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A message from the deep

The Atlantic was as smooth and gray as a pewter plate the morning my 7 -year-old grandson, Zacharia, and I went whale watching in a small, open, wooden boat. A white sun burned off the fog around us, though fog still blurred the horizon so we couldn't see where gray water ended and gray sky began.

Zach and I had long shared a zeal to "Save the Whales." In drawings, he labelled his frolicking, spouting friends "in danger species." And now we were realizing our fond dream -- to find what Ishmael, in Moby Dick,m called the "mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood . . . that Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon."

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Suddenly gulls squawked overhead, a sign we were at the whales' feeding grounds. The captain cut the motor and we drifted, enfolded in suspense. We had been warned not to expect much. Time was passing. We were getting discouraged. Then:

"A whale, a whale," our lookout shouted.

A few hundred feet away, the enormous, sleek, black back of a finwhale knifed through the water, its 50-foot long, 50-ton body hardly creating a ripple. The sharp fin on its back made a silhouette which may forever be in Zach's drawings.

Zach grinned. I felt an exultant surge of satisfaction. Now we could go home happy. Then: "Two humpbacks. Spout. Spout." We heard soft, whooshing sounds and saw feathery sprays of water jetting 20 feet into the air. Then two round, black islands heaved up slowly from the water, cruised, then plunged in deep dives, waving behind their massive, black tails with flukes which looked like two enourmous white eyes.

They were swimming in tandem, rolling, spouting, rising, plunging, waving, each time coming nearer. More humpbacks surfaced around them and finwhales circled all in a cetacean ballet performed with slow, stately grace punctuated by the plaintive songs of the humpbacks that sounded sometimes like a moan, sometimes a bellow, and sometimes a sigh -- not one but a thousand sighs in one.

We were in a "pod" of whales. The sea belonged to them. They revelled in it.

I felt yanked back to the beginning of time, dropped into a primeval ocean, a hushed, misty, watery place where the silence was broken only by whooshes and snorts and splashes and songs in a world of frolicking, primordial mammals.

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We watched in awe, spellbound, as if some part of our beings had gone out from us and entered their thick, slippery bodies, even as, in the primitive paints of Baffin Island Inuits, imaginary spirits enter the bear or the seal.

In that way, we dove with the whales, swam with them, felt the coolness of the water and the pressure of it as we plunged, saw the green and black of it down deep. We were at one with the whales -- not isolated into "them" and "us" but "we," all one, the way a musician is one with the music or a dancer one with the dance.

Then our lookout called "Bubble," and his voice rose to a yell: "Right beside us." Not 20 feet away, we saw the bright green beginnings of a bubble, saw it spread, heard a roar like the sound of a locomotive and saw the huge head of a whale burst up through the bubble, gobbling up fish, water and all, the water spurting out but the fish held in by fibrous "strainers" which baleen whales have instead of teeth.

There was a thrashing of whale bodies, one arching so close to us and making such an enormous trough that our boat rocked toward it and then back. When the whale dove and swam beneath us, its departing tail seemed almost as large as our boat and was almost near enough to touch.

Then the whales were gone, leaving us rocking in water which now churned and boiled. But soon the ocean was again placid and there was again silence and emptiness broken only by occasional sightings of whales which surfaced further and further away.

It had been an enchanted morning, and on the way back to shore, Zach said he thought the whales knew we were there and wanted to tell us to save them. I agreed.

But one final message came. With a fishing trawler following us and the shore a faint line ahead, two humpbacks surfaced as if to wave a final farewell. Zach waved back. Then our lookout yelled: "Breach, breach." Behind us, two whales had shot straight up out of the water. We saw them as they hovered a moment, arched, and then nosedived toward the water and disappeared.

There was chaos on board. One passenger tripped getting to the rail with his camera. The whales breached again, thrusting up from the water like rockets, hovering, diving, disappearing.

Then -- crack! One of the whales hit the water with its tail in a gigantic splat which echoed across the ocean like a roll of thunder. Nothing more. They were gone.

The whales in Zach's drawings are bigger now, and we cheer each other on to work harder than ever to save these beautiful creatures.

For often at night, just as I drift into sleep, I hear again that last, echoing, roaring, cracking slap on the water and know what it says to me, to a ll.

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