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  • The town clings to the narrow stretch of sandy shore between the steep rise of the mountains and the sea and as I walked through the exuberant, flamboyant even, mix of flowers that carpet the rocky slopes the town shrank to a patchwork of red tile and slate with the darker green of trees marking the lines between older neighborhoods and new development. The purple of the wild geranium clashes with the mod and electric orange of a protea. The dried flowers done up in bundles at the florists that look dyed and as artificial as velvet Elvis sunsets grow here in natural vibrant clusters. Stiff yellow and purple and red petals reflecting the sunlight until the landscape seems flooded with color and light. Nature isn’t shy or coy, not here. The air is cool and alive with the smell of spring and salt and breathing is like drinking. Beyond the town, the sea stretches turquoise along the sandy shore and then darker across the bay where the wind’s feet touches it. Here and there, like liquid exclamation points whales sigh. Others leap clear of the sea and hang for an instant and fall back like glittering black missiles impacting in a shower of spray and foam.

    Yesterday, along the shore, I watched the whales, in couples, play. Waves broke along their backs as they rested side by side until, moved by some emotion, one rolled showing the flash of white belly and waving fins over and over. What emotion moves a whale to play? Watch them pass under and beside one another, rocked by wave and current. Theirs is an ancient dance and all the bay their wide dance floor and their dance is wild and uninhibited and open. It’s not until they raise their tales that you realize the whole length of the whale. The whale you saw was only the head and shoulders so to speak and then that tail rises up like a separate creature too impossibly far back to be attached and as languidly as a hand laid along the back of a sofa the tail rises and curves and moves the whole forward and you know the tremendous scope of this being. As the sun sank westward one whale leapt entirely free of the water, a mass of muscle and bone as big as a bus leaping for the sheer joy of it, and falling back in a great eruption of spray, only after do I hear the thunderclap of the landing of this Olympic dive. Then up again and again so rapidly that a series of splashes was clearly visible in the long swells.
    Today, I am too far up to hear the echoing thunder of their fall back into the arms of the sea. I’ve left all the busy sounds of town behind as well as I climbed. Here there is only the wind rushing to be free of the land at last and be out over the boundless sea, only the bending of the flowers as the wind passes and the sigh of their release. My sense of time and my place in it is blurred for an instant and from this vantage point the view out to the sea spreading without obstacle or break all the way to Antarctica could be for any time, from any time, even, it seems, for all time. This is of course a grand illusion.

    The sign boards the town of Hermanus has erected along the Cliff Path identify whale behaviors for the crowds of tourists who come to what is rightfully proclaimed as the land-based whale watching capital of the world. The Cliff Path winds along the shore for maybe 10 Kilometers before ending in one of those fantasy crescents of empty beach that stretch into an infinity of haze and surf. It is early October, spring in South Africa, and the town has that sense of expectation any seaside town has just before the holiday crowds pour in. Tour busses from Cape Town discharge lines of obedient sightseers. German, French, Dutch, Japanese, and Americans follow the call of the whale crier and cluster at vantage point along the cliffs pointing fingers and cameras, noisy at first then quickly stunned to a certain awe. They watch in that curious modern stance, through their viewfinders and lenses, arms held out stiffly as though offering their devices to the gods of the sea. The whales don’t disappoint. Only a 100 meters from the shore, just along the edge of the kelp beds, they lobtail and breech, sail and roll. Fins the size of car doors seem to wave idly to their adoring fans. In a few weeks it will be summer holiday and the crowds will swell filling shops and restaurants and beaches. The whales quite sensibly are usually on their way to quieter venues by this time, following the great currents to their feeding grounds in the far south.

    Down in the Old Harbor there is a museum where the fisherman once stored their boats and gear. The harbor is a tiny rectangle of calm water with sheer cliffs on two sides, a ledge of gray limestone along the back where the buildings are and a long concrete and stone breakwater almost closing it off completely. The museum stands watch over an empty harbor. The few remaining cement cleaning tables have been scoured clean by years of neglect. Others have been shattered by storm surges and are just stubs on their way to becoming beach stones. This was once a thriving sport fishing destination. Between the spasms of a world at war and then again in the late 40’s and 50’s this was the place to be for fishing legends. Then, the small and graceful rowing boats jostled for space on the cement ways in the tiny harbor. Then, the genteel hotels were full and guests, formally dressed for games, posed confidently in athletically artistic arrangements. Then, the concrete processing tables just above the tide’s reach were full and the men working there stood knee deep in fish. Then, the dusty and brittle bamboo poles and enormous reels were bright with varnish. Then, the legends and stories were born. One particularly lurid poster, more like an ad for a 40’s movie thriller, tells the story of the largest shark ever landed with rod and reel. From the Old Harbor to Roman Rock and back the intrepid angler scampered in this epic battle before landing the deadly monster. Pictures mounted below, show Meinheer Skelkirk, as dapper and coiffed as a movie star, posing beside the gaping jaws of his prize. Today, the nearby beaches are not shark netted and every summer ten thousand legs dangle in the waves. Today, shark attacks are less frequent than lightening strikes. Other pictures show barefoot boys straining to hold up their catch, grimacing with the weight and pride. Along one wall, a typewritten series of papers describe the life and times of the Southern Right Whale. I scan and learn that they are baleen whales, feeding on krill and plankton, mouths like gigantic sieves or strainers, 18 metres long and built like tanks, hunted to extinction for all intents and purposes in the Northern Hemisphere and here in the less accessible and severely extreme Southern Ocean only 3-4 thousand left. The poster explains that the current population is only a fraction of the original population. The article does not speculate on what fraction but I can do the math well enough to begin to understand. Only these few in an ocean that circles the globe. That morning, I could count 15 along the small stretch of shore in front of me. From one bench without straining my eyes or binoculars I could see not just these few whales but see them as a part of the total population. A particular fraction of their species. Not long ago, perhaps this tribe and others that called this bay home was more numerous than the total population today. Imagining that time is as difficult as putting myself in the pictures of the sun burnt, grinning fishermen.

    Along the back wall of the museum, high in a dark corner are a line of flensing knives. Short curved blades on poles used to strip blubber from the grandparents of the whales I saw today. Nearby is a deck gun used to fire the harpoons. It looks like the guns bolted on to the decks of Coast Guard or Navy ships to deal with invaders or smugglers, or pirates. Besides having been painted red, the only difference between it and its naval cousins standing guard at the top of the cliff beside the town war memorial is that there is no shield welded to it to screen the gunner. This was a one-way battle for supremacy of the high seas.

    For 100,000 years or 90,000 or 65,000 depending on the expert source you rely on, people have wandered these shores and looked out upon the sea. Their remains and leavings are found in caves and shell heaps all along the coastline. Beads and bones, tools and what some claim is the oldest piece of decorative art have been found nearby. Around their fires, sheltered from the endless, restless wind these families listened to the whale’s songs. The same songs I heard the other day. The sea levels have risen and fallen. Ice has gripped the land and then released its hold. All the while the whales have followed current and seasons to find this shore. Much has changed and yet so much endures. I have difficulty seeing myself in a picture my father could have been in and yet, and yet the whales’ song remains the same. So much African music is built around the call and the response. The whales call, the question for us is, how will we choose to respond.
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