan, actually: Yip and I have a pelican en tote, the boat ahead of us has three sea lions and a team of videographers from somewhere out of country.
I cock my head in a fake ‘lemme think for a sec’ but immediately reply, “I dunno.” Truth is, I’ve never been out on the open ocean. Harbor excursions, sure, and kayaking in the same-said point we’re now exiting, but never a venture too far beyond the breakwater or past the white buoys that bob in cautionary stop-sign fashion: ‘Now Entering the Ocean.’
This is ironic because I’ve lived on the coast all of my life and have worked at SeaWorld for half that. Yippers registers surprise at my greenness, and he has stories about weathering violent waters in half the world’s oceans; in comparison, I just had a pretty good day, once, catching the surf at Tourmaline and landing a sunburn. Regardless of our experience gap and there being jury out on whether or not I have sea legs or—more importantly—a sea-agreeable stomach, Yip and I are on a mutual mission: we’re releasing rehabilitated animals back out into the ocean. He’s the charge of sea lions; me, the pelican.
There’s linguistic play here. Sea lions are pinnipeds, which, when you boil down the Latin, means ‘feather-footed’; my pelican is obviously and fetedly plumaged. In which case, it’s a return-to-the-ocean celebration for all manners of feathered things.
The sea lion pups: they were nursed back to health after having been rescued–debilitated and dehydrated—from San Diego shorelines; the pelican was, too, but just stubborn on return, flying back to SeaWorld often and needing a final deep-sea release to remind him of his home out and among the waves. We named him Murph. Because of the Law and all.
I’m not seasick upon exiting Hospitality Point, and it’s a grand gesture that a gray whale arced its back in acknowledgement.
Fifteen minutes past the wave-breaks and there being only horizon at this point—blue sky met by the denser blue of water—we cut our motors for a minute. There’s something of a curiosity eddying the waters and we round the boats to witness. It’s a shark—rather half of one—something dredged up from somewheres deep, floating and purple at the top of the waves. It’s a carcass of something in the cow-shark family—neither Yippers nor I can exactly identify it—but it’s come a long way to surface seeing as it most certainly was a trench-dwelling thing. What’s amazing is not only the fact that we came across this rarity (and quite by accident) but the play of sunshine in that aqueous moment. The light is of remark: directly overhead and soundly noon-ish. We can see down and beneath this open-mouthed carcass and approximately thirty-feet below the surface. With the motors of our SW boats extinguished and us just floating, there is the lapping of water against the hulls—unmistakable in its hollow, slapping sound—and there is thirty feet of vision revealing a virtual cyclone of blue sharks swimming below. They circle, scything tail fins cutting an underwater ballet made up of simple and practiced pirouettes. Occasionally one breaks formation to nab at the cow-shark which is certainly done but still the conductor in all of this; the carcass gives up meat. We remark this in wonderment because it’s nature in its most present tense and we’re accidental witnesses to it. Yippers hauls the carcass halfway onto the boat—for a picture, at least—because in our awe we also want to document this and report back to the shark experts at the SW campus: ‘What’re we seeing exactly?’ What type of shark is this?’
We eventually leave the cow-shark to its posthumous stay atop the waters. Our photos have been taken, our curiosity piqued, and it’s now half-past noon. We’ve already seen a gray whale and, in a rafting moment, the spectacle of shark eating shark. The boat plows forward and, while lurching at the bow, I repeat to myself over and over like an excited school-child: “This is amazing this is amazing…” The salt and iodine run their negative charge, and grebes dive into the swells with red-feathered bottoms disappearing suddenly shy of the boat’s edges. The grebes: they take advantage of the boat’s surge and pulse downwards when the boat’s wake lifts upwards. I see bottoms of feet and the constant disappearing act the grebes manage, ducking just short of recognition before becoming a trail of bubbles, pink toes folding in accordion-fashion, green-water enveloping them. Occasionally they surface and it’s a wide-eyed something (the boat’s very much the intruder here) and with crest feathers exaggerating their surprise, pupils pinned, they simply dive again. It’s only a clumsy gull that actually takes to the boat’s wake, dumbly shaking its feathers and clapping its red-spotted bill. Clap-clap. The gull is smart and lazy all at once, certainly expecting a meal out of this, expert at looking unperturbed in the white-froth aftermath of a motor. There are flashes of metallic fish to the sides of the boat but otherwise the ocean is calm. The gull constantly preens its feathers in the incessant back-spray, and, in doing so, is fairly ridiculous.
Murph taps at the front of the crate with his hooked bill. We’re almost home. In the boat ahead of us, the sea lions bark.
The boats stop twelve miles off the coastline. To my eye, it seems a random place to stop, because—left and right—it’s just anonymously blue. In actuality, though (and were you to cast a weight on a mile-long string over the boat’s rig) we’re suddenly much further out than we were mere minutes before. Below us, there’s an unexpected and precipitous drop. The ocean space beneath our hull is now thrice as deep: there’s a trench evident by SONAR; it can otherwise be known by aid of a precisely illustrated and underwater topographical map, which we don’t have at present. This is all to say, we’re actually SOMEwhere despite an above-water feeling to the contrary.
The gulls wheel overhead as if circling an abandoned FunYun packet left on the beach; we bob up and down, though on a very specific coordinate in the middle of a blue nothing. We’re miles away from the shoreline yet the gulls don’t seem to know it. To them: the skiff equals shore. We don’t have fish, though, nor Fun-yuns today.
I begin feeling a slight bit nauseous.
Motors are cut twelve miles out. Twelve miles to the right of us is La Jolla, out of sight at present, and where I went to school; there are limestone cliffs there that run sheer on down to hidden beaches. Unlikely eucalyptus trees cap the in between ravines; there are otherwise seasonal sedges that can cut the hand in wintertime and softer springtime flashes of mustard grass and sea fig.
(La Jolla is pretty. Some guidebooks translate ‘La Jolla’ as ‘the jewel’, which is an appropriate and tourist-friendly description. It’s a misnomer, though: ‘la hoya’ equivalents to ‘the jewel.’ ‘La Jolla’ translates more properly as ‘The Hole’, perhaps in reference to its coves, or perhaps also to its mostly hiddenness: an oceanfront made up of reclusive pockets despite the fact of its famous mile of shoreline—public and well-visited—just north of the SeaWorld campus).
Twelve miles out, though, guidebooks don’t matter: La Jolla serves as a triangulation point, this time the easternmost one. Usually it serves as the westernmost one, which I say only by nature of having been generally inland-bound most my San Diego life; also because I spent a lot of time on La Jolla’s cliffs looking out west to the horizon where our boats are currently staid.
The horizon is actually only a mile distant. There’s a simple math to this, but a math confounded by the arc of water which is big and refusedly measurable. It means I’m twelve times away from what I can see from the shore, and further out than I imagined I could be.
There’s a sudden whale-spout and Yippers and I take note. We don’t see the exhalation, rather hear it. I’m fighting the nausea that occurs when a boat stops. The skiff is floating atop the waves rather than cutting through them and the loss of momentum has my stomach something of a bolo bag: bloated and certainly changing shape. I’m without Dramamine.
Yippers is at the wheel, my head is resting on my knees, and the whale spout sounds north and to the right of us. We both instinctively look.
“Lookit that, willya,” Yippers says, quietly. We do, expecting another Grey Whale. An exhalative cloud breaks the surface, plumed. Then there’s another. Two backs arc out of the ocean: leathery, smooth. The respirative spray dissipates and seeming miles of backbone course the surface. We are in awe as they slip at last into the ocean. There are telltale caudal fins.
‘Blue whales. Those were blue whales.” Yippers whistles. It’s a moment. My stomach, in knots, flattens briefly. There’s a long-ness to a Blue which is an incomparable sight: the Gray in contrast is warted, knobby and small, should you consider a school bus small; the Blue is a feat of flesh, aquiline and steel-colored. Rivulets of water eddy about those last fins upon surfacing, telltale signs that there are twenty extra feet of caudal mass piloting some submerged tail flukes.
This is the largest animal on the planet. Nothing else has been as big. When you see one, you know: rivaling creatures fashion tar pits; there are skeletons on display in Natural History Museums. But the Blue is big and effortlessly so. And we’re seeing two at once. In sheer cardiac-size, there are two VW Beetles afloat in sacks of blood and corpus pumping yards from our boat. One feels diminutive, thimble to a large and impossible embroidery. I forget my stomach.
Murph is increasingly impatient. I can see the hook of his bill through the carrier’s wire grating, poking curiously through. He’s necessarily tucked back in his nook, the encumbrance of his beak and gular pouch taking up the majority of the space, but I peer in and see his eyes, comically on either side of his narrow head, like soap bubbles halved and affixed to his face, a googly-eyed something. He doesn’t blink. The gray-brown tuft atop his cranium is erect and comical, too, a millenary mistake; it will be yellow come two years from now but at present it is a dusty color and more of a cowlick than a coif. It grazes the roof of the carrier.
“It’ll be just a few minutes,” Yip says as he rests an arm on the boat’s throttle. Across the water, camera crews—they’re from the UK, I think—are readying cameras, adjusting light diffusers and reflectors, a busyness of charcoal scrim shades and tripods, to capture the imminent release. The boat neighboring ours has three carriers, one sea lion apiece, arranged in a row at the back of the skiff. I can’t see them from where I sit, arms still wrapped around my midriff in pretend insouciance (I’m feeling every air bubble in my stomach), but I can envision their sea lion faces, vibrissae at attention and eyes all of dark soporific liquid. They are the epitome of cute, canine, with pointed faces unlike the harbor seals which also frequent these waters. Their distinctive ear flaps are nominal things, like the ends of balloons tied off, and the auricles rest back on their skulls.
Jody is Yipper’s counterpart on Boat #1, and she has donned a SeaWorld jacket and gone from contrapposto to camera-ready as the videographers give her the signal. Microphones are on point. Though we are only a few yards distant, Jody’s words are lost in the oceanic lull. Sounds are erased out here in the soundless deep. The opposite of white noise. It’s a clear afternoon, one o’ clock now, and the marine layer is non-existent. The sky is cloudless, the sea not glassy but ripe for Fata Morgana as the horizon is thermally inverted; there is a band of haze above the mile-distant water.
“Sea lions…health…why we do…best part…back into the ocean,” I catch part of Jody’s address. I know this speech: I’ve heard it many times and have experienced its import in full. Releasing healthy animals back into the ocean, back into the skies—back into whatever blue, is the best part of a rehabilitator’s job. This is my first time with pinnipeds, but I’ve let loose hundreds of pelicans; ducks; a number of gulls, egrets, and Great Blue herons. The main culprits for debilitation in my line of work are twofold, and they are opposite: savvy and lack thereof. Pelicans fill their pouches with fish and what better place to find food close to surface than at the end of a fisherman’s line. Savvy, kinduv. I’ve disentangled scads of Pelecaniformes from nylon and barbed hooks, twists of wings and pierced gulars like grotesquely knotted marionettes. Snip-snip, scissoring wires and bolt-cutting hooks. As to the lack of savvy: the majority of pelicans that come in are juveniles who have not learned to fish, nor have found the convenience of the wharf or bait station. They plunge-dive fruitlessly, especially when the waters are warm and fish have run deep, and wind up emaciated for lack of nourishment. Two kilos sometimes—a third their weight down before becoming torpid and land-bound. Murph is the latter. Well actually a little of both.
Murph had grown accustomed to our faces (in ‘My Fair Lady’ style). After a stint of rehab, he was released not once, not twice, but thrice–each release further away from the SeaWorld campus. And each and every time, he would stubbornly return to perch atop the outdoor pens, floppy feet slip-slapping the chain-link mesh, forever eyeballing the food trays of capelin. Let me in, let me in! He knew where to go—where to go to “diet” at least. He’d be allowed readmission once his weight dropped enough to warrant another round of calories. Murphy’s Law: free bird doesn’t like freedom.
The moment has come. I see Jody kneel to release the pins on her pinniped carriers, so I ready myself at Murph’s. The grates swing open for the sea lions and, on cue, the pups hobble out in goofy-flippered fashion. They wriggle with their little hind ends until at skiff’s aft, then slip into the water seamlessly as if transforming instantaneously once aqua-bound. They are streamline and grace. I hope for similar grace with Murph, perhaps a winging away in low camber over the water. The pups meanwhile, take to the sea with aplomb, poking their heads above water in quick reconnaissance—a perhaps impish good-bye—then as quickly disappear. There is applause.
“OK, Murph—your turn.” Yippers looks amused, still leaning against the helm. It’s not often we take to the Trench to release birds—it’s usually sea dogs and dolphins. Murph misses his cue as I swing the gate open. He slaps his feet—once, twice—then cocks his head. I have to wrest his beak gently and coax him out. He half-opens his wings in complaint, then acquiesces as I slide him from the carrier. Yip emits a chuckle. The cameras are staid, so there’s no documentation as I pin Murph by his humeri and steady him over the ocean. I have one hand on his bill, finger slid in between his mandible and maxillae to allow him to breathe. I half hoist him outwards and let go. I hope for some drama, but Murph just plops unceremoniously into the deep and sits. He bobs impotently and paddles his feet as if treading water (though he’s perfectly buoyant), goes absolutely nowhere. I imagine he blinks, but I see only his back, and it takes him gumption and a good three minutes before he decides to—’well, guess I gotta go’—scoot. He swims eastward, which is at least opposite SeaWorld, and toward the open sea. Then he stops and again bobs. It’s the most undramatic release ever, but though lacking theater, Murph is at least where he belongs. There is that.
We ready the boats to leave, camera equipment and refractors folded. I’m thankful to feel the thrum of a motor: movement will settle my discombobulated stomach. Carriers are stowed, and the sea lions have disappeared. Only Murph remains steadfastly motionless as the skiffs rev into an about-face and head southwestward. Twelve miles return trip—should take an hour or so. Another twenty minutes and we’d be in Mexico waters, the golden bull ring coastal and Tijuana glinting like a rhinestone tiara. Yip accelerates and we pull alongside Jody and crew as we cut across the glass. We leave a wake, the only whitewater this far out, until—seemingly out of nowhere and behind us—appear tiny crests in the distance.
Jody is the first to notice as she’s not piloting, but rather taking in the view. She signals to Yippers who peers over his right shoulder and smiles. “You’re in for a treat,” he drawls, and slows the boat some. He knows this is my first time—that, and he’s never tired of oceanic wonder despite his veteran status—so doesn’t explain, just keeps peeking over his shoulder. “You’ll want to lay down in front,” he directs. I oblige, taking my place on the bow, and look over my shoulder, too, as the crests materialize and outwardly multiply. Soon the horizon is glittery with flecks of white, and—wow—there are scything fins cutting the water, blunted gray triangles cresting and falling sinuously in the water. They look like penny arcade horses, operating as if on rigs, up-down, up-down, fast approaching. We collectively decelerate, our own wakes slo-churning twin trails. We are beacons.
Quick as silver, they are upon us! Hundreds—literal hundreds!—of dolphins fast-tracking through the sea, metallic bombers with hourglass signatures on their sides. “Commons,” Yippers laconically says. Delphinus delphi, and a super-pod of them! They overtake us and we gas the motors slightly to keep up. I cross my arms beneath my chin and lay horizontal with the water. There are dolphins within reach, all pulsing aquiline muscle, just feet from the bow. In, out, through: they dart intrepidly, no time for acrobatics, blurs of gray and white just speeding in one collective direction. I see their caudals pump up and down in meter, their blowholes occasioning a quick exhale-inhale, backs occasionally cresting the surface, eyes determinedly open against the flow. They move like the hands of kahiko dancers but in fast-motion–perfect sine wave–graceful, lithe, and exceedingly able.
I am dumbfounded. I remember something seemingly unrelated, something from adolescence: I saw the Grand Canyon when I was younger; the endless ravines of silt and ash and sedimentary rock; the limestone and basalt. It was too much for me to take in, sitting on the East Rim and looking out across the Canyon, the whole thing didn’t fit my eye. And I’m used to things fitting in a viewfinder: <click>. I like taking pictures. But the Canyon scared me, kind of like looking at the sky and knowing it goes on forever, and feeling suddenly infinitesimal. Things just too big with nothing to define the corners. And I feel like I did as the young canyoneer, when surrounded by the dolphins in their vast juggernaut forwards, not knowing which direction to look. One can only be in it.
The dolphins are echolocating something it seems. They swing right, slightly east, but unwaveringly south. Jody and Yipper exchange shrugs, and off we tack to follow. It’s apparent we weren’t their destination. We have time; we adventure. The dolphins lead us on a diagonal, then a straight ahead for about twenty minutes. We’re not too far off course and the contagion of dolphins has us not caring either which way. This is a gift.
In the distance is a shape? THIS is Fata Morgana now, striations of lines, not static though. Whitewater reflected up and down in the sky, floating waves—something is moving. Black specks rise and fall relative to the horizon. What is it? As we draw closer, the image snaps into focus. We are approaching a froth of water in the middle of nowhere. The black specks grow wings, and there is a flurry of activity close to surface. It is a feeding frenzy, and every animal in the nearby area has somehow been alerted. There is probably some shallow-dwelling school of sardines or mackerel in transit which has piqued the interest of not just the dolphins, but sea lions, harbor seals, and their aerial neighbors the pelicans. The sea dogs somersault in the foam creating hundreds of individual splashes, and the dolphins, as well, are leaping and twisting back and forth, their acrobatics finally at play. Pelicans fold their wings tight to their bodies and plummet, seemingly buckshot from the sky, their pouches fully open and extended to swallow the water and whatever fish with it. They break the surface post-dive and wing upwards, so there is a yo-yo of aviiformes, plunging and rising, plunging and rising. The gestalt is incredible, and we stop our motors at a respectful distance to gawk.
Yippers gives another low whistle, and we are otherwise mute. Pods of dolphins are descending from all directions—not just the pod we followed—and how could a school of fish be so big as to sate so many appetites? The scope of the frenzy is big, Taj Mahal big, Mt. RUSHmore big—it is monumental and just as beautiful, the animals competing in a mutual trapeze, a real life Cirque de la Mer. We watch the water until it calms slightly, a boiling pot turned to simmer, and—respectfully—we idle away slowly, our senses having been satiated by this accidental and serendipitous feast. We tack left and return home.
‘How could this be,’ I ask myself, ‘That so much splendor was afforded us in three short hours?’ A gray whale, two blues, a trench-dwelling shark, a megapod of commons, and the menagerie of every feathered and finned thing in the surrounding environs descended on one spot: it was as if Poseidon himself was orchestrating a thank you for returning his children to the kingdom, a languorous Murph included. Speaking of, I look over my shoulder to see if our wayward pelican is hot-tailing it in pursuit of our wake but—no—just the erstwhile gulls again as we approach terra firma. They clap-clap their bills, vermillion spots on their maxillae red flares of greeting. Again, no FunYuns, sorry. We dock anonymously enough, empty crates and full hearts. My stomach is even normal, and my legs have proven seaworthy. I de-boat comfortably, take one last look at the horizon. That faint black speck could be Murph. Maybe? The day has proven that, if anything, more fantastic things can happen.
Postscript: Yes, Murph did return. One day later.