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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

The Sea Beast

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

July 5, 1978. Prince William Sound, Alaska. Travelling by kayak.

"Four killer whales intrigued and terrified us at Point Nowell- so close to us, whooshing magestically. One huge one came closest to us, curious. We quaked with awe and delight and the whales were beneficent, 20-30 feet away from us." [ I remember that all I could think of to say to my kayak mates, idiotically, as the whales approached, was , "Think good thoughts about our brothers, the whales!"]

Sudden clarion hiss,

the warm gulp

filling red lungs,

cradled in that iciness.

A fearless sound,

familiar as our own panting,

their wild steaming breath,

I first heard them.

And the first sight-

that black, gaunt fin,

tall and fast moving,

diving and reappearing,

sailing, impossible.

My wonder and terror

made me shiver. My feet were safe,

standing on firm ground.

Where ice was floating,

they were swimming.

I was alert for them,

looking and listening.

They could kill me or dazzle me,

I was equally helpless,

floating on their kingdom

in a fragile plaything.

The unknown sea beast

suspended, hidden,

clamped my throat with dread

while it amazed me

The whales never hounded us.

They didn't need us.

But one night as we landed,

just then they passed by us.

The arctic sun past midnight

still haloed them as we watched:

four fins, with the whoosh of their breathing,

quietly acknowledging.

There is a heartbeat underwater.

Surely I felt it, smallest whisper

echoes my own, my own heart's murmur.

Finally, we were quite alone:

two small boats and four small souls.

Sharp for the weather, without food,

watching the waves and counting miles.

And like the world's end they came,

with their fierce joy, with their wild play,

warm hunting muscle, huge and quick;

and again their breath,

moist bugle, loud

and close, and very like my own.

Speed without effort, they caught us up.

fins sliced the water, the water churned-

under, around us, beside us there-

our own breath hushed, quaking with awe

and love and rapture and mortal fear.

They scratched their bellies on the beach,

rubbing on pebbles like great cats,

Their enormous breaths rang back and forth-

inhalation, exultation.

We stood still, hypnotized,

then moved wistfully on. They swam away,

playing and hunting their own direction

The softest touch of wonder,

sorrow without an answer,

both merciless and tolerant

this overwhelming power.

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