Friday, May 23, 2008

Very, Very Special Big

Falling asleep tonight, I was thinking about an incident years ago when our daughter was still learning how to talk. We had taken her to Children's Fairyland in Oakland, in part to celebrate the impending reopening of Fenton's Creamery, a local institution that had been closed for some time by a fire.

As part of the festivities, Fenton's had provided ice cream (naturally) and their mascot, Myrtle the cow. I had never seen this mascot costume, just pictures of Myrtle on the menu and such. Neither had our daughter. Late in the day, she saw Myrtle go by and pointed, indicating that she wanted to follow. We hadn't seen Myrtle pass, so wanted to know what she was so excited about. She couldn't come up with a word for the creature she had seen (truly, the upright-walking Myrtle doesn't look much like a cow), so all she could muster was “Very, very special...big...!” Finally, we followed her, and figured out that it was Myrtle she was trying to evoke. We explained that Myrtle was a cow, and all was right with the world.

I'm having some of the same issues with getting my head around the whale shark we saw today. It's almost impossible to express the grandeur of such a huge, living creature. It is tempting to compare it with another experience with animals of a similar magnitude, when we swam with humpback whales three years ago in Tonga. Unfortunately, the experiences are almost entirely different!

Swimming with a whale, even briefly, engenders a connection. You make eye contact, and you catch a flicker of the intelligence and interest there. The whale may not choose to interact with you and swim away, but you get the clear feeling that it made a choice. And its movements are supple, dexterous, and elegant, often surprisingly quick. With the whale shark, there is no sense of contact, virtually no indication of anything going on inside. The animal moves slowly, steadily, seemingly inexorably, almost like a machine. You don't feel any sense of acknowledgment, much less engagement. But for the fact that it moves at all, you could easily classify the whale shark as non-living. It could almost be a machine, like a Disney animatronic creation.

Yet it truly qualifies as the most incredible encounter I've ever had in the water, in part because with the whales, we spotted them, engaged, and then entered the water. With the whale shark, it was a more chance encounter where we were in the water, it swam by, and we joined it for a while.

All that said, the whale shark did slow or pause several times. Was it giving us a chance to catch up or checking us out? It's impossible to know. It came, it swam with us, and it departed, leaving each of us to impute our own interpretations on its Sphinx-like mien.

My final thought, drifting off to sleep, was of Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Rendezvous With Rama, in which an ancient alien object passes close to the Earth on one of its long orbits around the sun. In the brief time it is within reach, men land on it, explore it, and draw some conclusions before it heads off into deep space again. So it seemed with the whale shark. We intersected minutely with its passage, but seemingly affected it not at all, yet it left a lasting impression on all of us.

It was very, very special. And big. And I'm sure I'll be projecting all sorts of things onto the creature and the encounter for a very long time.

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