A Whale and His Boy
A WHALE AND HIS BOY is based on a current crisis facing the Alaska fishery in Prince William Sound. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, marine life in the Sound never fully bounced back. Much marine life was killed, and the anchovy fishery was decimated. Now, other small feeder fish are not thriving. This is probably due to climate change. Without the feeder fish, salmon are not returning in numbers once seen. Without them one of three remaining resident killer whale pods may not survive because that pod seems to refuse to leave the Sound to hunt. Instead, seemingly desperate, they are attacking fishing lines.
A Whale and His Boy
by S. Tatalias
A WHALE AND HIS BOY
By S. Tatalias
Ninety-seven, ninety-eight.…David counted the hooks as he coiled the fishing line. The empty hooks. Where were the fish?
Gritting his teeth, he pulled in the next snood, the smaller line attached to the main one dragging behind the boat. Ninety-nine. His palms blazed. He’d been working for hours, or at least it seemed that way.
“One hundred,” David shouted to Jade. She had on a thick wool sweater like him and wore the same brown Xtra Tough boots, but unlike David, his sister was old enough not to have to wear a life jacket.
“Ooh, big man,” she teased. “Eleven years old and you finally learned to count.”
“And you’re nineteen and finally not seasick,” David joked back as another wave lifted the boat up and dropped it down again.
All day the wind had been pushing Prince William Sound the into larger and larger rollers and now white caps dotted the dark blue water. As if playing a joke on both of them, the largest roller yet swept under the Betsy Ann. David shuffled his feet and grabbed the hand rail.
“Getting tired?” Jade asked.
“Not yet.” David forced a smile.
“You sure? We can take a break?”
With a clank, the winch brought in more line. David grabbed the snood and winced in pain, saying, “No, I’m great.”
He glanced at the wheel house, at Dad’s broad back. Good, Dad was facing forward and hadn’t seen. No way was David going to look like a wimp out on his first day of real fishing, of actually working on his boat. Well, not actually his yet. Maybe one day.
After spending every summer on the Betsy Ann, she felt like home. He could’ve gotten around the deck in the dark. Not that he had to. In this part of Alaska, the sun barely went down all summer long.
“Well I’m tired.” Jade squeezed the gaff into it’s metal holder, storing it like you were supposed to with everything on the boat. It had a sharp hook at the end, designed to pull fish off the line. In rough water, it could get tossed around and really hurt someone. And Dad would be furious if it got lost overboard.
David turned off the winch, and pulled off his gloves. Angry, red blisters stared at him. He laced his fingers together, turned his palms out, and popped his knuckles, like he’d seen Dad do thousands of times.
“Gross,” said Jade.
“So?” David grinned.
“You’ll get big knuckles.”
“I hope so.” If he had hands like Dad, ones as thick as a king salmon fillet, they wouldn’t be aching right now.
Something bobbed in the water nearby, and David leaned against the metal railing to get a better look. A rogue wave hit the side of the boat, splashing him it the face. It was cold and salty on his lips, and he spit, making Jade laugh.
But he was rewarded. “There. See it?” David pointed at the sleek head of a sea lion. It blended in well with the dark water, but he had eyes like binoculars, as his mom used to say.
“And another,” said Jade. “It’s a whole raft.”
“What raft?” There wasn’t a structure in the water.
“That’s what a group of sea lions are called.”
“You learn that in college?”
“Hmmm,” David muttered. Since Jade had left for college last year, weekends without her and her friends around the house were awfully quiet. And though he got all the best cereal and frozen pizzas to himself, he’d trade a bowl to have someone to talk to before school. He asked, “You learn in college why the fish aren’t biting?”
“Well…” Jade hesitated, then put her hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. They’ll come.”
“What if they don’t?” David asked
“It’s Alaska.” She stretched her arms out as gathering up all the water, snow-capped mountains, and dome of the clouds overhead. “How couldn’t there be fish? Soon the hold will be filled with them.”
David smiled for real this time. Jade sure had a way of making things all right.
Above, the cries of white and gray sea gulls filled the air. Their wings shuttered in the wind as they swooped around the back back of the boat. They seemed to be saying, Scraps scraps, where are the fish scraps?
David understood their impatience. But Jade had to be right. Soon the deck would be bloody with fish guts.
He slipped on his leather gloves and flipped the winch’s switch. It’s clanking filled the air again, mixing with the steady rumbling on the engine. Good ol’ Betsy Ann. She wasn’t the biggest of fishing boats, but big enough to hold three tons of fish.
Tired as David was, he had to pay extra attention to where he grabbed the line and how he laid it down to avoid the sharp hooks. No way was he going to get hurt the first day of the commercial fishing season. The first day he had been assigned a real job, not just a kid who ran around getting people bottles of water, or more often than not being told to stay safe in the wheel house.
With Mom gone, Jade got her job—the fun one—of using the gaff to pull the fish off the lines. David wasn’t big enough. Yet. But everyone said he looked like Dad so hopefully he’d grow up to be strong like him, too. In the meantime, he was still an important part of the crew.
If Mom was somehow watching him from someplace, he wanted her to be proud.
And he couldn’t do that without the fish doing their job of taking the bait.
So even though the line kept biting into his blisters, he kept hauling.
Soon, soon the fish would bite, too.
Comet sent a blast of sound through the water. Sometimes the young killer whale sang songs with his family. Sometimes he whistled with his friends as they rolled against each other or played hide and seek. Now wasn’t one of those times.
Today, he was hunting.
His belly hurt. He hadn’t eaten in a day.
Where were the fish?
With a flick of his tale, Comet sliced through the water.
Strong currents? No problem. He was made for swimming, streamlined, sturdy, and strong.
Icy water? Whatever! With a thick layer of blubber, he didn’t even notice the cold.
But what if he didn’t find fish? He’d lose that layer.
Comet and his family, his pod, swam around the rocky edge of an island. Click. Click. Click. Comet sent another volley of sounds. This is how he was taught to hunt. His eyes didn’t work well enough to see fish in the water. Instead his sounds bounced off things, hopefully now a school of fish, and come back to him sounding different.
Click. Click. Click…and a moment later he heard clack, clack, clack.
Sweeping his flat tail up and down, Comet shot forward. Forward he shot. And fast. Faster than any other creature in the water. Except the older whales of course. And except those noisy things that weren’t alive exactly, but that carried land creatures with long lines dragging behind them in the water. Often they had fish on them.
Next to him, Comet felt the swoosh of his mom’s tale. She surged ahead. Being such a good hunter, she always shared her food with him.
Today, though, he was determined to catch dinner himself.
And there it was—darting this way and that in silver flashes.
Snap went Comet’s powerful jaws.
All he got was a mouthful of water.
Crumph. He tried again. No luck.
He and his friends, Patch and Paz, circled the fish, forcing them closer together. Comet might not see well underwater, but there was no missing the swirling mass.
Crunch. This time he got one. Nothing beat a fatty salmon sliding down his throat.
He twisted in the water and made another lunge. Unfortunately, the school of salmon had spread out and he only got another salty mouthful of water. Try as he might, he couldn’t get another.
Mom and his aunties, and the other older whales joined in the hunt. Together as a team they spun the fish into a tight ball. This time, everyone got a salmon. The pod continued to work together, twisting and turning and dodging each other. Most of the time.
Comet sensed two fish ahead and to the side. And flicked his tail. He twisted at the same time, coming nose to nose with Paz. The two, two-ton whales, veered sideways, their slick bodies sliding smoothly against one another.
He missed the fish, and his next few attempts failed, too. Frustrated, he shot upward and out of the water.
As if his mom knew what he was feeling, she met him on his way back down. With a salmon in her mouth. She offered it to him. Though Comet wanted to be able to take care of himself, he gobbled it down in one bite.
He was still young. At least for a male. At only fourteen, he wasn’t expected to be able to feed himself. How the females had figured it out so early, he’d never know. And he didn’t mind. For many years, his mom was going to make sure he was well fed.
And this time was no exception. She brought him many more fish. So did Patch and Paz’s moms. Such was the way of whales.
When the feeding frenzy was over, fish shreds hung in Comet’s teeth. Fat coated his mouth. The stabbing pain in his belly had gone away.
He could’ve eaten more though.
It’d been a small school of fish. And it’d taken them all day to find it.
Where were all the fish?
Comet’s mom led the pod to a nearby cove. Comet sent out clicks to get the shape of the the shoreline. He soon recognized the area. There was the round rock like a whale’s head. And there were the flat ones that the blubbery seals liked to haul themselves out on.
To see if they were there, Comet rolled on his side so that one eye was out of the water. In the air, he could see quite well this way. No seals today. Even so, Comet’s pod wouldn’t have bothered them. They only had a taste for fish.
Relaxing, Comet lolled in the water, surfacing every fifteen minutes or so for a breath of air.
The adult whales sung to each other, and as Comet listened to their long, sad notes, he learned that some of the other whales still had hunger pains. Especially the oldest who’d sacrificed their share for the younger ones. Scri, Comet’s grandmother’s tall dorsal fin was drooping sideways. A bad sign for sure. The year before, another auntie’s had completely laid flat before she had died.
Comet decided then and there that he’d learn how to catch his own fish.
It was the season of light after all. The ice in the fjords had cracked. It would soon melt away. That meant the fish they loved—the fat pink salmon—came back to find their way up the rivers.
Soon the whole pod would be feasting all day long.
What if the fish didn’t come?
Every year there seemed to be less and less.
What was happening to their watery home?