Swimming Around a Plastic Island
It is peaceful swimming with my pod back toward the open sea where things should be safer for us. The saltwater zips around us as we anticipate lunch and swim through beauty. It is magnificent here with the pod tranquilly cutting through the blue sea as we anticipate lunch. We are swimming up to the surface now so we can each take a big breath to prepare for diving down to the depths to catch giant squids. It’s so beautiful being in the pod. I imagine admiring our synchronicity from above. Our swimming strokes are exactly matched. We look as graceful as we are. For a moment I feel so much a part of the group—as if the other whales are attached to me–that I almost forget I am a separate whale with my own thoughts and opinions.
A wave blocks my blowhole momentarily reminding me there are threats everywhere and that I must be vigilant. But it was so peaceful when I felt as one with my pod. If it wasn’t for the terrifying but true story Grandmother told me and, let’s face it, that depressing novel that I found in the ocean and put in my large brain, I could easily overlook the fact that I must remain on the alert. I remind myself that although I may not have told the pod, my secret name is Dick Moby, and I am fierce enough to handle anything.
We swim on some more in the pristine blue water, before I start to hear excited clicking and commotion in the pod.
“We are taking a detour. Something must have happened up ahead,” clicks my young cousin. She dropped back a bit after swimming upside down but has nosed her way up. I heard her saying “Excuse me, excuse me, I have to get to the front,” earlier as we swam.
Before you know it, she’ll be right behind my Great Aunt who always leads the pod.
I am so mad at my young cousin for skipping ahead, that for the moment I ignore the other clicks around me.
Then I decide to change my mind.
What do I care? I ask myself. So, my young cousin is pushing her way to the front. It shouldn’t bother me since I am not comfortable with being in charge and have never made that my goal.
One of these days, my young cousin will tell me what to do and I’ll either go ahead and do it or not–depending on what kind of mood that I’m in.
I reflect that bossy people are rarely happy even when they are in their element and telling others what to do.
I’ve seen my Great Aunt being bossy—almost all the time. But I have never seen her happy, except for the time earlier today when she was communing with the Human who was among the pod in the water. Maybe that is why she wanted to take us to find the Humans–even if it meant that we might be beached–after the Human left. Her experience was so good that she wanted to recreate it.
I keep swimming—gently parting the water with my pod—and thinking how nice that it was that we saw the kelp forest and the sea meadow where I imagine a Seahorse lived. Maybe it is the life growing inside of me, but I do feel more peaceful than usual. I haven’t told my pod yet that I am with calf because they will make too much of a commotion. Besides, I think telling them—since it is still early—may be bad luck.
Then a wave smacks me alongside my head which is halfway exposed above the water line so that I can breathe freely. The slap of the wave jolts me into paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. I listen to the clicks of my pod members who are chatting excitedly.
“We are making a wide circle around an island,” explains one of my sisters who is now swimming next to me.
“It’s not just any island,” clicks a whale, whose voice pattern I don’t recognize, on the other side of her. “It’s a Human-made Island, and it doesn’t have any sand or dirt.”
“I’ve heard of these islands,” replies my sister. “They’re all over the place and they are made entirely of plastic bottles and nylon fishing nets and other things. In fact, they are made entirely of plastic—which I hear never goes away.”
“I’ve heard that some of the seabirds mistake the plastic for small fish because it’s shiny and eat what they can. Then they get sick and die,” clicks the other whale.
“That’s right, and some of the whales eat the plastic too, my sister responds. “They seem to especially like the nylon fishing nets that are everywhere these days. Maybe the whales mistake them for squid. Then the whales die and sink to the depths where they decay and are eaten by sharks, or they are washed ashore.”
“That’s awful,” I grumble. “So, what do you think of your darling Humans now?”
“What!?” the whale on the other side of my sister clicks back. “I didn’t even see you there. I guess you heard what we were talking about?”
“Of course,” I say. “The plastic island sounds awful. I was out swimming earlier and when I came back the pod was communing around a Human diver. I was just wondering what you think of Humans now that we are forced to go around the plastic island that was caused by their bad behavior.”
I am holding back. I didn’t tell my sister what I think of Humans. She may have inferred that I would never trust them, but I didn’t say that. I just asked her what she thought. It was an honest question.
She is quiet for a moment. Then she begins clicking.
“I was in the pod when we were communing around the human,” she says pointedly. “You don’t have to tell me what you saw because I was there. We don’t know that it’s the Human’s fault—the one who came to visit us. Maybe some of the Humans are upset about the plastic islands, too. Maybe they are sad when we wash up on the beaches with plastic inside of us. Maybe the plastic is bad for them also.”
My jaw drops. I had asked her what she thought of the Humans. I didn’t tell her what I thought based on Grandmother’s stories and that thick book in my head. My sister had never wanted to hear Grandmother’s stories. Even when she was a calf, she’d get a look on her face and swim away. I, on the other hand, would stay with Grandmother and happily listen to her stories over and again.
Now, I see the results of my sister not listening to the story of our late Great Aunt (another Great Aunt from the one who is living) who had wanted to see her calf again, so she rammed the boat and the ship of those who tried to destroy her with their harpoons.
My sister had an entirely different take on Humans than I did. Not only did she like them, she also had no problem giving them the benefit of the doubt in saying essentially that Humans are not all alike. I know that not all Humans are our enemies. I know that some worship us and I’ve heard that some help us. But it’s complicated because we often need help since the Humans created the conditions that are making us suffer.
For instance, it’s the Humans who leave their nylon fishing nets around in the first place and that’s why we are at their mercy. And the Humans bring the ships to the area that make the loud noises that end up being so frightening to us that we swim away often to dangerously shallow waters and sometimes get beached and die. I know it’s the stories of the bad Human behavior in my head and in the past that make me wary of Humans.
That’s why when I saw my pod trusting a Human, I became extra skeptical.
But now I am forced to reconsider. Maybe some Humans aren’t all that bad.
My sister had spoken thoughtfully and eloquently. She was sure of what she said, and she left me speechless. I don’t know what to click in reply.
So, I swim ahead a little bit to where there is an opening and squint my left eye so I can see better. The island of plastic stretched on forever and was less than seventy-five feet away. That would only be about two lengths if I turned forward and swam straight toward the island. Of course, I wasn’t going to do that. For one thing, I had no intention of washing up on a beach with a belly full of plastic. I also didn’t know how deep and wide the island was, and I did not plan on suffocating because I could not come up for air.
As we swam past the island, we were on the surface. My sister and the other whales around me were silent. We gazed at the plastic island as if we were seeing a premonition of the future when all the sea might be filled with plastic debris. Even my young cousin was silent. This was her future. I couldn’t see her eyes since she was ahead of me. But I imagined a single tear sliding out of her eye.
The island stretched on and on as far as my eye could see. We would be swimming around it for a long time before we would feel free enough in the open sea to dive down deep and catch lunch. As I stared at it, I saw the plastic island glittering under the sun. If I didn’t know that it represented death, I might think it was beautiful.
I could see how a bird could mistake the plastic for a fish and eat the wrong thing. After all, the sun glitters on fish jumping out of the waves too.
©2023 Janet Mason
All rights reserved
…has a memoir, Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, published by Bella Books in 2012. Her novels THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders and The Unicorn, The Mystery were published by Adelaide Books in 2018 and 2020.Her novel Loving Artemis. an endearing tale of revolution, love, and marriage was published by Thorned Heart Press in 2022.