“The Whale Watchers” by Derek Otsuji

Derek Otsuji


for Jordan, Aiyana, Alina, Aily and Kai

We were ecotourists
for the day, paid a hefty
fee to watch the famed
humpbacks at their brilliant
synchronized display,
an orchestration from
beneath of the most amazing

feeding show on Earth,
a behavior which, as our
guide, a marine biologist,
explained, is not instinct
but something learned—
and more—passed on.

From which free exchange
of knowledge, from whale
to whale, we must infer
that there exists among
these cetaceans, a culture—
evolving as it archives

a collective repository
of shared knowledge they
deploy against changes
inflicted on their habitat
by humans, in a kind of cross-
species rebalancing act.

The bay was green and flat
as a stage, rimmed by
a coast brushed up with brushy
pines, the weather clear
on all sides. When the first
call out came—Two o’clock!—
we turned in unison
to look and caught sight
of the enormous spectacle—
a pod of giant mouths
launching up—as from
some invisible trap door,

to gulp down hoards of
herring expertly corralled—
then sinking back as quick
as they appeared, a squabble
of seagulls scrambling for
fish scraps in their wake.

And on the upward surge,
how inexplicably our
emotions surged up, too,
fed by exhalations,
a veritable chorus
of cries punctuated by

interjections, then
a smattering of applause,
as for a firework’s finale’s
final bow. A glittering lull.
And then, as if to oblige,
the grand sight repeated

for a second and third show,
each time in a different spot
of the bay, our guide assuring us
we were lucky to get
an encore so magnanimous,
which brightened the mood

of all on deck (we’d gotten our
money’s worth, no doubt!),
amateur nature photographers
proudly showing what images
they’d captured on their
spectacular iPhone displays.

Everything was satisfactory,
our young guide clearly
pleased the whales had been
amenable, his smile betraying
a complicit hand, as it were,
in the negotiated deal.

Then in the clear air
above us—we felt a shift,
a change in atmosphere,
stirred by an agitation
among seagulls on the edge
of alarm, the circling

body in flight tightening,
with mews and cries,
as wings tensed like bows
and down the gulls dove;
and up from the green sea
another flock drove up,

breaking surface—little silver
splinters leaping, wiggling
flickering in panicked flight,
driven up from the depths
on a boiling cloud,
and then, just port side,

too close, Oh God, a surge—
the mouths, cavernous
and truly monstrous,
like a clutch of mutant
bivalves, blindly opening,
clapping shut, as seagulls

squawked and green water
churned and foamed,
a cauldron of feeding and
frenzy so close it rocked
the boat. Screams—half glee,
half terror—in musical

riot rose, one excitable
woman pronouncing
upon it all the names
of our risen Lord,
as a squall of seagulls
descended, in a great cloud

of feeders. And just as
suddenly as they appeared,
the whales were gone,
the churning boiler went flat;
a straggling gull got down
his gullet the last fish.

A giddy calm ensued,
then conversations, in high-
pitched, excited voices
—what was seen, what it meant,
chewed over with wonder
and surmise, the motley

crowd of us awakened, eyes
—wilder yet subtler—seeing
that what we’d taken to be
mere spectacle, ingenious
display of that capacity
in face of shifting pressures, not for

adaption, merely, but invention
and redesign, such that
the creature’s very nature
is elevated to a new kind
of mind, rebalancing
the precarious equation

by which we all, in this shared
economy, either perish
or thrive—was, in fact, encounter
with culture the equal
to our own, a communal
music and movement

created out of ritual as deep
as any need to survive.
It was all of a piece, to which
a coda was now appended
when out of the blue
the first blowhole piped—

then another and
another, like a wheezy
slow-motion calliope
on an old riverboat
toting passengers down
and away, each plume of mist

hovering with a vaguely
valedictory air—
like a sailing white
kerchief. A single fluked tail
flapped like a wing, then
a hand, as the whole roving

herd rolled on, down
migratory roads, through
peaceable blue worlds, where,
suspended as in a dream,
they roam and feed and sleep
and sometimes sing.

from Rattle #64, Summer 2019


Derek Otsuji: “In 2015, I went with my family on an Alaskan whale watching tour, eager to catch sight of the humpback whales bubble net feeding in the bay. We were expecting a tourist experience: spectacular nature kept at a safe distance. What we got instead was an alarmingly close encounter, which I have attempted to describe in this poem. In Dickinson’s ‘Narrow Fellow in the Grass,’ the little boy in the poem speaks of his acquaintance with ‘Nature’s People’ as a ‘transport,’ an ecstatic moment when he is lifted out of the human world into a revivifying space shared with the animals. This transport places the boy in direct contact with the natural world, an experience terrifying and exhilarating at once. It is that kind of an encounter that I have tried to capture here.”

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