TiBE 台北國際書展 2025.2.4-9

Getting in the Water (Excerpt from Life of Whale)

6 September 2019 /
    All people who love whales and dolphins dream of the day they can get into the water and swim with them.

    Truth be told, it was just too hot. The deck was often so soaked in the sun it burned your feet. Despite wrapping your body in entirety, it was still not possible to block the torrid heat of the sun from penetrating through. Frequently following lunch your cheeks would feel like they’d been baked red resting against a powerful combustion furnace.

    I ate lunch and reclined against the side railing. Looking at the clear blue sea water as it rippled against side of the boat; I suddenly had the notion to get in.

    When I actually disrobed, it took but a few seconds to relieve my entire body of the sunburn-protection clothing that had bound me from top to the bottom. I went over the side and with one leap I was in the water.

    “The sea water is so crystal clear and refreshing….” During those several voyages of the past, as soon as I felt even a bit hot and dry, I would hear the ocean water loudly beckoning me.

    All people who love whales and dolphins regard the dream of getting in the water and swimming with them as the greatest one.

    And my opportunity was finally here!

    At the end of August, before our research project was to end, the boat was near Shih-t’i Fishing Harbor where we met eight Risso’s dolphins. The build of these Risso’s was enormous. I would have to say about 300 kilograms; their body length was longer than three meters. The scratches on their bodies were spotted and ashen gray like they were wearing lustrous-white clothing. Their sedate and unhurried movements denoted that perhaps their age was rather advanced.

    After the boat approached closely, they did not panic and dive to hidden depths, but swam around the boat in circles at an unhurried pace.

    The opportunity was here! The chance to get in the water and swim with them was finally here! “The sea water is so crystal clear and refreshing!”  It was not only the ocean water loudly beckoning to me. I think I heard the beckons of the Risso’s as well.

    The research material on Risso’s dolphins is quite limited. To this day we are not certain of their learned habits and character. We just know their mandibles have two to seven nail-like teeth and their main diet is cuttlefish and crustaceans. Occasionally, they eat fish as well. But how might they react to the intrusion of a human body? Or rather, how much interest would they take in the human body? No one knows.

    During this two-month project we had relatively good-hearted contact experiences with the Risso’s dolphins. Under most circumstances they were always easygoing and slow-moving. After going through a period of observation, probing, and confirming that those on the boat had no ill intentions, they generally would good-heartedly stay near the boat.

    But we had also seen them moving extremely fast at profuse speeds and seen them engaging in all kinds of unusual and weird behaviors that we didn’t comprehend. On the whole, they are a kind of unfathomably indiscernible sea creature, dynamically unpredictable like the ocean itself.

    I climbed over the side of the boat with one hand holding my diving mask and another supporting myself on the boat’s railing. On the tall, tall control tower the captain manned the ship. I waited for him to give me the signal to jump in the water. The captain wanted to get our boat just a bit closer.

    I wasn’t willing to think about things too much. I had but one heart and one mind solely interested in swimming with them. I knew that entering the water abruptly carried an uncertain degree of peril, but I also knew that with any explorative dealings in life you’re going to have to undertake some amount of risk. This is especially true of this life among two worlds of completely different living beings. I understand that excessive misgivings often result in hesitation, which actually shrinks and destroys the courage of trying new things. So in my mind I only held on to the beautiful image of swimming with them.

    I jumped into the water and put on my diving mask. After kicking off a short distance I turned around to look in the direction of the boat. I wanted to ask the captain the position of the Risso’s. Looking at the boat from the surface of the water, sunlight drenched the body of the boat, and in its side shadow, a splendid sparkle came into view. The boat, which had carried us on our oceanic work over the past two months, was now unbelievably remote and unfamiliar.

    The towering wall on the side of the boat raised into the sky, suddenly exposing the spearing platform. The sound of the engine rumbled and gurgling white foam surged out as the bow plowed into sea surface…. Ah! I was astounded, becoming conscious of the fact that I was no longer an individual on the boat. I was a creature of the sea. I visualized the many dolphins and whales with whom we intersected over these two months. At that moment I attempted to use their eyes and perspective to observe our ship.

    The captain pointed out the bearing of the Risso’s dolphins. I concentrated carefully in the water, turned my body round to face their direction, and swam with great force.

    In the water, random floating things went past my sights. The sunlight was filtered by the water and all that was able to pierce through was some wobbling rays of light. These rays, swaying in the depths beneath my stomach, shrunk into a sheath that was like a big funnel with all of the strips of light growing smaller and smaller as they went into the dim invisible bottoms of the sea. My range of vision was only about five meters. Beyond this, the sea water looked like blue smoke and haze spread in all directions and the further the distance away the deeper blue the color became, finally dropping into the endless darkness and pure cold.

    To a pair of eyes accustomed to viewing things from the land, the ocean only allows for a certain range of narrow illumination. Excepting this, everything else brings a nontransparent sense of mystery and foreboding.

    I still hadn’t seen any Risso’s, not even a shadow of one. Despite having already put forward all this energy, paddling my arms and kicking my legs I thought that not only were my eyes useless, in the water even my hands and feet could not compete with the smallest of fish.

    “Come on back. Come on…” it was the captain calling me back to the ship.

    The captain said that the longer I swam the more I actually fell back.

    The second time we got close to them I climbed over the side of the boat and I could see the surging movements of their dorsal fins merely five meters away.

    The captain gave the sign to go in.

    Dive down! Dive down! This time you have to catch them.

    I jumped into the water. The waves and sea foam gradually floated away. I saw them! At last, they were here! They were at the faint edges of my line of sight. I saw three. The three were lying low in the deep waters, all at various depths ranging from three to four meters.

    Their tailfins were pointed in my direction, leisurely and elegantly moving up and down. The curvature of their tailfin undulation was rather large. It far surpassed what I had previously thought possible.

    The wobbling rays fell on their body creating a dancing web of light. It was quiet. Blue smoke and haze filled the silence. Only their caudal peduncles, easygoing and unhurried, stirred the water, like conducting a graceful serenade.

    It was absolutely different from viewing them aboard the boat. On the boat it’s an arrogant gaze down from on high, seeing the dolphin one-dimensionally. On the boat you absolutely cannot sense the elegance of the tailfin movement, nor feel the permeating blueness of their mysterious world….

    This experience was large-scale, three-dimensional, and gorgeous. I was absorbed into their world just by watching them.

    They made but one movement with their tailfins and I had to paddle the water and kick out at least a dozen times. I couldn’t keep up. They never turned back, they never even stayed anywhere briefly to wait, and they never increased their speed to swim away. They paid me no mind, while I gave my all to swim forward rapidly.

    Their refined and unhurried movements were sufficient to calmly make a break from involvement with me and my beautiful dream. After all, the ocean world is their space where they look down from above.

    I had to speed up to catch up. Their shadows grew fainter and fainter. It was like a bubble wavering back and forth able to be vaporized at any given moment. Although I understood that I couldn’t catch them and accompany them fin to shoulder, I still used all my efforts. I wanted to extend this unique experience in the water together. I wanted to extend these sensations of peace, elegance, mystery, and beauty. I did everything possible to swim with a sprint.

    Maybe I forgot to breathe, forgot that I am a land mammal, my two legs came together, reaching deep to paddle the water as one. I was unconsciously learning their tailfin swimming posture. I guess I genuinely want to be a Risso’s dolphin.

    In just a short, short time they had used this habitual and relaxed, up and down movement, deserting me with no exertion whatsoever.

    Their lack of attention to me naturally caused a bit of regret, but at least I got to see them and to see their world through their vision and perspective.

    The two-month research project only constitutes the beginning of this exploration. I know that as long as the research investigation continues and as long as I continue to hold the beautiful dream of finally swimming with them one day, there will be more opportunities.

    As I returned to the boat, I tried to copy their breathing-out sounds and tried to learn their foolishly cute posture of jumping from the water. I was trying to be a Risso’s dolphin.

    Although my dream of swimming side by side has not yet come to fruition, nevertheless I yearn to keep this experience, being in the water with them, firmly in my memory.