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The Leviathan

Josh Churchman gets in touch with his inner Ishmael

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Part of me knows that there are not "mysterious creatures" that lurk in the deep waters, eluding human contact. Part of me hopes there are unseen and intelligent creatures that have avoided human contact. This is another example of a dialectic born at sea: It is a big ocean, and we haven't seen all there is to see.

One thing is for sure, there are creatures out there that can and will eat you. There are whales so big that a flick of their tail would sink my little boat. . . .

Call Me Fishmael

The first sperm whale I ever saw was also my first white whale spotting. It was one of those "unforgettable" moments. Somehow or somewhere I had placed the existence of a white whale in the "mythical" category. Not true or impossible, just unlikely.

It was in the late 1970s, when my boat was still fairly new. I had been venturing farther and farther out looking for new spots to fish. . . .

It was one of those clear calm days that do not happen many times during a year of fishing. We had traveled far from shore, and we kept on going further out because the fish would not bite our hooks in all the usual spots.

By early afternoon, we were so far out that the curve of the Earth masked the land thirty miles away. We had finally reached a place we call the Buffalo Grounds. It was one of my secret spots located twelve miles west of the Farallon Islands and twenty miles short of the Cordell Bank, along the edge of the continental shelf, due west from San Francisco.

This particular spot was once a well-kept secret and an oasis of life on most days. This was not one of those oasis days. The fish were not in the mood to bite our hooks, no matter where we went.

There are very few places left in any of the great oceans that man has not plundered. The Buffalo Grounds are not "virgin" by any stretch of the imagination, but by virtue of its remote location and unique topography it remains one of the "secret spots" to this day. It does not appear on any chart.

Josh Churchman
  • Josh Churchman

If you are going to bump into something unusual in the ocean, it will probably be at a spot like the Buffalo Grounds. It may be a secret spot to mankind, but the creatures who live in the area know all about it.

On this day, and on most of the days I spend at sea, I was with my friend Kenny. We have fished together for many years, and we have seen a wide variety of marine life in our travels together. Whales and dolphins had always been a highlight for us on any trip offshore.

The whale first surfaced a mile or so to the west of us, took a few breaths of air or "blows," then disappeared. It was a white whale, and I remember feeling excited that there actually were white whales after all. We had no idea what kind of whale it was, but we agree it had been large and it was white.

This was a lonely day for our little boat. We had not seen another vessel all day long. No other boats, no dolphins, not many fish, and no other whales; we were thirty miles from the nearest land in a homemade boat. Naturally we were elated to see the first whale, and it was a white one. Things were looking up.

The most famous whale of all time was a white sperm whale like this one. The whale haunted the very soul of another fisherman named Captain Ahab. In the story of Moby Dick, Herman Melville had the whale eventually sinking Ahab's ship, killing all but one, Ishmael, who lived to tell the tale. But that was just a story, and this was real. . . .

We were drifting with the motors off, quiet and peaceful. The view from the deck of a boat that is out past the sight of land is a bit unnerving. All directions are as one, the rolling swells being the only constant reference. The swells passing under the boat are like waves of thought drifting through your mind. At first you see a pattern to both the thoughts and the swell, but patterns shift and uncertainty replaces certainty. Without a compass to guide us home, we would surely circle back upon ourselves, hopelessly lost.

Watching for whales is a game of patience. Looking out, you see nothing but sky and water when the whale is down. When they do come up for a breath, it is not for long. They blow out, then take air in, and they are gone again. You can usually tell which direction they are traveling, but that is about all you get.

A few minutes later, it resurfaced a half mile away. It was actually more tan than pure white upon closer inspection. When we first saw it, the whale was heading west-south-west on its way to sunny Hawaii. Now it had changed course. Apparently, this whale had echo-located our little boat. We were the only boat in this vast expanse of the sea and somehow this whale figured out we were there. Instead of heading in the direction of Hawaii, it was now heading right for us. We were going to be checked out. . . .

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