Monday, September 17, 2007

Whales' bad breath, a writing metaphor

Patty here…

On a recent passage across the San Pedro Channel on my way to Santa Catalina Island, I was standing watch alone in the cockpit of my sailboat, hoping to avoid a collision with the large oil tankers and container ships cruising toward the Port of Los Angeles.

The swells were minimal, the winds light. A marine layer covered the sun, rendering sky and sea a uniform gray. Quite suddenly, I was engulfed by an unfamiliar odor that can only be described as a combination of sewage and decay. I scanned the surrounding waters, wondering if a container ship had dumped its holding tank before entering port, but I found nothing to support that theory. The smell dissipated and the boat sailed on.

Sometime later, the stench returned, only stronger this time. My gaze traveled full circle around the boat. Then it stopped. Not twenty feet from the starboard quarter, something monstrous was rising out of the deep. It was the back of a gray whale.

I've seen Pacific gray whales before. They migrate between Alaska and Baja twice a year passing through Southern California waters. I’ve watched their water spouts from a distance, but I’ve never seen one so close to the boat.

Even though the gray whale is considered the friendliest of the Pacific whales and will sometimes surface to be petted,

they are also LARGE. I held my breath (literally and figuratively) and waited for disaster to strike.

Not too many months before my whale sighting, an acquaintance was bringing his sailboat back from Hawaii when he encountered a pod of whales (orcas not grays). As he edged closer to get a better look, one of them impacted the side of the boat and within a few minutes it was sinking and he and his crew were in the water.

My whale swam away. Maybe the smell got to him. Maybe he thought it was ME!!!! I planned to Google “What do whales smell like?” but I got too busy editing my fourth novel.

About a week ago I was reading an article in the Los Angeles Times titled “Gray whale recovery called incorrect.” According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the whale population has not recovered from near extinction and in fact the population is only one-third to one-fifth of its historical levels. The article goes on to say:

Even judging by anecdotal sources, the current gray whale population is a far cry from the past. When French explorer Jean-Francois La Perouse sailed into Monterey Bay in the 1700s he complained that gray whales were so abundant that the stench of their breath fouled the air.

Here’s a link to the article, but it's sad so don’t read it if you’re prone to depression.

Finally I had an answer to what caused that odd smell: Whales have bad breath. Who knew? I’ve been doing a lot of hand wringing about my writing lately, so I started to think of this whale experience as a metaphor (you know how much I love them). Here goes...Writing a fourth novel is like setting off on a sailing adventure. Even though you’ve plied the waters before, perils still await. Sometimes you encounter a stench so pungent it makes you wince. If you’re lucky, the odor dissipates and you sail onward. But sometimes the smell heralds a bigger problem. Sometimes a whale bumps the boat and you have to abandon ship. Maybe you have to reach shore in a life raft or perhaps a friendly fishing boat saves your butt. Sheesh! You know what I mean.

Several friends have suggested I write a story about the sea. It’s an interesting idea. I may do it someday. Meanwhile, here’s a spooky true sea story I love. And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi. And a really scary sea movie with Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill, "Dead Calm." Loved the PBS Horatio Hornblower series about C.S. Forester's swashbuckling hero of the high seas, starring Ioan Gruffudd.

Got any tortured metaphors or sea stories you want to share? Or an Ole and Lena joke? I spent the past few days in Minnesota, so I'm primed and ready.

Happy Monday!


  1. Lovely story, Patty - I know how scary the proximity of a whale can be when you're on a sailboat. The same thing happened to a friend of mine on an Atlantic crossing some years ago. He was on night watch, playing his saxophone, when he smelled land - very nasty land putrid land. Then it went away, then it came back. Then he saw the big eye staring at him from the water - who knew whales liked the sax? The whale stayed with the boat throughout his watch, and he kept on playing.

    A blue whale washed up on the beach at Carpenteria last week - so sad - at first I thought you were going to write about that incident, perhaps you'd seen the carcas from the ocean. The plight of the whales makes my heart break (shipping, navy sonar, Japanese gourmet meals, culls in the Faroes ... the list goes on).

    This was a lovely piece, Patty - thank you.

  2. I've been out of town since Friday, so I didn't know about the blue whale until late last night. Sad, indeed, and it's not the first one to have died in a short amount of time.

    Whale sax...hmmm. So much knowledge to gain, so little time.

  3. This was lovely, Patty. Reminded me of sailing in Monterey Bay years ago with my buddies Stephanie and Julie Kaku and their dad. Small whales used to sail alongside us there--always fun.

    I wish you the best on your fourth, I'm starting my third and am getting a definite stench of whale breath from my keyboard already.

  4. Ah, Miss C. Sending you gentle breezes to blow away the whale breath and get you safely to port.

  5. Great metaphor, Patty. I'm going to keep reminding myself, "whale breath," I'll say, when that nasty wind arises.

  6. Louise, I can't believe you've ever encountered whale breath while writing, but I guess there's a first time for everything.

  7. I'm a huge fan of Moby Dick (had a great teacher in high school who knew exactly how to get us apathetic teenagers psyched up about it), so any whale story is a good one as far as I'm concerned.

    Three years ago we were up in Tadoussac, Quebec, and took a whale watching tour and saw several belugas and minkes (we kept saying Min-kee and imagining how Peter Sellers would've said it in the Pink Panther). Spectacular.

    And as for the fourth book having whale breath, I haven't gotten mine back from my editor yet but I'm sure it'll have some sort of odor I'll have to disinfect.

  8. Go-Lo:
    "There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces."
    Next time pass out some of that Orbit seems to do wonders in those commercials.

    In the land of Lena and Ole:
    The judge had just awarded a divorce to Lena, who had charged non-support. He said to Ole, "I have decided to give your wife $800 a month for support." "Vell, dat's fine, Judge," said Ole. "And vunce in a while I'll try ta chip in a few bucks myself."
    One fine spring day, Ole decided to take Lena for a drive in his new car. As they were driving through town, a policeman pulled them over and told Ole that he was doing 50 miles an hour in a 30 zone. "Oh, no", Ole protested. "I vas only doing tirty Officer." "No, you were doing fifty", replied the cop. "Really, Officer, I vas only doing tirty", Ole replied stubbornly. "Well", bellowed the cop, "I clocked you doing FIFTY!"

    At that point, Lena, sitting in the back seat and trying to be helpful, spoke up. " really shouldn't argue vit Ole ven he's been drinking."


  9. Randy Anderson, a superb TV writer and Minnesota native, told me this one:

    Lena goes into the local newspaper office to place an obituary for her husband. The editor asks what she wants to say.

    "Ole died yesterday."

    "For the same price, Lena, you get three more words."

    Lena thinks a moment and says, "Boat for sale."

  10. My husband read me all of the Jack Aubrey novels, Patrick O'Brien, that's the author. Got me through two pregnancies! The movie paled...

  11. Karen, I'll keep my fingers crossed that the breeze blows fresh.

    Ha HA HA HA ha. Love those jokes!

    Rebecca, I haven't tried the O'Brien books, though I have several friends who are big fans. You didn't like the Russell Crowe movie? People in the know tell me Hollywood got the sidekick all wrong.

  12. I spend a lot of time in the Atlantic. Almost every Saturday I swim with a mask and see at least one unusual animal. Not whale unusual or sasquatch unusual. Last week I saw a couple a squid about a foot long each. Occassionally I see a shark.

    This is way cooler.

    JIm B

  13. Nice piece Patty. It reminded me of the last time we were in Seattle and a friend of ours took us out on his sailboat out of Edmond. After a long explanation about how the design of the keel makes it near impossible to get sea-sick (yes, I'm one of those who chums naturally) we spent an incredible afternoon sailing the Sound.
    No whale sightings, though.
    I suppose that its the shape and depth of the keel that makes them dangerous around huge, stinky sea mammals.
    My cousin races sailboats in Seattle. I can't imagine a metaphor there that would work with writing novels, except maybe the way he looks after spending a day on the cold ocean doing what he loves and looking like hell for it.
    I'm glad book four is moving along. It isn't a race, but I imagine your agent has a clock on you.

  14. I also loved the PBS Hornblower series. Of course, the books were even better. ;)