My Tuesday started with my making a clever phone call to Spouse, sure I’d catch him at lunch. I caught him at midnight instead because I still hadn’t quite got the time change down right. There is no excuse for this problem since my cell phone has both times on it, but in my hotel room with the blackout curtains drawn, I couldn’t see the am/pm designation. I not only felt like an incompetent, I felt like an inconsiderate incompetent since Spouse has to work in the morning. And yes, he answered the call because he thought something had gone wrong (otherwise, who would call at midnight?)
While I was in the shower someone called me. It was an Iceland number. I don’t know anyone in Iceland. I called it back and the call dropped. Probably one of those telemarketers, I thought, imagining black-marketeers headquartered in Chechnya or Ukraine or someplace. While I was waiting for my taxi to take me to the Old Harbor for the harbor tour I had signed up for, it rang again. I started to answer it but my taxi pulled up so I ended the call. The cabbie dropped me at the Old Harbor and I walked up to Reykjavik by Boat, looking at my messages. As I went through the door I saw the message they had just sent.
“You are Marion. I tried to call you,” the young woman with the long brown hair said. I nodded, reading the text she had sent about three minutes earlier.
Hello dear Marion. We are sorry we have to cancel your tour. We will refund your bank card in the next few hours.
“We have no guide today,” she said. “Because you prepaid we will restore your balance to your bank card. Sorry.”
“Will there be another tour, maybe tomorrow?” The rest of my trip was pretty well booked but it didn’t hurt to ask.
She shook her head, looking up. “We will not have a guide, he won’t be in all week.”
“I hope he’s okay,” I said.
She looked down and I couldn’t see her expression. “He is fine,” she said.
At the door I looked at the chalkboard outside. They listed two other tours, starting at 11:15 and 11:30; Puffin Express and Whales and Puffins. I ducked back inside. “Is there room on the other tours?”
“Yes, both have room.”
Puffins spend most of their lives at sea, coming into shore only to mate, lay eggs and raise young. They are not spectacular flyers. Well, that’s not fair, I mean they can fly, but they have stubby wings and they have to work at it. What they are spectacular at is diving.
Devon was our captain, and along with me there was Siggi, Frances and Frances’s father (they were German); I have forgotten his name. I think Frances was about 19 or 20; I assumed that her dad and Siggi, who is Icelandic and very friendly, had been friends since youth, maybe through school or work. Siggi lives and works in Reykjavik and has taken some time off to spend with his touring friends.
After we left the island of Akurey and the puffins we headed up the coast, back towards the airport. Devon had set us to watching the horizon for signs of whales. The sea was not rough, but this was a small boat, and the bow-wake spattered us. My glasses were spotted with salt water drops and I couldn’t unzip my coat to wipe them on my blouse, because I would fall over if I let go of the railing. The sky was seventeen shades of silver and gray and the water looked like molten lead. We weren’t slamming down into the troughs the way a small boat can sometimes, but a couple of times I was staring right down into the base of the trough, and sometimes I was getting pressed backward, a low steady ache in my right shoulder as I gripped the railing. I wasn’t necessarily cold because I had dressed in layers, but I couldn’t really feel my fingers, either. I wanted to be the first person to see a whale.
I had no idea how long we motored up the coast. The mountains in front of me, distant, were shrouded in cloud. I said out loud in my head (as one does), “I do not want to be the first one to spot a whale. I want Frances to be the first one to spot a whale. I will do my best to scan for whales without an attachment to the outcome because that is a very Zen thing to do.” And I kept telling myself that.
After a while I gripped the vertical railing with my left hand, and hand-over-hand made my way into the cabin where Siggi and Devon were talking. The tour is until you get to see whales, or three hours, whichever comes first, and we were nearly fifty miles from Reykjavik. It sounds like I was disappointed, and I was, but it wasn’t a crushing disappointment. The sky, the ocean was beautiful; salt spray clung to my lips, and the puffins had been beautiful. And I had a story.
I sat down on the padded seat. Devon said, “There have been two big whales seen near here today.”
“What kinds of whales come here?”
“There are humpback,” –he pronounced it “hoompback.” “There are dolphins, there are minke whales.”
Frances hand-over-handed her way into the cabin. “There is a whale!” she said. She flung out her arm, and I mean really, in a way I associate with Victorian actresses only it was perfectly accurate. “There is a whale!”
And there was.
There were two, with a cluster of whale watching boats monitoring them. They surfaced and blew, and then one breached, coming out of the water, rotating its body and plunging back into its home element like, to anthropomorphize, a kid falling backward into a swimming pool.
I missed that shot. I missed the next time it did it, too, because my battery light began to flash on the camera. I had brought a second battery. Usually, changing the battery takes about twenty seconds, but the wake caused by the submerging whale was making the little boat buck and swing. It probably took me nearly a minute to swap in the fully-charged battery. I told myself it didn’t matter. I would have some good photos (some nice curved-back and tail shots), and I would always have the memories, right?
The two whales seemed unconcerned about the boats that followed them. They would stay near the surface for several minutes, then dive. Humpbacks go down to the seabed and gouge out a great mouthful of sea-bottom. Their bodies sift out soil, gravel and shell and they digest the organic matter like tiny shrimp. We were following pretty closely, though, closer than I think we would be allowed to in the states; and the crazy people in the aptly named Ultimate Whale Watching Zodiac raft, all bundled up in their red exposure suits, got even closer. Once, the whales submerged and resurfaced a few minutes later on the port side of our boat, so we were between them and the Zodiac. I thought Ultimate Whale Watchers had gotten too close, but a moment later the whales dived again and came up between our boats. They coasted along for several minutes before submerging.
On the way back, a school of dolphins paced us for four of five minutes, and Frances went into the back and leaned over, her elbow on the rail, her chin in her hand, watching for them. Siggi and Devon conversed, and when we back at the dock, reeling slightly from our case of “sea legs,” Siggi said in English, “You may have had the best whale watching experience of the summer. That is what he told me.”