May 5, 2016   Joe Cline


by Patrick Taylor

Have you ever heard Orcas coughing? Believe me, it’s not a pretty sound. The majestic creatures usually exhale with velvety whooshes, the sounds barely disturbing the stillness of the pristine airs of Johnstone Strait. The mist of the whales’ spume will hang in the limpid air, at home in the purity of the atmosphere, silver feathers drifting against the fog-shrouded backdrop of the mountains where eagles’ cries give counterpoint to the whales’ gentle breathing. No wonder the aboriginals thought that to be enveloped in the spout was an omen of good fortune. So why would an Orca cough? Bear with me.

The first mate and I on our annual solitude-seeking pilgrimage north of Desolation Sound had found an idyllic new anchorage, tucked in behind a small island, protected, with good holding in five fathoms. Room for two more boats on short scope—but fortune had smiled. We had it to our selves.

Anchor set and dinner eaten we settled back in the cockpit, both holding glasses of a slightly warm Chablis, each alone in our thoughts, glorying in the stillness as the sun slowly sank behind an arbutus tree, highlighting the colours of the tree’s bark, already silvered by the light of a rising full moon. As the sun set it water-coloured the western sky with reds and maroons, pastel pinks and screaming yellows. The water was so calm that the scene was replayed in mirror image. God was definitely in his heaven and all was well with our peaceful world, as far from the annoyances of the big city as it was possible to go. Until…

The first mate frowned. “She’s not coming in here, is she?”

I turned and saw a vessel, all glass and chrome, planing into our private place. “Can’t be helped,” I yelled over the roar of engines, “and anyway, we were here first and she’s so huge perhaps she’ll go away.” Small children are supposed to be comforted by such sentiments when in the dead of night they are convinced that something unearthly is lurking in the closet.

The first mate wasn’t. “She has her anchor rigged out.”

I had difficulty making out the first mate’s expression. Her face was hidden in the shadow cast by the passing leviathan, and besides, I was occupied trying to keep the Chablis in the glass as our 27-foot sloop tossed in the stranger’s wake. Perhaps, I thought, with a bit of luck she’ll go aground, but boats like that have brakes. The new arrival slammed to a halt. The anchor chain screeched out just as the tsunamis of her backwash pounded across the little bay. I heard the first mate muttering, using, in the words of an old Irish song, “a language that the clergy do not know”.

“Looks like we’ve got company,” I said, gamely returning the wave of the white-yachting-capped skipper who bounded down from his flying bridge, opened a pair of French door that could have seen service in Notre Dame Cathedral and vanished, slamming the doors behind him.

Eventually the waters settled and a modicum of peace returned. Moonlight sparkled from the tops of the now much-diminished wavelets, a diamante necklace round a debutante’s throat.    “Isn’t that magnificent?” I asked, determined to recapture the earlier mood. “Look. Out there.” I pointed past the entrance to the bay. As if to compensate us for the earlier intrusion a pod of Orcas surfaced. One spy-hopped, its black skin silver, its white saddle patches incandescent, the spray molten in the moon’s soft path. In its breath were the ghosts of killer whales long gone.

“Bloke in that other boat doesn’t know what he’s missing,” I remarked smugly as the Orcas gave a command performance, breaching and sounding. “Came all the way here and he’s not even on deck.”

The air was riven by a guttural grumbling. From an exhaust aft on the big boat a cloud of gasoline fumes rose and built until it would have served to hide the entire Royal Navy’s famous Force H from the attentions of the Panzerschiff Bismark. And over the mechanical cacophony I swear I heard Orcas coughing, the sound grating, sad and with a quality I could not quite define. The pod submerged leaving only ripples to be stifled by oily vapours.

“Bloody generators,” the first mate muttered.

“Still,” I offered as the house lights of our neighbour blazed on with the illuminative power of a busy night on the Strip in Las Vegas, “at least those lights let us see through the murk.”

“How long do you think he’ll keep that up?”

Once again images of children and unearthly closet-lurkings bubbled to the front of my mind as I said, more in hope than in belief, “Probably just until he gets his batteries topped up.”

Two hours later I was confident that at any moment Dr Watson and the great detective would appear through the pea souper. The shrouds and chain plates of our little sloop reverberated dolefully to the vibration of the generator.

“Do something,” the first mate said, and I knew by the steely glint in her eyes that by “something” she meant swim over and clamp a limpet mine on our neighbour’s keel.

“I suppose I could always…”

“Please do.” She obligingly hauled in on the dinghy’s painter and nodded towards the inflatable.

Trying to come up with the mots justes that would serve the dual purposes of persuading our companion to shut off his personal version of Dante’s Inferno while ensuring my own dental integrity occupied my mind as I rowed through the gloom until I was just off his beam. I glanced through his saloon window.

Still attired in his natty nautical outfit, the skipper of the behemoth sprawled in an armchair, enraptured by images flickering on a 21-inch television screen, a television being powered by the infernal machine that had ruined our peace. He was watching a programme—and I swear on the bones of my late maiden aunt Gertrude I make no exaggeration—a programme about whales. Killer whales.

And then I understood that indefinable quality I had heard in the real whales’ cough — It had been pity, laced with just the tiniest hint of contempt.


Have you ever heard a whale cough - appeared in the May 2002 issue of 48° North


Have You Ever Heard Whales Coughing?
appeared in the May 2002 issue of 48° North