Last month I boarded a small ship in Cape Cod and headed out to sea in search of whales. The going was easy, the day pleasant, the seas calm. The voice of a naturalist wafted from the loudspeakers, filling our heads with biological facts and pointing out shearwaters as they skimmed above the surface of the water on lance-like wings. And the whales! We observed cetaceans of the filter-feeding mysticetes variety. Humpbacks rose from the water, just a hint of their immense size revealed with each surfacing, “carrying their tonnage / of barnacles and joy,” in the words of poet Mary Oliver. Three traveled together, each emergence and descent repeated in the same order…one, two, three. One minke whale penetrated the surface of the water just off the ship’s starboard side, and vanished a second later.
At any one moment, only a fraction of the leviathans were visible, but even with their immensity, the whales only represented an infinitesimal percentage of the abundance of life we witnessed that day. The color of the water revealed much of the rest. Water, alone, is colorless. Come winter I’ll crave the crystal-clear liquid that hugs the equator, warm and wet, as will the humpbacks that will travel there to calve. But those tropical waters are aquatic deserts where life hovers only around the oases of coral reefs, many of which are dying. Here in the North Atlantic, the deep blue-green waters teem with untold existence—carbon-sucking, oxygen-generating, bottom-of-the-food-chain, maybe-not-so-charismatic-but-unbelievably-important phytoplankton. Without these creatures, an entire web would unravel.