The only other time my husband, Jim and I saw a whale in the wild, it was an orca that came up to our boat flashing its shiny black tail so close I gasped out loud. We were in, or I should say off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia. It was thrilling, but full disclosure, it was one whale and we'd traveled 90 minutes in very choppy waters to see it. So my expectation when boarding the Dolphin Fleet whale watching boat in Provincetown on Cape Cod last month was for a similarly look-hard-and-don't blink experience.
Thirty-five Humpbacks, 9 North Atlantic Right Whales, 1 seal and dozens of dolphins later, even Irene Briga, our onboard naturalist was giddy. We'd stayed inside the boat while it headed out from MacMillian Pier in downtown Provincetown, navigated the circle east, south and then northwest to get out of the hook that is the very, very end of Cape Cod. (As an aside, I love that this pier is named after Donald Baxter MacMillian, a sailor, explorer and Arctic ethnographer.)
We weren't in the Atlantic proper for more than five minutes when I saw a spout of water off in the distance. Warned by Irene that the spout would be the prelude to a breaching whale, Jim and I darted for the door and up onto the front deck. We were followed as the cabin emptied.
We needn't have hurried. As we watched in amazement, the one whale turned to two, then three and soon the water was churning with life to our left, to our right and behind us. Irene would be on her microphone telling us about one particular whale off our port, when three more emerged from starboard. She could not keep up.
I like to snorkel and I'm always amazed at how, from above the surface, the variety and plentitude of life below is undetectable. Then I put my masked face in the water and another world emerges. It was entirely different on the boat. Creatures were just heaving themselves in front of our eyes. Sometimes the Humpbacks were out of the water so long, sea gulls landed on their snouts and started pecking at morsels of food from around their gaping maws.
And the whirring of cameras did. not. stop. The only thing that caused a moment's hesitation was the desire to make eye contact with the other humans on the boat, an urge to share the wonder and delight. With a raising of eyebrows or a shaking of the head we agreed without words that this was indeed the experience of a lifetime.
One month later I was on another Cape, Cape Peninsula south of Cape Town in South Africa. On a blustery southern hemisphere winter day, I took a train thirty miles due south to Simon's Town to visit the colony of African Penguins at Boulders Beach.
There are two ways to view the colony, from a walkway about 50 feet above the rock-strewn beach where a protective fence separates the nesting birds from their observers, or on two long-armed extended decks that run just above the water. Each provides a different experience with the penguins and an opportunity to observe these rarely seen creatures in their own environment.
Here I experienced a little cycle-of-life drama as I watched the hind end of a mongoose disappear behind a bush where a penguin family resided. Mongoose (mongeese?) eat penguin eggs. I was worried that the carnivorous mammal would snatch one. Twenty minutes later an American tourist confirmed it had. From her vantage point closer to the visitor center, she'd seen the whole sad thing.
I don't like the fact that these adorable not-quite-knee-high birds are called "Jackass Penguins" because they don't seem stupid or annoying. To the contrary, they put on a spectacular show in two elements, amusing as they waddle around on land and impressive as they demonstrate speed and agility in the water.
Seventy-six hundred miles of Atlantic ocean, six time zones and an equator separates Cape Cod from Cape Peninsula. And from Cape to Cape Americans, South Africans and all the nationalities in between are squeezing onto boats and perching onto platforms sharing the wonder that is the joyful undercurrent of observing wildlife in its element.