Swimming Mountains

The birds led the way.

Royal Caribbean manned the boat for this Alaskan tour. The small vessel coursed through bright green water amid a heat wave. With the temperature skyrocketing to 80 degrees, locals acted as if the sun exploded.

Only thirty minutes out to sea, Tour Guide Kelly sprang to life. The former Naked and Afraid contestant pointed out a ring of bubbles no farther than 100 feet from the boat. Regulations prevented the boat from creeping any closer. Eyes shifted and cameras snapped to get a better picture.

Paula, a middle-aged home-school mother, dreamt of seeing wild whales since she was a girl. In those days, her overworked mother barely afforded food, and her father routinely guzzled alcohol. Her family’s poverty ruined any chance of her seeing wild whales. They simply couldn’t afford it.

In the distance, bubbles fizzed on the surface of the water. Black masses broke from the green blanket, noses pointed toward the hazy sky. Their heads rose and jaws clamped to trap the fish inside their mouths, which matched the looming mountains in the distance. Each gulping mouth—perhaps six in all—rose and fell to collect another meal of fish.

Tour Guide Kelly called it “bubble net feeding.” People rarely witness this unusual feeding because humpbacks are solitary creatures. They only bond for this purpose. The dominant male dives 3-5 meters below the water and blows a ring of bubbles toward the surface. The bubbles rise, growing larger and larger, until they surround an unlikely school of fish. Confused with nowhere to go, the fish swarm amidst the bubbles—bees without a queen. The humpbacks catch their prey this way. Once the mouths disappeared, the circling birds dived for leftovers.

Paula knew the struggle of eating nothing but leftovers. As a girl, her cupboards were often bare. She wondered what she and her three older siblings would eat next, but her resourceful mother managed to keep them fed, once making a meal from hot dog strips, baked beans, toasted bread, and melted cheese. Paula’s poverty taught her the gift of gratefulness.

“So do the whales ever breach?” a passenger asked.

Breaching means breaking the surface. Why would whales jump out of the water? Do they feel threatened? Are they showing off? What would happen if one jumped so high it capsized a boat? Paula’s mind swarmed with questions.

“I’ve been doing this for four years,” Tour Guide Kelly remarked with her long, blonde hair falling below her shoulders, “and I’ve never seen them do it.”

As if on cue, a single humpback suddenly defied gravity. Paula’s shutter clicked. Countering all odds, the whale lifted its 66,000-pound body from the water. Nose pointed to the sky. Back gracefully arched. Fins outstretched. It lifted higher and higher, water spraying about its thick trunk.

The whale became one of the snow-capped mountains lined on the horizon. It embodied liberty—something once far from Paula’s reach. She thought the sea felt freeing to her younger self, a once trapped child.

People scrambled on the boat. Many whipped out their phones and cameras, desperately trying to capture the moment. Unfortunately, the whale already descended to the water whence it came. Only she and another resembling Steve from Blue’s Clues had snapped the picture. The pair instantly became celebrities. Nearly everyone wanted a glance at the pictures, although Steve had captured the better one. Even so, a woman begged Paula to text her the lower quality photo.

As a child, Paula craved attention—attention from her busy working mother, her abusive father, and her absent siblings. As the youngest, she slipped away unnoticed. Quiet often she felt alone to fend for herself. Once popular in middle school, Paula’s social status plummeted in high school. Her poverty made it difficult to fit the status quo. The girls gossiped. The boys taunted. She graduated her junior year to escape the school’s ruthless mockery. The distance eased her burden.

The Alaskan boats also kept their distance, but the whales could approach as close as they dared. One swam closer to the front of their vessel as Paula stood near the back. She beelined for the front and gawked with jealousy as the humpback switched course. The massive creature dove beneath a paralleling ship and peeked its head on the other side in an effortless swish. The boat cheerfully bobbed from the force.

“They’re so lucky!” Paula exclaimed. “I wish that were us.” Her childhood forbade feelings of entitlement, but now something stirred. Something felt intimate, perhaps scary, about a whale swimming underneath her boat. She wanted the experience for herself.

As if hearing her cry, the whale turned and swam toward the front of her boat, its nose dipping underneath the water, tail rising in the air.

“It’s under us! It’s under us!” the captain yelled as everyone scrambled for a closer look. Soon her boat rocked like the last one, and Paula caught a glimpse of the creature’s back on the other side. She got her wish.

In moments the tour ended, and Paula welled with disappointment at its closure. Her childhood dream became a memory as the boat set its course for land.

“Do you think they’re just hyping this up?” Paula asked on the ride back, pondering the day’s events. Perhaps every tour had this much whale activity. Maybe Tour Guide Kelly exaggerated the experience to make it seem unusually special. Each ticket cost $200 and only 16 people attended, so Paula assumed the tour must be routinely extravagant.

Her best friend recalled how the captain acted like he had goosebumps. “No, I don’t think so,” she mentioned. “I overheard the captain whispering to the guide what an awesome excursion this turned out to be.” And Paula believed it.

The tour ended with bittersweet satisfaction, bringing more than simply excitement. The excursion overflowed with improbabilities: enormous creatures breaking from ocean depths, and a little girl leaving poverty’s curse.

This is a nonfiction piece about my mother fulfilling her dream to see wild whales. She also deserves the photo credit, as it is the one she took on her tour. I want to thank her for being vulnerable and letting me share her story.


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