Where We Swim
by Ingrid Horrocks
Published July 2021
Natasha, Lena and I were wrapped up in blankets against the wind on a boat. At first it seemed we weren’t going to see much. The air was filled with the chatty voiceover of a woman who kept talking about how their boat had built a relationship with the whales, how the whales had learnt to trust her and had become curious about her. It all seemed both appealing and implausible – as if the whales liked us watching them.
The boat moved further out on the slightly choppy waters from Fremantle, where we’d visited the weekend markets, and the passengers settled down on the decks to wait. There were about forty of us, Australians and ‘foreign’ tourists alike in sandals and windbreakers.
We headed in the direction of Rottnest Island, Wadjemup in the Noongar language, which during the last ice age was part of the mainland, accessible on foot. It only became cut off when global sea levels rose as the polar ice caps melted again, seven to nine thousand years ago. I’d read that oral histories, astoundingly, told of the time before, when Wadjemup was an important meeting place. In what moment did the stories declare it an island, I wondered, and when did the walk become an impossible swim, the water rising from ankle to knee to neck to throat?
The island had been used for almost a century from 1838 as a site of Aboriginal incarceration and forced labour. Some prisoners had been hanged there. This hadn’t stopped it becoming a popular holiday destination.
Lena and Natasha were quiet, watching the sea for signs of life. The boat rocked as it moved slowly further from shore.
Then, after a time that seemed much shorter than we’d anticipated, among the waves about 100 metres away, a small whale made a crescent as it surfaced followed by the bulk of its mother. One … two, one … two, they crested in turn, each breaching the surface of the water almost sleepily, before disappearing, crescent moons rising and setting in the water.
The pair seemed more intent on their own doings than curious about us. Maybe the ferry to Rottnest had woken them and now the calf wanted to feed. I remembered what having a baby woken was like. There was an intimacy about the whales’ lazy movements, but they stayed their distance, and then disappeared altogether.
After that, not much happened for a while. The three of us went down into the cabin, almost below sea level, and the girls got me to read to them. I thought they were simply finding the book exciting, with its demons and fairies and the brave brother and sister working together to defeat evil. Who wouldn’t want to imagine such a world? But perhaps their insistence I read whenever we were alone was also about returning to the intimacy of the three of us – of getting back their mother’s full attention.
On a seat nearby a woman burped and vomited discreetly into a plastic bag. Her husband was silent but close beside her. The boat rocked gently. I read on. A young woman, pretty with her hair in a bun and pale tattooed arms with swirled lines right down to vulnerable wrists, stroked her partner’s long hair as she lay back on the cabin floor, eyes closed. Natasha looked pale too, almost grey. We started to wonder when we could go back. We were done. We’d seen our whale.
But that wasn’t it.
We’d been out nearly an hour and a half when the crew announced they’d sighted a pod of three large males.
‘I thought a pod was a whole group,’ Lena commented, as we headed upstairs to stare again at what looked like empty sea.
I had too. But a pod, it turned out, could be as small as two whales. The term simply means a group formed through biological connection, or through friendship. A pod might be together for a day or for months. Our loudspeaker guide told us there were stories of the same whales meeting up year after year to swim together along stretches of their migration.
Lena’s comment made me realise I hadn’t really expected to see more than one or two whales. The solitude of the single southern right whale, the tohorā, in Wellington Harbour in the winter the year before had seemed, well, normal. Now I saw the stark solitariness of a whale alone in an ocean. The term ‘rare’ signalled that kind of solitude as well. I’d read a piece by Harriet Riley on ‘endlings’, a term first used in Nature in 1996 for an animal that is the last of its species. I was reading ecologically focused writing with my students that semester, and together we’d also encountered the term ‘Eremocene’, the age of loneliness. It felt far more resonant than the Anthropocene, the age of humans. The age of loneliness affected us all.
But loneliness wasn’t a problem for these humpbacks. Since hunting was stopped in the 1960s the population, thought to have dropped to as low as 450, had recovered. Our loudspeaker guide told us that as many as 25,000 humpbacks migrate annually now, which is close to the estimates of pre-1900 populations. This felt like an unlikely good news environmental story, a much-needed tale of having found a way to inhabit a space together without one group displacing another.
At first, the pod of three whales was just glimpses of grey in the distance while our boat tried to find its rhythm of plunge and rise. Once we found their measure, we were able to move so we were right alongside each time they surfaced after an underwater streak. The three of them swam in parallel to one another, taking turns rising, just breaching the surface of the water, then going beneath again with a great fluid tail flick. One … two … three … one … two … three. Each time a fluke turned upwards it briefly revealed an underside of white.
As we motored south alongside them, our guide told us that the whales would have been swimming down beside these sand beaches for weeks, from the warm north of the Kimberley region at the top of Western Australia where the calving areas are, towards the feeding grounds around Antarctica. I thought I could see Cottesloe in the distance, where we’d swum a few days before. It felt different now, knowing that whales swam out here.
The three males arrived in the quiet waters protected by the island. Then it seemed there was movement everywhere. Ahead of us, another cow and her calf surfaced. Then off to the right, another. The mothers don’t eat for the six months of the migration, getting skinnier and skinnier as their calves grow. We watched the closest grey female rise, then change her course abruptly, going for us, right under the boat. We waited nervously, wondering if she was big enough to topple us. The minute stretched. Then she surfaced and was right there beside us, followed by her calf, the smaller creature metres long and studded with growths of barnacles. They were each a whole ecology. We heard the sighed exhalation of the mother’s breath.
I thought of the grandeur of the elk at dawn at the Grand Canyon – its casual observation, then its dismissal of us, its breath misting up the morning air.
My class and I had also read an essay by the Perth writer Rebecca Giggs, from the book she was then working on, Fathoms: The World in the Whale. She’d cautioned against the ‘self-satisfied’ story of the humpbacks’ recovery, with its emphasis on a human capacity for benevolence and awe, and on the ultimate resilience of another species. We were drawn, she said, to the myth of whales’ ‘remarkable otherness, their strange, wondrous and vast animalian world’. We were. I was. It wasn’t that I wanted to repeat this myth, though. I understood that admiring creatures and leaving them alone wasn’t going to be enough for them to survive – or any of us. Whales, according to Giggs, were the most polluted animals on Earth, because of what they absorb from the sea over their long lifespans. About the same length as our own.
The woman on the loudspeaker was laughing in delight as she talked, reeling out facts about the whales and their habits. We were an hour late and the crew were completely engrossed in the chase. Below deck, the woman was still spewing, her vertigo harder to cope with as we went further overtime, the crew not quite able to conceive this wasn’t bliss for everyone.
But all around us, beneath the water, beyond where we could see, my daughters and I felt fleetingly able to imagine the lives of pod upon pod of whales.
These waters flowed between the whole Australian continent and the now separate land fragment before the open ocean. Later, I read that Wadjemup (Rottnest) is considered by its traditional owners, the Whadjuk Noongar people, to be a place of transition between the physical and spiritual worlds. Spirits travel to Wadjemup on their journey towards the afterlife; when a spirit is ready to leave our physical world, it travels across to the west of the island – towards the setting sun – and from there a whale carries the spirit on.
After we returned home to Wellington, I sought out footage of whales and listened to the whistles and grunts that made up the males’ songs, the longest and most complex rhythmic syntax in the non-human animal world. One whale would take a song from another and return it with a new rhythm of its own. Humpbacks pass song fragments across hundreds of miles. I wondered what those songs sounded like when humpbacks met again after a gap of time. What sounds did they make to acknowledge and guide one another? I watched the footage again and again, wanting to see the way even the most enormous adult whale appeared weightless as he soared through the water, the way a calf slept on its mother’s back, and the way one whale’s long white throat grooves curved and stretched, concertina-like as, remaking grace, they leapt, from water into air.
And when I thought of the pods of whales in the weeks that followed, I thought also of my brother’s marriage, and of the fluid families we all inhabit, broad and strange. I thought about my family and my brother’s family, and how these pods would continue to reform in different ways over the decades, whatever shapes they took, swimming together for a portion of the migrations our respective movements followed.
Even as I work over these recent memories, I am aware of my lean away from conflict towards reconciliation, both in relationships and in writing, and how that can mean I only tell part of the story. But after we returned home it felt as though the whales swam inside me, pushing outwards and creating enough volume for multiple ways of being in the world, for multiple grammars and songs, the evolution of myriad co-existing routes. It seemed possible there could be ways to inhabit this planet together, all of us swimming in the same brine. Those of us who were left.
I remembered sitting on the sofa with Matt and Sonya on our last night. All our kids were in bed, and they were up to the final episode of the Netflix docuseries Living Undocumented, so we watched it together. Then we talked about New Zealand films my brother had made me watch fifteen years ago, telling me I ‘had to check them out’ and ‘these people are going somewhere’. This was the good stuff. He was right, although Tongan Ninja still mystifies me. We surfed through old trailers.
Finally comfortable enough, or with just enough breathing space, I started to talk about the process Tim and I were going through to donate the embryos from our IVF cycle. We’d been unfathomably lucky – a single embryo gave us our two daughters, splitting into two identical collections of cells in the moment it was placed inside my body. This was the modern world too, and I was glad of it. The whales had made me think of those extra embryos – extra, beyond our needs – floating in a petri dish, each microscopic collection of seven or eight cells containing potential life, as simultaneously small and momentous as a single whale in an ocean. It was almost impossible, the knowledge that what became our own daughters, flicking out limbs inside my own watery body, once floated in that shared brine. I thought of the other meaning of pod – a vessel that carries a plant’s seeds before dispersal.
I sat on the end of my brother’s sofa in Perth, my feet tucked up under me and a cup of tea in my hands, and told them about sitting with Tim in a counsellor’s office a few months before, and about how, when the woman to whom we were considering giving these embryos walked into the room and sat alone on a chair opposite us, I felt a tremor of recognition at her Russian accent. That moment was what had formed the bridge, making me for the first time see that I might be able to say yes, I could do this thing. I hadn’t been sure until then, while Tim was always more certain we could. The sense of recognition resonated with both familiarity and distance, intimacy and difference, family and something utterly other. It evoked both care and space. Which felt right. It was an unanticipated pleasure, the way in which something so foreign, and still unequivocally challenging, could have become so much like family. And that family could carry so much of elsewhere. Whatever happens, the story felt like my gift to Sonya and my brother. Or theirs to me.
It was something to move on with.
This is an extract from Where We Swim by Ingrid Horrocks, published July 2021 by UQP.