Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Whale Watching in Booderee

Written June 21, 22

I love National Park employees. They have answers to questions like, “What should I do here?” and, “How long a hike is that?” I’ve found few more reliable sources of specific information than just rocking up to a NPWS office, giving general criteria of my preferences, and seeing what they have to suggest.

That is why today resulted in me losing an hour in the morning waiting on the office to open. And it is also why I headed on the trail I did from a parking lot not listed on the map.

After last night feeling lost and unsure, after deciding to head to Canberra after being disappointed by the coast, after scrapping that plan, I could already tell that this was working out. I like hiking. And I had apparently been itching to burn off some energy for a few days now. Once I was headed down the trail I was feeling better. And though I like hiking in forests in general, there is something about eucalypt forests that resonates better. The bark is smooth and white, reflecting more light and making the forest seem brighter. The branches are scraggly and curve in all directions. The leaves even seem brighter somehow. And the smell… it is a faint one, but at certain times the whole forest will smell of eucalyptus oil. It is that extra kick to keep you going and feeling healthy.

The path was a 4×4 track with a sandy base. I’m not usually impressed by paths that are former roads, but the sand made it somehow okay.

The first stop, really all of the stops, were views over the water. Some beaches, some cliffs. The first one happened to be a rocky beach. The shore extended out for about 10 meters of potholed and weirdly-molded rock formations, flatish in general. The whole thing looked like a super-magnified image of something you’d expect to be flat. And there were bodyboarders doing their thing. I felt my presence was awkward for them and was just about to leave when one of them let out a, “Whoa!!” I turned to look and saw a whale playing around.

I’ve never really understood people who love whales. Or those that specifically go on vacation to go whale watching. It is like bird watching in that regard. Or I suppose any watching. It isn’t the uncertainty that I don’t get; I certainly go places on whims hoping something will work out and I know that the magical ingredient to a rave is that mystical “vibe” that sometimes happen and sometimes not, totally dependent on the mood of everyone there and some weird alignment of the planets. And it isn’t the nature aspect; I’m hiking and writing about why I love hiking. Maybe it is the cost. Maybe I just never thought whales were particularly interesting. They are large. Great. Do they do anything? Dolphins are cute. Seals are cute. Otters… I’ve sat and watched otters playing for an hour. But whales? What do they do?

Well, the one out in the harbor answered that one pretty quick. They spin around. They shoot jets of water in the air. And they breach. That is the term for when the jump straight up in the air. I have no idea why they do it. But seeing a multi-ton animal launching out of the water about 90% of its mass only to crash back down is pretty immensely impressive.

I stood there, frantically getting out my camera, but doing it blind because I didn’t want to stop looking at the whale. It played a bit more but soon stopped. And in response to his playing, I started to get into the groove of photographer. I love it when the mood hits, and it was on full force today. The air was clean, the sun out, a whale playing in still water. Really, it was going to be a good day.

At the next stop I found a shallow beach and more rocks stretching out into the water. Nothing was out in the water except a partially submerged rock, but nothing was in my stomach either. I sat and pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.*And as I started to put my camera away, the rock moved. This whale was even closer than the last one, and was just going into play mode. Spit a jet, dive, and then nothing. Surface, repeat. It was interesting for a couple minutes but lost my attention eventually. It was also frustrating to now have the camera at the ready and have the subject do nothing of note. I have met photographers who wait days for the shot to come together. I don’t get that. Truly, props to them. I don’t think I have the patience.

The next stop was a beach. Small, narrow inlet of a beach. The type that you think of when you think adventure tale on a beach, not quite paradise, but pretty impressive. Nothing much was happening, so I headed back up the 200 meters of hill. Once at the top I paused for a breath. And as I looked over the water, two whales appeared. And played.

I sprinted back down to the shore, camera in hand, ready to catch the action. The whales were playing with each other. One would slap the water with a fin and the other would respond. One would do the same and the other would roll and bellow. One would dive, then the other would follow. They played together for a while. My finger was glued to the shutter button. It helped that my telephoto lens actually worked as a monocular as well, so I could better see what was happening. I actually stopped taking pictures for a while and just looked through. Two more were off to the right, far away. Another one to the left, even further.

At last the whales swam off and I figured that all the pictures I had would be sufficient. I just stood there dumbfounded. Whales. Playing in the water about 100 meters from shore. Having a grand time. And my standing on the shore observing it all. Lines of people paying $75 for two hours on a boat in the hopes of seeing them. And my ability to sit here all day, for free#, and just hang out watching them in the absence of anyone else. I hadn’t seen anyone on this beach. And I wouldn’t see another person until I got back to the car park, 6 hours later.

And as I situated myself, I took my time. It was long enough for the various pairs and singles to meet up, forming a pod of at least 5 whales. And they were not too far from shore. Further than the two had been, but now there were 5 playing and shooting spouts. I watched them, just staring. They splashed and rolled and sprayed and dove. They did their thing for twenty minutes and finally headed off into the distance.

Without a pause or thought I switched into my 4-year-old persona. I waved at the whales energetically and bashfully dropped my head to the left. “Thank you whales! You were fun to watch. It looked like you had fun. I would like to join you but I can’t swim that good. But have fun! And thanks for letting me take your pictures. I’m happy. But if you came back and let me take more pictures I would be even happier. But thank you anyway.”

And they turned around. And did another pass for me. …

I headed up the hill again and sat down, winded, drinking water. Off in the distance the whales bellowed and whined, groaned and called to each other. They blew water out loudly. And I closed my eyes to focus on the experience. I’d seen them already. And the air smelled only of sand and sea. There was no taste and the sensations were mainly in my legs from walking and arms from holding up a camera. But the sound. I focused on it trying to describe it. Nothing short. Only multi-sentence descriptions. I could come up with ways to incorporate it and build it up if I was telling the story to children with demonstrations. But nothing poetic. So I worked on imitating it. Baaaa-roooo. Ha-PHUPH! The whales had gotten louder. Getting to the end of my sonic experiement I stood up and prepared to leave. Looking down one last time I realized the reason for the volume increase. They were all in the waters just off the beach.

I sprinted down again and enjoyed the show from even closer. More of the same. But damn. I get it. Whales are large, but they are gentle. They are strong, but they use that to have fun. They are social animals. And they move slowly enough that you can actually watch them for a while rather than just catching a glimpse before they disappear over the horizon. They just seem to be having fun.

I collected the shirt I had dropped on my way back up the hill. And I took recovering breaths from my multiple sprints up and down the hill and out the rocks. My day was complete. Whale. Then whales. Then more whales. Then closer whales! And a hike! And great weather. The water was completely still as the whales did everything, the temperature perfect. I could head back now. But there was a cliff overlook at the end of the peninsula, and I had only been looking into Wreck Bay on all of these points. I would finish it up for the view, eat again, then head back.

The hike was pleasant enough. I distracted myself with thoughts. Singing songs to myself. Thnking about writing. Thinking about what it is I should be thinking about. What I need to work on. What do people think about when they have time to think about it? I got lost in my head for a while.

The next stop, overlook the first was pretty. But that is all it did so I headed on pretty fast.

The final spot, what was to be the halfway point of the hike, was my last stop. Then again, the hike was to take about three hours total and I had been at it for… what time was it anyway? I’d check later.

I scrambled to the edge of a ridge and sat down five meters up from the water, overlooking the nebulous area between Jervis Bay, Wreck Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. I don’t think the specifics matter too much. Water is water, and around here there wasn’t much to ruin it.

I pulled out the PB&J and took a bite. I looked around. What was that movement to my right? Oh, those would be fur seals. Swimming, bobbing, diving and playing around the end of the rocks. !!! Fur seals are almost as adorable as otters. Arguably more so, just they usually don’t perform as well. These ones didn’t get the memo that they were to slack off. They played around and I just stared. I need to take PB&J sandwiches to more places. Animals seem to appear and do tricks when I have one.

Then Baaa-rooo. In front of me, maybe 100 meters, a couple whales. I just looked back and forth. Seals then whales. Whales then seals. Then … more seals coming to join the party? Oh no, wait, those are dolphins. A pod of about ten dolphins swam in a line, jumping out of the water as they traversed from right to left. And there in my view, as I sat on a rock overlooking, without another human around, in complete tranquility and peace, fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and __ whales swam about in front of me.

I breathed it in. I don’t know if this happens to other people. Did I do something right? Is karma paying me back with awesome? Do I make decisions that result in increased likelihood of amazing? Or does this kind of stuff happen to everyone and most people just fail to notice it? I don’t think I will get an answer. But it doesn’t matter. I know that it happens for me, regardless of why or what happens for others. I know I see it. And I appreaciate it. I savor it. I thank the universe for it. And I get a memory that will stick with me for my whole life.

So what time was it anyway? 4:15. Wait a minute. What’s the date today? June 21. Winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. What time is sunset? 4:45. How long did it take me to get this far? About 6 hours. How far was that? About 5km straight shot back with no sidetracks.

So I stood up, packed up, and started at a brisk pace. Mental calculations gave me that I needed to average 100 meters a minute to get to the carpark just ahead of dark. And I jogged. And walked. And jogged. And walked. And marveled at the forest glowing golden in the setting sun. And stripped off layers of jackets and shirts and hats, putting them in the bag without stopping. And I wouldn’t have traded a minute of the burning in my veins if it meant giving up some of the show.

What did I decide to do on the shortest day of the year? Hike, camp, sleep in my car, and largely do things that didn’t involve me having a heater or a light to fill in the 14 hours of dark.

What did I decide to do on the winter solstice? Hike, soak in nature, and behold the beauty that is the world of large marine animals, beaches, forests, and more.

* I like PB&J sandwiches just fine at home. But after a couple hours of hiking, with hunger and waning energy, there really is little that matches the joy of eating a PB&J.

# Okay, technically park entry was $5 for 2 days.

POSTSCRIPT: It was only a day after the new moon, so before bed I went to the beach near the campsite to check out the stars. Not many clouds, but still the stars weren’t as bright as I’ve seen them. Still, a pretty good showing. And one I appreaciated. And after a couple minutes, just before I decided to pack it in and call it a night, a shooting star. What did I wish for? I don’t think I can say or it might not happen.

One comment on “Whale Watching in Booderee

  1. Alyssa (@aliceinjoyland)
    June 28, 2012

    That sounds absolutely magical. Go team nature!

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This entry was posted on June 27, 2012 by in Australia, NSW (Sydney) and tagged , , .

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