National Geographic : 2009 Mar
• e second thing we saw of the whale was its back. e blue whale is "a light bluish gray overall, mottled with gray or grayish white," as one eld guide describes it, and the back is o en, indeed, this advertised color, but just as o en, depending on the light, the back shows as silvery gray or pale tan. Whichever the color, the back always has a glassy shine. When you are close, you see the water sluicing o the vast back, rst in rivu- lets and sheets, and then in a lm that ows in lovely, pulsed patterns downhill to the sea. If blue whales above water are only putatively blue, then below the surface they go indisput- ably turquoise. Balaenoptera musculus is a pale whale, and when seen through the blue lter of the ocean, its pallor goes turquoise or aquama- rine. is view of the whale, downward through 20 to 50 feet of water, is for me the most haunt- ing and evocative. If the most beautiful hue of the blue whale is turquoise, then the most beautiful form, the n- est sculpture, is in the ukes. In the rst week of our tagging e orts, the tail always seemed to be waving goodbye. "Ta-ta," it signaled. "Nice try. Better luck next time." When a whale showed its ukes---when the two palmate blades poised high in the air---we would break o the chase, because elevated ukes meant a deep dive. But sometimes we saw the ukes close under the surface. ey were huge, wider than the boat, and in motion they were hypnotically lovely. "In no living thing are the lines of beauty more exquisitely de ned than in the crescentic borders of these ukes," Melville writes in Moby Dick. The last thing we saw of the whale was its " ukeprint." When a whale or dolphin swims at shallow depths, turbulence from its ukes rises to form a circular slick on the surface: the footprint or ukeprint. e ukeprints of blue whales are large and surprisingly persistent. e smooth patch lingers long a er the whale is gone. "It s a measure of how much energy is in the stroke," Mate told me one a ernoon when he caught me staring at one of these slicks. e circle of the ukeprint is perfectly smooth, except for a few faint curves that mark the continued upwell- ing of energy. Eventually the chop of the ocean begins to erode the slick from the outside inward, but only slowly. e emphatic ukeprint was another of those discouraging signs that caused us to call o a chase. "Holy smokes!" Mate said one a ernoon, as we motored into the middle of a huge one. Ladd Irvine, a research assistant who served as helmsman, laughed in admiration: "We re not going to see him again for a while." Out on the pulpit, the professor spread his feet for balance, rested the butt of his applicator on the grating of the pulpit deck, and gripped the barrel just below the muzzle-loaded, chis- eled tip of his satellite tag. His quick-dry khaki pants lu ed and billowed in the sea wind, and now and again the breeze brought a powerful smell of staleness and mold, mixed sometimes with an alarming flatulence. Whew, Bruce! I thought on more than one occasion. en one day, as the wind rippled in his khakis and we closed in on the spout ahead, the professor emitted a blast so powerful, inhuman, and mal- odorous that I realized he had to be completely innocent. What I had been smelling, all along, was not our leader. I had been smelling the bad breath of blue whales. For almost a week at the dome, every whale slipped away from us. On our sixth day our luck changed. We saw three spouts to the southeast that morning and launched Hurricane. e rst two whales toyed with us, as usual, allowing us close, then pulling away. e third allowed us to get in perfect position. We paced the great turquoise shape, keeping abreast of the ukes as the whale coursed along underwater HAD JONAH BEEN INJECTED INTRAVENOUSLY, HE COULD HAVE SWUM THE ARTERIAL VESSELS OF THIS WHALE, BOOSTED ALONG BY THE SLOW, GODLIKE PULSE.