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Hennessey Part 8: Whales

Photo credit: National Marine Sanctuaries, Public domain
Aug 18 2021

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Original Articles

By Anthony Palumbi and Stephen Palumbi

Eventually the insult and confusion of being captured eased, and Hennessey slipped back to the northern path her hunger needed. The chastened queen of a calm and quiet sea. Heading north to the hunting grounds that could finish growing up her pups.

She strode among the currents, letting them revive her confidence and resolve. For an animal like her, every day was a string of tail beats. Out in the open ocean, she might encounter a large fish and give chase. But she usually didn’t, and most days and nights were a solitary, singular trek that led to the next day and night.

But now, not long after her ordeal, on the path north, she felt the beginnings of a pounding through the water behind her. Not the churning foam that cold propellers made, but a deeply rhythmic push. Familiar and comforting, it appeared in her hearing like a long-lost drumming. She slowed and listened. Reversed course and waited. Slowly undulating in the constant green glow to keep her exact place in the current.

They came, lumbering near the surface, pushing a wave along with their great heads. They slid through the ocean, uncaring in the powerful up and down motion of their ocean-crossing tails - two slow giants and a tiny newborn calf. Breaking the surface every few minutes, slowly and methodically they approached.

Cautious! They paused a second when they saw her, veering slightly seaward. She fell in behind to evaluate and learn.

Not prey, not usually. When a great iron hull broke the back of one of them on the surface, or if a little one wandered off in a moment of inattention, then they could be prey. But usually they were too big and too fast and too ferocious.

But the baby was very tempting. An easy kill, confused and soft and weak. Hennessey’s brain flitted through the possibilities, evaluating, calculating. As if sensing her measuring gaze, the large whales pulled in closer alongside the yearling, sandwiching it between enough tonnage of muscle, bone and fluke to warn off attack.

The whales slightly quickened their pace through the olive green sea even as the shark dipped under them, drawing close enough to distinguish the soft little calf from its mighty parents, to see sunlight creeping through the narrow gaps between them. Her pups moved within her, as if to remind her of their needs. She flipped into hunting mode and prepared an approach to strike.

But a shadow disrupted her focus. Her vision went suddenly dim and by reflex she dove. She just barely avoided the mother whale as the behemoth descended on top of her.

It was as if the mother whale could read the shark’s intent. A thrash of the whale’s tail drove a blast of water along with it, kicking the shark into a leftward spin. The shark was momentarily helpless, and  it took a moment before she righted herself, just in time to avoid the whale driving headfirst up like an immense living spear.

Hennessey twisted up and to the right, trying to parry this second charge, to slip through and administer a single good and fatal bite to the calf. The mother whale also twisted and as a last gambit pressed  the top of her head under the calf’s belly, lifting its weight along with hers until they broke the plane of the surface entirely. There was an explosion of foam. Blinded, the shark felt the whale’s flank scrape hard against hers and with a lurch she was thrown aside.

Her hunting instinct now knew there was little chance of success. Or perhaps the mother shark recognized a kindred spirit protecting her young, mother whale to mother shark.  Either way, the mother whale’s protection was too formidable– these whales, even the small one, were too well defended

Pulling away, the thwarted shark dropped behind and below the whales. Still hungry. Toward blank and endless and empty blue. Swimming. Hunting. Waiting.

To start at the beginning of Hennessey's journey, click here