EVER SINCE I WAS A CHILD, I have heard the sea in some way or another. The salt wind that wrapped itself around my life from infancy; the distant beat of the waves that lulled me to sleep; the haunting calls of seals that echoed around the caves and up from the pebble beaches as I walked the coastal path along the cliffs; the throaty caw of fire crow marking her place on the edges, on the fringe between land and sea. When I first sailed the North Sea, I learned to listen to the wind in the sails, the hum of the rigging, the creaking of an old wooden boat. At nights, off watch, I would press my ear against the hull to listen to the water running past beneath. I’ve always liked dimly hearing the comings and goings of a crew around me, the knowledge that these sounds mean things are being taken care of while I sleep. Sailing on Balaena, there was a point where the sea seemed as if it was boiling, the globed heads of pilot whales breaking the surface like bubbles. We could hear their bright whistling sounds swooping through the fibres of the hull. I’ve heard the whistles and clicks of hundreds of dolphins that have raced and splashed over to the boat to hurtle past and bow ride, keeping time with us. I’ve heard the long, strange moans of baleen whales, and the long blow of fin whales surfacing. I’ve been mesmerised by the metronomic click, click of sperm whales searching the depths, speeding up to a purr as they locate their prey. These have mingled together in what has become my personal soundscape of the sea.
There is one whale that sets itself apart with regard to sound. The humpback, Megaptera novaeangliae. I first saw a humpback when I was aboard Balaena, mere hours out of the harbour, as if the boat’s name had charmed the baleen whale to the surface. It wasn’t the best sighting—a dark back, a small, stubby dorsal, the humped rounding that gave the creature its common name—but as it rolled and dived, its fluke flicked upwards, displaying the white-patterned underside that is an identification feature of the animal, and I was overjoyed. The sightings got better. One gold-drenched evening as the sun was setting, I was coming out of the galley after washing up, my hands salty, puckered, and cold. (All of the dishwashing on Balaena is done in salt water during a long sail. Although in the offshore world there is water all around, fresh water is a precious resource.) As I came up through the companionway, all the crew were looking over the guard rail on the port side of the boat. I craned my head around the spray hood to see what they were watching, the water streaked with the setting sun, and there, barely metres from the hull, a humpback whale erupted through the skin of the sea, stealing my breath as it rose out of the water, into the air, until only the fluke remained submerged. Nobbled head, droplets flying like jewels, down the rorqual lines of the creature’s throat. The long white pectoral fins moved elegantly through the air, and, for a moment, it seemed that it would defy gravity entirely and continue to travel upwards. Eventually, gravity called the great creature back to the sea, and it came crashing to the surface with a loud splash, the water rippling outwards. I couldn’t have planned my exit from the galley more perfectly, and I was left feeling incredibly lucky that the whale had chosen that exact moment to breach. It was a little piece of the sublime—one minute with hands in a bowl of cold, salty suds, the next watching this whale—the mundane made magical, but such is the nature of sailing with whales.
Excerpted from Move Like Water: My Story of the Sea by Hannah Stowe. Published with permission from Tin House. Copyright (c) 2023 by Hannah Stowe.