A white blanket of clouds hovered low over green water. Alone, I trolled a secluded inlet of Frederick Sound, Alaska. Through worn binoculars my eyes caught a misty, thin break in the horizon a few nautical miles away. I changed course, gliding past red and yellow Lion’s Mane jellyfish flickering like flames in the deep. Idling near the dissolving plume, I throttled down and took out my waterproof clipboard, careful to note the date, time, and navigational bearing of the plume’s source: Megaptera novaeangliae, a humpback whale.
I leaned forward, ready to track it through the underwater valleys as it grazed on layers of krill swarming below, but the whale didn’t dive. The arch of its back floated on the surface of the water like a smooth, black submarine. Unhurried breath flowed in and out of the giant rubbery nostrils. I hesitated, puzzled.
Then it hit me: the whale was asleep.
I cut the engine, not wanting to startle it awake. Water lapped around us. The animal was five stories long; I was next to it in a boat the size of a bathtub. As we floated beside each other, a soft, white fog drifted in, encircling us. With the fog, an eerie stillness came over our world, and I found myself alone in the universe with this sleeping giant. We existed only on our island of deep green, suspended in a sphere of white oblivion. All that separated us was a thin meniscus where air met water.
I drifted next to its vast body, taking bearings every five minutes as requested in our protocol, feeling its cool breath mist my face. I was glad when it finally awoke, too mesmerized to tear myself away from its side. It let out a large snuffle, filled its cavernous lungs with a deep, measured breath, and then curved into a powerful dive. Its tail fluke streamed like water as it flowed above me, and then with a soundless splash, the giant was gone—slipping to the depths below. Gargantuan ripples emanated from the oval slick bubbling where it dove, rocking my boat. I held tight to my clipboard as each wave rolled under me one by one.
I was alone.
Those thirty minutes spent floating next to the sleeping giant, relaxed and at home in the icy water, connected me in a very intimate way to the study of life. The numbers recorded on my scientific clipboard reported an uneventful encounter when compared with the other whales I studied—feeding, caring for their young, migrating to open ocean. Yet it was in observing the sleeping whale that I felt the poignancy, the humbling privilege, of studying other life most intensely. In the infinite power and beauty of the earth, I saw the reflection of heaven. The experience exceeds all reaches of my mind upon my heart.
It is from experiences like this that the true drive of good science flows: to observe, to explore, and to discover.
Bio: Raised in Montana, Natalie Middleton graduated in 2017 from Johns Hopkins University with a masters in science writing and lives in San Diego, California where she works as a freelance writer. Her biologically-based writing wades through muddy research to unearth gems of truth, beauty and exploration.