Yesterday's Magazette

12 – An Afternoon With Whales

Why Kids Need Nature:

An Afternoon With Whales

By Kathleen Brammall


When our kids were teenagers there were not many things that came between them and their electronic gadgets that weren’t really “B-O-R-I-N-G!”  Much like today, they wore earphones and listened to music and used handheld gaming devices.

It was the new age of computers, as software was introduced, making home computers more sophisticated and attractive. It was all very exciting and their curious minds were enthralled. The downside, from a parent’s point of view, was that cyber space could suck them in like a black hole and take them away from the real world, in ways not always healthy.

They had spent their earliest years blissfully unaware of cyber space, exploring the world around them in a safe, caring environment. We have a photo of our kids in Algonquin Park, the youngest wearing a life jacket with his baby bottle tucked under one arm and holding a little paddle in his other hand, his shorts bulging with the diaper beneath. We were lucky to be able to introduce them to the giant redwoods in British Columbia when we went to see my parents. Our kids were amazed to find starfish and sand dollars and sharks jaws on the stony Pacific beaches.

When they became teenagers, and home computers were all the rage, traveling down the information highway was a natural extension for their curious minds. But cyber space is not real space and it was a challenge for us to help them learn to limit their time there. Being in nature, going on hikes, camping, and canoeing was how they grew up, but would it stand them in good stead through their turbulent teen years? I think it did.

It all began with a road trip across Ontario and Quebec and through the maritime  provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, landing us on beautiful Cape Breton Island. Our 11 year old was excited to be sitting with his dog, going on an adventure, as was our 13 year old daughter. Our 16 year old, who was going through a phase, wouldn’t have left the van for the entire holiday if he’d had his way. He was hardwired to his music and video games.

Yes, there was the usual fighting in the backseat, the usual complaining, and I believe it may have been there that my 16 year old perfected the look of anger and boredom in one single glance. However, there was one afternoon when they didn’t bicker, complain or look bored. It was the day that we saw humpbacks.

The sea was calm and it blended perfectly with the sky in the distance, which was a pale grey, and a fine, warm drizzle was falling. A slight mist hung over the green hills, the ancient mountains that covered the island. We paid and went aboard a small boat, about the size of a tugboat, which took us away from the hills into the sea. “Where are the whales?” my 11 year old asked impatiently. The captain said he needed to be patient and they would come.

It wasn’t long, and a hush had fallen over everyone on board as we waited for the humpbacks. Small pods of pilot whales swam alongside the boat. All of a sudden, something larger than life came to the surface right beside us. It was enormous, perhaps as long as 15 meters. Its back was long and dark and wet, and as it exhaled a great spray of water into the air and onto us, everyone became excited.  It was massive and it was right there. The kids were hooked. After it inhaled it dove back into the ocean, displaying its enormous, fluted tail before disappearing.

My youngest son looked scared. “It could smash this boat up,” I heard him tell his sister. “Snap it in two.”

“But it won’t,” she said. “Whales are gentle.”

She was right. Before long the kids had spotted a mother humpback and her calf off in the distance, surfacing. The captain tried to bring us to where he thought they might surface next, but it was a gamble, and the mother kept her calf at a safe distance from the boat, seemingly on purpose.

I admired that mother, her world was so vast and open but she seemed to be somehow fragile in these uncertain times. And despite her enormous size, she had an inherent dignity and grace. I imagined that like mothers everywhere, she would have laid her life down to protect her calf, and that above all else she wanted to see it grow into adulthood, leading the best life possible.

This mother and calf had migrated through hundreds of kilometers of coastal seawater to reach us that summer afternoon. Yet, within the span of a single afternoon, we had all fallen in love with them.

We were out on the sea for only a few hours, chasing whales, and during that time no one had a problem, the kids wanted for nothing, and nobody was bored. We were all transfixed in wonder as the humpbacks leapt and played in the sea.

My children are now grown and live on their own. They’ve been through university, earned their degrees and are working, contributing members of society. More importantly, they are wonderfully curious, compassionate citizens of Canada.

It seems to me they stayed real and grounded, despite the world that changed around them, despite the draw of cyber space and other alternate ways of escaping the real world, because they’ve learned humility by interacting often with something bigger than them, which is nature.

Vol. 36 No. 3 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall – 2009

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