DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: No camera, just connection

AN UNMEDIATED ENCOUNTER: It’s what I hoped for on the whale-watching boat.

Stepping aboard with a jumble of strangers, I wondered how close we might come to the massive humpbacks.

Would we see them rise up from the waves, like dinosaurs come back to life?

On the way out, the crew schooled us.

Humpbacks nurse their newborn calves — producing some 200 liters of milk per day — in the calm Caribbean, then take off for summers in Newfoundland, Greenland and beyond, where they feed and fuel their 50-foot selves.

Our biology lesson was delivered in English, French, Spanish and German, so I could watch one group of passengers after another perk up to listen.

On this tour, I had left something behind — intentionally: my Nikon.

I love photography, but just this once I wanted to behold a whale with my eyes and heart, and not worry about getting The Shot.

And so it happened.

We saw a male humpback “flirting” with a female, raising a fin in languid greeting.

The fin stretched 12 feet, long enough to reach from the floor of a banquet room to the ceiling.

We also saw a series of chin breaches — one whale bursting vertically from the sea. Then, wonder of wonders, a pair of humpbacks swam under our boat. All 60 of us stayed quiet, gazing over the rail at the giants.

Kim Beddall, the marine mammal specialist who served as our guide, called this “getting mugged” by the creatures.

Fine by me.

For several moments, this whale-watching voyage was a silent retreat.

I wasn’t snapping photos. I felt at peace.

Nothing lay in the way of connection between land mammal me and those graceful ocean behemoths.

I was fortunate enough to have this experience in Samaná Bay, on the northern side of the Dominican Republic.

Beddall calls this place the singles’ bar for humpback whales, as it’s where the males and females eye each other, then court and couple.

I returned to the Olympic Peninsula in time for the gray whales to come by here.

Whale-watching outfits in Port Townsend and Port Angeles make trips out to see the various whale species of the Pacific.

It’s about whale watching, not whale chasing, according to Peter Hanke, granddad of the family that has run Puget Sound Express since 1985.

Coincidentally, his company is close in age to Beddall’s Whale Samaná, which began in ’84.

“Our attitude has always been to be the boat that’s kind of hanging back,” Hanke said, “and I try to instill that in our captains.”

Yet there is controversy about whether the numerous whale-watching boats are good for the whales.

Hanke acknowledges that his fleet is quite large and, during the season from April through October, he noted, some 9,000 people go out to see the big guys and gals.

So there’s a delicate balance between giving humans a chance to venture into the wild and preserving those wild creatures’ right to live in peace.

Hanke said that while his crews are not aggressive in their pursuit of whales, the Pacific Whale Watch Association is aggressive in its guidelines.

“We work in concert with NOAA, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans out of Canada,” he said, adding, “half of us are American and half are Canadian” in the organization.

Watchers — us — also have a role to play, of course, in holding the outfits accountable.

I do believe, when all’s said and done, that we creatures crave the same thing: connection with other living beings.


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be April 18.

Reach her at [email protected]