The Bubble Net

From the boat, the sea was the same indeterminate gray as the sky. The chill surprised me. Out here, away from the unrestrained bustle of the vacation town, we were overdressed: brightly printed shift dresses, khaki shorts, t-shirts with sexual innuendos. Cormorants eyed us from the jetty.

The boat’s biologist, eyes bulging with enthusiasm, rattled off the names of whale species that feed in the area: fin, Minke, humpback, sometimes right! We kept our expectations low. Beside me, two women chatted idly about their grown-up daughters. A bald man scrutinized the informational poster, as if trying to catch an error. At the railing, children waved madly at fishing boats.

There was a brief flurry of attention when the biologist pointed out a fin whale. We rushed to the port side so quickly that the whole boat swayed. In the distance, I watched a dark shape emerge slightly from the water, then sink again. There was a flash of long, slender back and a dorsal fin. Then it was gone, and so were we. The bald man returned to examining the poster, the two women turned to talk of grandchildren. The second-largest creature to ever live on the earth, the biologist told us, was less than half a mile from us. Just a glimpse of dorsal fin. 

A woman, recently returned from the snack bar, methodically ate a hot dog with all the enthusiasm of a cow chewing cud. 

When the biologist started up again, we were wary. We might be lucky, she told us. It looked like the humpbacks were bubble-net feeding, hunting sand lances or herring. A confused murmur rose from the crowd, and we shuffled dutifully towards the railing. We stared over the side. Nothing but water slapping at the boat.

Then, something strange: bubbles rising in an unbroken circle, surfacing in a lacy wash of white and green. Against the murk of the waves, the bright circle was unsettling. The seabirds leapt at it, jabbing greedily with beaks and feet. On the deck, we held our breath. The circle was simmering, teeming, churning.

Suddenly, the humpback whales broke the surface. Six of them appeared at the same moment, rising perpendicular to the horizon, like the towers of some sunken city surfacing after centuries. We cried out. Jaws gaping, they surged up through their bubbles, trapping impossible amounts of seawater in their throats. The delicate tissue inside their mouths was lushly pink. At their lower jaws, the baleen stood coarse and stiff. 

As the whales sank, they tossed themselves heavily away from their bubble net. One by one, they exposed their dark backs, crisscrossed with the pale grooves of scars. Then they dove shallowly, submerged just below the surface of the water. One made an uneven honking noise, like the sound of blowing across the mouth of a glass bottle. I wished I could extend my hand to touch them. But as if satisfied with their noisy outburst, the whales slipped out of reach.

Just before they disappeared, their tails flicked up. Against the churn of the ocean, the curved flukes seemed delicate and deliberate. Then the tails were gone, taking with them those smooth black bodies, those white scars, those pink mouths. 

The whales left circles of stillness on the water’s surface where they dove, flat and shiny and stretched tight like a mirror. Flukeprints, the biologist interjected, her voice not so false anymore. They were the only evidence of the tremendous dance we had just witnessed. The whales had moved on, not gone but invisible. Only this smooth disturbance remained, a membrane separating our world from theirs.

Humpback whales don’t make bubble nets for show, but for efficiency. By working together to keep the fish from scattering, the whales feed more quickly and fully than they could alone. A lead whale dives beneath a school of small fish, blowing bubbles as she spirals up towards the surface. Her bubbles create a column, which the other whales circle, vocalizing loudly. The noise of the whale-song and the curtain of bubbles disorient the fish within the column, and in their panic they are trapped. Finally, at the lead whale’s signal, the whales open their mouths and ascend through the column, taking in great gulps of fish and water.

From the boat, we saw only a glimpse of this complex behavior: just the close of one dive and the shuffle to begin another. Humpback whales spend the majority of their life deep below the surface, far away from human eyes. We’re blind to the silver cylinder of bubbles and the glistening fish within, deaf to the frenzying shrieks.

The scope of the world is wider than we can perceive. Life flourishes in every part of the earth, even places our senses can’t touch. The caves, the ice floes: these are worlds incomprehensible to us. So, too, is the dark water through which six sleek bodies are spiraling, singing. Yet we can’t help but connect with the creatures who inhabit these strange places.

The beauty of a bubble net has nothing to do with the human world. It is the side effect of a behavioral adaptation, nothing more. Still, we recognize its shapes, its colors, and the movements of the whales that create it––almost the work of artists, and yet more wonderful than an artist could render. I remember the perfect circle of bubbles. I remember the striations on the whales’ stomachs. I remember thinking: we have seen this before; in dancers, in paintings, in song. We can’t help it. No matter how violent, how alien, how brief their beauty, we resonate: not striking the same note, but harmonizing.

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