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Giants of the deep

I stand on the edge of the cliff and pull the collar of my coat up around my neck as it starts to drizzle. The wind is blowing hard across the grey sea, whipping the surface into racing white breakers and dragging sheets of rain across the bay in horizontal bands.

“Come on, let’s go back to the car,” urges James.

I tug my hat down and we start walking back towards the village. A kittiwake rises from the cliff face below me, gliding upwards on silent wings before turning out to sea, its grey plumage disappearing into the low clouds. The waves crash against the base of the cliff and occasional pieces of seafoam float up and over the footpath.

I keep glancing out towards the wide horizon, searching the broad expanse of rough water but the grass is slippery underfoot so my gaze is on the ground when James suddenly grips my arm.

“There!” he exclaims. “Did you see it?”

I turn to where he is pointing, squinting against the rain being blown into my face.

A long, sleek form breaks the surface, no more than the shadow of a wave.

For a brief moment, the creature’s tail swings up, free of the sea, a black Y that glides down and disappears.

“Oh, wow!” a grin brightens James’s face. “Did you see it? It must have been a humpback whale. I saw a tiny dorsal fin just before it dove and then that tail. Though I suppose it could have been a minke. They’re a bit more common along here.”

James’s daughter’s a marine biologist, studying the whales in our coastal waters. Clearly, he’s been paying attention when she’s been telling him about her work.

“Oh, look! There’s another one!”

Closer inshore, a whale’s black back emerges and it releases a spout of spray from its blow hole. Another rises next to it and they flash their tails together. There’s no sign of them once they’ve submerged but we know that they are there. These giants of the deep are mostly invisible, like the secrets that lurk deep in my past.

“Humpback whales can grow up to sixteen metres long and weigh up to thirty tonnes,” James tells me, like an excited schoolboy. “Jenny’s been listening to their songs and the range of sounds they make is astounding.”

I can hear the pride in his voice as he talks about his daughter.

“Did you know they can sing for hours? It’s the males mostly, singing to the females and their song can be heard for miles underwater.”

I watched a wildlife documentary about whales when I was a child and for a time, wanted to be a marine biologist, but I didn’t get the grades in science. I work in the local hotel, same as James.

“Jenny says that the underwater noise pollution is getting better now, since the new laws came in a few years ago,” James continues.

Three whales rise in quick succession, nose first, their huge jaws closing with great surges of white water.

“With the complete ban on whale hunting and fewer entanglements in fishing nets, their numbers are increasing now. Ninety per cent of their population was killed by hunting, can you imagine?”

The drizzle is easing and the sun shines brighter through a break in the clouds, lighting up the sea with shards of jade and azure. The biggest whale we’ve seen rises from the depths, a huge, graceful creature.

My heart lifts to see it, to know that there are these incredible animals once again abundant and swimming free in our seas.

I feel honoured to have caught a glimpse of them, awed to witness their splendour, grateful that there are those like James’s daughter looking out for them.

The whale rolls on to its side and waves a long flipper. Like the whale rising from the depths, words rise up my throat.

“I have a daughter.”

The truth broaches the surface, is revealed in the air and light at last. I’ve been wanting to talk about her for a long time but have been too ashamed to speak. I haven’t been allowed to see her since she was a baby.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” says James. “Will you tell me about her?”


Every story about wildlife contains a story about people.

Links to further information: British Antarctic Survey report on increased numbers of whales in Antarctica. The International Whaling Commission information on population status of whales worldwide. Information on humpback whales from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation charity. The Sea Watch Foundation where you can report sightings of whales and dolphins.

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