Two summers ago, I spent an afternoon on a boat out in the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia. We were looking for whales, and we found them easily. Humpbacks by the score. Leaping and spraying in groups of two and three that came and went for hours. They were massive animals, some as large if not larger than our sizeable boat itself, and their presence was immediately and deeply humbling on that rare level that only the profoundly extraordinary can reach. With nothing but infinite sea surrounding us in all directions, no land to be seen or had, we were a tiny insignificant dot of civilization drifting silently into a world that very clearly had nothing to do with our own. Though the day was bright and the engines could be started in a heartbeat to pull us back to earthly realms, each moment came only with the permission of air and water, sky and cloud. And, or course, the graceful consent of these immense creatures, any one of whom, it was fairly clear, could swiftly sink our little bubble of dry land should they have the slightest inclination.
At one point, I was leaning over the side of the boat simply admiring the remarkable aquamarine water, its shimmering sun-soaked clarity a revelation, when an enormous humpback drifted suddenly up from the brine below and surfaced just three or so feet away. And there we were. She (or he, I don’t know) and I. Face to face. So close I could have touched her with little effort. She drifted with the boat, and for about a minute or so we were utterly eye to eye. I was watching her and she quite clearly was watching me.
I don’t know what I saw that day. I can’t claim to possess the wisdom necessary to truly distill an experience like that into truth, but I can say this with absolute certainty: Those eyes I looked into that day were alive. Behind them was a sentient being. And it was not human. I was peering into an alien world, the door opened by this lone sentinel who was quite unmistakably as curious about me as I was about her.