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Whale Watching

I lived in Los Angeles for three years back in the 1980s.

Fish out of water is an understatement. It might tell you something about how much I missed Wyoming when I tell you that I got all teary one time when I saw a Christmas card portraying a snow-covered pine tree.

I missed pine trees. I missed snow. I missed home.

But there were some really good things about LA also—like whale watching.

When you go on a whale watching tour you climb on a boat with a lot of people. You jockey for position to claim a good viewing spot. Then you hang on while the boat churns out to sea. The leaders of the tour have ideas on where the whales are and they also have rules on how close they can get, but all that is invisible to the folks on the tour.

As soon as the captain powers down the engine, everybody starts looking around.

Then you wait.

And wait.

The boat lurches side to side. You sip on your water bottle and wait. You scan the ocean, training your binoculars on the wavy horizon until your arms are shaking from the effort, so you lower them, and wait.

You think maybe you should have gone to Disneyland instead.

While you’re waiting, you notice the salt on your lips and lick them repeatedly. You gaze into the water and wonder what fishy things are lurking down there. You listen to the calls of the sea gulls as they crisscross the boat’s wake.

You check the horizon again. Nothing.

You watch a couple who are standing a few feet away and notice how the young woman is trying to keep her hair tidy in the wind by patting at it. She keeps swiping her finger under her eyes as if she’s afraid her mascara is running, which it is.

First date, you decide.

Somebody points and yells, “Spout!”

You turn in that direction just as a fountain of water spatters the surface of the sea. Then the maw of a blue whale rises up out of the liquid floor, followed by the massive barnacled slide of a whale body. Then the tail, etched with white scars, flips way up into the air and back down, slamming the surface.

A curtain of water splashes the crowd on the boat. Everybody laughs and applauds (as if the whale were performing a stunt). You giggle with your friends as you wipe the salty water from your face. You show off your photos and look at theirs.

Then you wait, again. And wait. On a two-hour tour, that might be all the whale you see. Sometimes no whale appears at all.

Waiting for the creative muse to show, I’ve decided, is a lot like a whale watching tour.

The ratio of waiting time to the arrival of creative insight is a lot to a little. Sometimes nothing worth anything arrives. Delete, delete.

But still, you’ve got to get on that boat. You’ve got to stay alert.

You’ve got to go out to sea if you want to see a whale, and you’ve got to show up to the page if you want to write.


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