The ocean can look so vast and impersonalnothing but waves rolling from here to infinity. But going after minkes in a small boat with Jon Stern, a Florida State University marine biologist, opened my eyes to the sea in a new way. He could read the waters around Washingtons San Juan Islands and the habits of the whales that return there each summer. Suddenly, what had been an unvaried expanse of saltwater turned into a neighborhood, with whales working along the edges of swirling currents and undersea hills and homing in on flurries of birds that announced the presence of balls of herring. Better yet, Jon recognized some of the whales by their size and the unique shape of their dorsal fins. He would gun the boat engine and make a pass as the whale surfaced, yelling something like, Wow! Thats Tribbles again, the one we saw two days ago, while at the same time trying to take identification photographs, write notes, and steer.
Somehow this ability to find one modest-size whale in an immense ocean and get a sense of its daily rounds made the watery part of the world more intimate, complex, intriguing, and just plain fun to share.
I went on a tourist boat off the coast of Scotland to combine searching for minkes with a visit to some islands where puffins and other seabirds breed. On the way back the seas rose against us, and the poor passengers got the ride of their lives. We lifted off each incoming wave and then whammed down into the trough over and over for hours, worrying all the while that if we got sideways to one of those breakers we might just end up swimming. For the crew, it was probably just another day on the North Sea. But there were sea-green faces all around, and I think I was a foot shorter by the end of the trip.
Flip and I managed to finagle a visit to a Norwegian processing plant where minkes are rendered into meat for the markets. It was fascinating and unsettling to see tons of purplish-red flesh rise out of the boat hold on hooks and be lifted into the slaughterhouse. While we watched, workers quickly sliced the great blocks into small pieces. They told us that they wished they could sell the fattier tail meat to Japan because Norwegians didnt like it as well. I asked what the difference was, and in answer one guy whisked his knife and held out nice, big, bloody samples of raw minke for Flip and me to savor.
Work stopped while all eyes turned to check our reaction. I think they had figured us for city-slicker journalists who would be sure to gasp and gag. But Flip has worked with Eskimo whalers all over the Arctic, and Ive grown used to fare such as giant forest rats and termites on various expeditions. The whaling guys looked surprised when we simply grabbed the raw strips, wolfed them down like killer whales, and pronounced them fairly tasty. Everyone opened up for interviews more readily after that.