Barco y Ballena

Jul 30, 2020 | 9 comments

It was late afternoon and a green-tinged storm of the nastiest type was brewing in the Southwest part of the Gulf. We were caught out. My lifelong friend was at the helm. Captain John Holbrook Hardy III held the little 28’ Mako 254 steady on a zig-zag track through heavy seas following the on screen directives from the boat’s Loran-C navigation system.  Barefooted and clad only in blue jean cut-offs, I was on my knees on the stern deck behind the Captain. I had a broke-down electric filet knife converted to 12 volt with some questionable loose wires running to a big battery tied down near the bilge. The boat thrashed itself wildly from trough to swell as I continued dressing some of the day’s catch. My body could sense the crashes the bow would make as it attempted to slice through the angry sea. I just let go of the knife and grabbed the gunwale of the boat with both hands until she slid down into the next trough. We were in the Gulf of Mexico, sixty miles offshore in dangerous weather. It wasn’t the first or last time that my love for the sea found me a little too close to its foamy grip. One thing’s for sure; you don’t have any doubt about how alive you are at the moment you’re having your experience.

About fifteen years had passed since that scary encounter in the Gulf, but it was on my mind as my small craft made its way out of the tiny harbor of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. Edie was with me as were another eight or ten enthusiastic souls. I guess it was around six in the morning as we chugged out to search for whales and then on to Isla de Plata to check out the Boobies and Frigate birds. It was in the last days of September in 2017. The Humboldt Current had retreated further from shore and, with its passing, the end of whale viewing season was realized. I had about zero hopes of getting an interesting shot, but I’m not so easily thwarted. I had been running out all the mental rabbit trails of imagined whale photo-ops. Those who know me recognize that’s a personality characteristic I embrace, doing lots of planning! I was certainly prepared, but the whales and the captain…no se.

I reminded myself, drilled myself about how to best position my body to make meaningful photographs from a bouncing boat. And, a boat that was filled with folks who weren’t as serious as Edie and I about getting a good whale photograph presented even more challenge. I thought of being on my knees in that crashing Mako 254 a decade and a half past. I knew I still had my skillsets, my sea legs so to speak. My equipment was right. If the captain could do his job and the whales had a last-born moment of cooperation as the season ended, maybe…just maybe.

But, it didn’t look good. After a while we saw some fins and a fluke,  then a whale made a small breach in the distance. You’d have needed some kind of NASA space photo stuff to make a shot. The captain of our boat hit the gas and we shot toward the latest surface stir.

There wasn’t much happening at the end of the season. Any activity that was seen caused all the small craft for whale-watching hire to zoom toward any commotion in the water. There were several small craft zipping about which made for more waves and a rougher ride as our boat jockeyed for position.

I got on my knees. Somebody behind me barfed. I think folks thought I was praying for whales to come or to be delivered from the sea. I got the camera up and held it in one hand while gripping the gunwale with the other.

There was another boat very near our craft, about thirty degrees astern of us, filled with twelve or thirteen people. In the normal ways of the tourist world, they fixated on our boat, waved, and made some snap-shots of us sailing past. They had given up on whale photographs and were just trying for a few take-away frames. I gripped the camera with both hands now, sliding around on the sea-slicked fiberglass deck.

Then it happened, a good breach from a large whale. The behemoth came up from the brine and behind the other craft as if to chase and swallow it in one Jonah-devouring gulp. The folks in the other boat hadn’t a clue that the photo-op of a lifetime literally lay feet behind them. I was into the shutter hammering the scene into a memory card, laughing all the while at how the variables had lined up as successes. Yep, being a Scout was still paying off.

Now that I’ve gotten my shot, I think I’ll clean some fish on the stern deck behind the captain, near the bilge. Where’s their broke-down filet knife anyway? Shout out if you see it. By the way, it’s looking rough to the Southwest and the seas are running eight to ten with small craft warnings out. Set a bearing of 241 degrees WSW for Puerto Lopez, Ecuador or…let’s see…is that Cypremort Point, Louisiana? No matter, bring her in safe Captain. We’ve had a whale tale of a time.

Brian Buckner

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