TiBE 台北國際書展 2024.2.20-25

Setting Off (Excerpt from Life of Whale)

8 September 2019 /

    The ship tilted to one side and glided out of the boat basin at the end of the harbor. It leisurely floated towards the checkpoint at the port entrance. At the embankment, on a cargo fishing boat tied to shore, several fisher friends temporarily stopped their present labor giving us an inquisitive look and welcomed us to moor our boat next to them.

    Our fishing boat didn’t have any fishing gear or nets and we probably lacked the spirit for the hunt as well. Normally this shouldn’t be the circumstances under which a fishing boat leaves the harbor. Besides me and the captain, who were career fishermen, the others were cetacean researchers, photographers, etc. You could tell with one look they were “outsiders” who didn’t belong in a fishing harbor.

    The owner of that cargo boat couldn’t hold back and at only one-boat’s length away, he still yelled in his inveterately loud voice, “Hey, where you fixin’ to go?”

    “We were not going to fish but going out on the sea to carry out an ecological research project on cetaceans.

    The captain echoed with a yell himself, “Drinkin’ dregs of some hard labor, mate,” this was some unrefined humor among fisherman. All of the crew on the boat smiled knowingly. (Those of us making a living from the sea often call dolphins “sea pigs” and it is commonly accepted that pigs drink the dregs of leftover rancid food.)


    The captain’s name was Black Dragon, appearing rather plump and round. The color of his skin was the radiance of the sun accumulated over years and settled in the dermal layer. It was hard to use a single color to describe his skin just like it’s difficult to grasp the many colors of the sun. In the black there was a bit of purplish red. In the background of the purplish red reflected a copper-brown luster just like the deep luster reflected in an antique bamboo artifact that has gone through years of gentle kneading. Thus, from the past up until now when we go fishing together, every time I take about my log to recount this person I inadvertently use “Black Lantern” to replace his original name, “Black Dragon.”

    The captain had 17 years of fishing experience and a large whale spearing record. When I originally inquired if he’d like to join this research project, I was keeping the mental preparation of “fight like it’s your last chance.” So I hadn’t imagined that the first words from his mouth would be a commitment to join. What’s more, even though we were hard pressed for funds and I had no way to guarantee compensation for his regular fishing income, he surprisingly promised straightaway.

    After years of working on the sea I believe the captain and I have a deep friendship. I remember one time while chatting he remarked, “In all my days, don’t think I can ever quit the sea!” Perhaps after many years of this fish-catching profession, seeing the amount of the catch decline steeply each year while looking on helplessly at the ocean being scarred and sickened like a mother’s body, we both have deep feelings of hurt and contradiction.

    When we see the reference literature on whales and dolphin stating, “Whales and dolphins are at the top of the top of food chain, they are where resources should go,” the captain and I know that now is the time to be practically carrying out resource protection in our oceans.

    This is a project that didn’t have a plunder-the-ocean mentality. Not only are two of us career fisherman, the boat used for the work was an actual fishing boat. This trip out on the sea was a first step; we were treading into completely new territory. This was totally different from past views and attitudes in the fishing world.

    I know that everything has its changes. The sea surface outside of the harbor dikes is an azure-blue expanse, but since we would contact the ocean from a different perspective, this updated method would definitely produce shifts and surprises, and we’d definitely dash forward with brand new insights about connecting with the ocean, insights that we’ve haven’t had for such extended periods of time.

    I often say to my friends that fish are the ambassadors of the sea. At first, it’s merely the motivation to go catch some fish, but through that, the ocean ambassadors thoroughly seduce me into the ocean’s depths. When I gradually begin to feel that I truly cannot separate myself from the ocean then I act and write about it. I write about the fish in the sea waters and the factors for getting along among career fishermen. I often say that I have become an ocean ambassador too. Through my descriptions I am a bridge, and by allowing my friends on dry land to walk this bridge they can see this ocean world. 

    The bow of the boat kicked up quite a wake. At the early hour of 6AM in the July season, the garish sun had already given rise to its formidable power.

    Upon turning out of the dikes we used bandanas to wrap and cover our heads and faces. Only our eyes were still peeking out. The open air was blue like the calmness on a waveless, light-colored sea in the space where the ocean and sky meet. Water droplets emitted golden rays. The sea surface accepted the brightness and the vast, golden shine.

    Once we were out on the open sea, the captain and I kept our gaze affixed on the surface, searching back and forth. This is a basic life ability born from many years of ocean training. Any movement of life on the surface will immediately trigger an exuberant vitality for both of us. Despite not going out for the purpose of catching fish, we career fishermen have more confidence than the cetacean experts of discovering the whales and dolphins.

    Holding a spear to cast has turned into gripping a camera to click. Using fishing gear to capture has changed into using a lens to get the catch. For these shifts in practice, the ocean provides a limitless and spacious realm for our maneuvers and adjustments. The gap between our ideals and reality had to be broken down into actionable strides. In harmony with the captain’s regular surging movements, I could say with surety that this experience was pleasing beyond my expectations.

    A message from the radio bellowed out, “Get over here lickety-split, there’s a group jumping in front of the mountains right now!” That was transmitted to us from a working fishing boat, telling us they’d just seen a dolphin pod.

    At the front port side, more than seven or eight hundred meters away, a burst of white leaped into view and we discovered another pod. The captain raised up the radio and replied, “We’ll wrap up with this group, then scurry over,” the boat faced firmly left advancing forward. All of us busied ourselves. Among our crewmembers one checked the positioning of the satellite and recorded on the log the position where we discovered them; one raised up the telescope to distinguish the species; one took the long lens camera; and another raised a video camera to his eyes, and so forth. Our fire-like passion prepared us to use every possible method to catch them by recording these dolphins leaping in front of us.

    Our vessel continued to approach. There, floating atop the ocean, our relationship with the ocean was right then being revised, transformed. Whales and dolphins were our bridge. They would show us the way to become more intimate with the ocean’s expanse and embrace.