Among the Whales

Contemplating the secrets of the deep

Walt McLaughlin
3 min readApr 11


Photo by Kristina Delp on Unsplash

This is not what I had expected. When the last hint of the Maine coast fades into the mist, it seems like we have entered another dimension. The 65-foot boat that my wife and I boarded in Portland looked formidable back there. But now sandwiched between sea swells and featureless clouds, it does not appear equal to the vast expanse churning before us.

The boat’s bow cuts through the chop. The chill of late-spring, maritime air cuts right through our layered clothes. All but two of the dozen other tourists have taken shelter in the cabin.

Judy smiles with eyes half closed as we motor along. Judy delights in the impermanence of the sea — how one swell merges into another, then into another, and on and on like that without end. Twenty miles from shore I feel uneasy, disoriented, uprooted from my earthy comfort zone.

The captain spots a pair of minke whales in the distance and brings them to our attention. That makes it official. This is a whale-watching excursion. In response to smallish whales at least a quarter-mile away, all I can say is: “Nice.” Judy is even less impressed. The captain doesn’t steer the boat towards them or even slow the boat down. He obviously has something else in mind.

We keep motoring deeper into the indistinct grayness. How much longer? Where are we going? Then suddenly the captain says, “There, off the starboard.” We look around and see water spouting from the surface.

When it happens a second time, we just barely see a huge, fish-like body glistening before it submerges. Another hump suddenly breaks the water’s surface then slips beneath it just as quickly. Another one does the same. The captain circles the boat around, then cuts the engine.

As the engine’s mechanical roar dies away, the watery world all around us falls silent. Silent, that is, except for the sound of air shooting through blowholes before us, behind us, and on both sides. Judy and I are astounded by it. We are in the middle of a pod of whales.

Finback whales, the captain calls them, the second largest animal on the planet — second only to the blue whale. It’s hard to get a sense of just how big they are until one passes close to the boat, dwarfing us.



Walt McLaughlin

Philosopher of wildness, writing about the divine in nature, being human, and backcountry excursions.