There is a place to the east where the highway falls into the ocean. It is where dry pavement gives way to briny waters, more like a wide sand bar than a true peninsula. Far out past the towns and the bluffs and the beaches, it’s a land of scrub oak, white rocks, and dune grass. It is where the long arm of the Long Island coast reaches out to separate ocean from bay, forming a jetty. As far as I know, this spot doesn’t have a name, but it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter and it’s where I am going to see the migration.
It is 5am and I am staring up at a blue rectangle of light on the ceiling. The things I need are already beside the bed: socks, boots, camera, binoculars. I sit up, tap my feet on the floor. I’m riding that edge of exhaustion where it takes active effort to remain lucid, a feeling of leaning forward into the day, trusting it to catch you. I make a cup of coffee and drink it and then make another and drink that and then get in my car.
The road leading out here is old: two lanes, no railings, no lamps. My headlights throw pulpy shadows on the sides of the road. There are still long stretches when you can’t see any house or even any other car, just the thin straight line of pavement reaching out to sea. I think of all the stories my Dad told me of how it used to be out here—empty, untouched, pure. I think about how it probably won’t stay the way it is for very long. I think of how someday in the future I will tell my kids about how it used to be this way.
You know you are in the right place when the high dunes give way to low blank swales. A person walking around is easily the tallest thing in sight. Pale gold and twisted, the brush clings to the sand, mowed down by the sharp ocean wind. I park somewhere out of the way and step out onto the trail. It appears to be a winter morning like any other, but I’ve been tipped off.
Geese fly past in sloppy chevrons. Plovers, tucked in the fold of a hill, sleep in birdy silence. I make my way down to the water’s edge. Between the brush and the bay is a thin strip of pebbled sand. I walk along the sand, my hands enjoying my pockets, and see a few other people, mostly in pairs, scattered down the aisle.
Other members of the welcoming committee. So, I haven’t gotten the date wrong. It’s now six o’clock exactly and I am looking at the blank horizon. Someone shouts. There is a single spray of water, and then: an orchestra. Backs emerge, like great black oil spills, breaking the surface of the water with heaving calls. They’re here.
Humpbacks. On their way north from the Caribbean to Greenland, head after head cresting from the dark water. They stay here only for a few days, to feed before moving on up the coast. This is their first moment of respite since their journey up the continent. Exhausted, exalting, they roll over into one another with muffled slaps of joy. Heads careen out of the water like raised trumpets before reclining back down. The people beside me on the shore are whooping.
I grab my camera and start to frame them. There look to be about nine, including one calf, a big group. Clicking furiously, I get a couple of fins, part of a tail. The bodies are alien, at once incredible and starkly real. They are some of the best-designed forms in the natural world, and yet their wonky proportions make them look like make-believe creatures, something a child molded out of clay.
A whale in the water is an impossible thing. Too large ever to see all of at once, we must put them together in our minds from pictures and movies, from what we've learned in school and the various strange shapes that we glimpse on the horizon.
On this day, the water is thick with krill and the pod is celebrating. Long, stuttering calls shout back and forth from the froth, the clicks and squeals layering with the splashing of water.
A fact I still recall from elementary school comes back to me now: all the whales within a certain area share a single song. All North Atlantic humpbacks sing the same song, while those of the North Pacific sing a different one. Each population’s chorus evolves slowly over a period of years without repeating, kind of like a genome or a long story. More is always added, developed, revised. Every year the tune is slightly different, slightly new. I suddenly wished I had brought something I could record them with. And then, almost as if choreographed, two of them lurched out of the water in unison. These two were clearly displaying themselves, not for us, but for one another. They played, mouths open, listing upwards with fins outstretched. They loves the space between themselves, testing it before falling together in a crash of white. Almost forgetting myself, I scrambled to focus my camera and snap a photo. I heard a woman down the beach turn to the man beside her and shout: “I wonder what they’re saying!” I am brought back to another time, years ago, in the light of the not-yet-morning.
It is Christmas and my dad brings me to see a right whale that washed up on Gibson Beach. It’s early and everyone in the house is still sleeping, but we pull our puffers over our pajamas and climb into his truck. The drive is quick and cold and he doesn’t tell me where we’re going, just that it’s a surprise.
We get out and my small-girl fingers slip into the pocket of his coat to find his hand as we approach. There isn’t any blood, just a dusty layer of salt and that feeling you get in a church or a museum — like you should whisper but you don’t know why.
We walk around the body a few times, making a circle in the sand with our footprints. No one is on the beach yet. It is calm and the waves splashing at the big belly are gentle. There’s no snow but my Dad’s hair matches the silver-grey of the sky exactly. Overhead, seagulls swoop and bark. I know all about whales because we studied them in school. I know all the different species and what they like to eat. You can tell a right whale from other whales by its mouth, which is on the top of its head and is shaped like a frown. Blue whales are the biggest and they are my favorite. They can grow up to be as long as two whole school busses. Right whales have baleen instead of teeth and they eat krill which are tiny shrimps. I tell my Dad all of this. He says that makes sense because he likes shrimps too.
I tell him in a whisper that I have never seen such a big dead thing before. I tell him that I saw a movie once where a little girl can talk to whales and they let her ride on their backs. I tell him that I learned in science class that whales have their own songs and language and if humans could understand them maybe we could learn a lot because they live longer than any other mammal. He puts his hands on the side of the hull and leans his head in close, listening.
“What’s it saying right now?” he asks.
“Well not this one. This one’s dead.” I explain.
“So it can’t talk,” I insist, “duh.”
“That’s the rule. When you die you can’t talk anymore.”
“How old do you think it is?” I ask.
“How old do you think it is?” he asks.
“I don’t know. A hundred?”
“More than that” he says.
“Probably about that.”
“How old are you?”
“Probably about that.”
“Dad, I’m serious!” I shout.
“Me too!” he assures me.
We stand like that for a moment. I, emboldened, reach out my hands to feel it. The sun-slapped skin is rough and warm. Just then, he grabs me around the ribs and hoists, pulling me up over his shoulders. He plops me on top of the animal just beside a huge fin. My shrieks scatter the seagulls. Under my legs, the whole body shudders and I bob up and down on the bloated mass. Briefly, I am flooded with delight before my yells turn to tears. He pulls me down. We fight. He tries to calm me down.
“Honey, what happened? You’re ok. Look, you’re ok.” His face mirrors my confusion and upset. Not even I understand exactly what line had been crossed. I cover my face and run back to the truck. He calls my name down the beach but I don’t turn around. I get in and slam the door. I can see him standing, not moving from where we were. Next to the whale he looks tiny and unreal, like a stick figure drawing. He just stands there for the longest time. He takes off his hat and rings it in his hands. I think maybe he expects me to come back, but I won’t. After a couple minutes, I lean across the seat and honk the horn. Eventually he walks back.
He gets in the car too but doesn’t start the engine. I don’t look at him on purpose.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he says.
“I wasn’t scared,” I say.
“Well, I’m sorry anyway.”
“You know you’re very brave,” he says. “You’re just about the bravest person I know, I think, and that’s good. It’s important to be brave.” He looked at me head-on when he said it but I kept my eyes set on the whale out the window.
“Can I tell you a secret?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“I’m not a thousand years old.”
I snorted, “Knew it.”
“But it does feels that way sometimes.” His face is serious.
After that, it get’s harder to remember. He tells me he’s sick and he needs me to be brave for him too. I ask him what kind of sick and he says he doesn’t know yet. We sit there for a while. I ask him if he is going to die and he says no. I ask him if he wants to be buried in the ocean like a pirate and he says no. I ask him if he will end up on a beach somewhere like the whale and he says no. He says he just needs me to be brave no matter what. I say okay but I don’t understand the point. I pull on his arm until he agrees to leave. On the way home he reminds me that it’s Christmas. We stop for grilled cheeses and green ice cream.
When I develop the photo it is just as I remembered it. Two immense animals, hanging side by side in the air, fins raised — a pronouncement of joy, of partnership, of bravery rewarded. I pin it to the wall above my bed, next to an old photo of my dad. Two weeks later, I burn it and sprinkle the ashes, alongside his, into the bay.