Valerie Stauffer

Author

Searching for Whales

I could leave the fat guy on the dock.  Leave him yelling and screaming in his lavender aloha shirt, belly poking out. What’s he to me? 


My job’s taking tourists out to see the whales cavorting around Maui. Forty-two hours a week on the Moby II covers the rent for my peeling, green sugar shack and keeps me in burgers and Mai Tai’s. After hours I ride the swells off Hookipa Beach.  


“The wife’s buying souvenirs in your shop,” the fellow says. I don’t bother to explain the shop’s not mine. Cap’n  Sam, as in Sam’s Whalewatch Company, owns the store. It’s filled with orange and purple polyester T-shirts and fuzzy stuffed whales. No way is the guy going to miss the trip. “Hold the boat. We’ve come from Nebraska to see whales.” He stakes out territory for himself between me and the Moby gangplank. 


I keep herding the tourists along the dock and toward the catamaran. The sun’s barely peeking over Haleakala, the enormous volcano that spit up this little island. The folks aren’t admiring the mountain. They’re peering out at the surf and wondering if whales will entertain them as promised in the guidebooks. November through March are the months to see the big beasts. People from the mainland come to Maui to escape the cold, dark days back home. The whales have their own personal agenda. Right on schedule in November, whales swim back here from Alaska. 


Fat Joe Tourist waves three blue tickets in front of my eyes. “We’ve paid for the whalewatch.” 


A school teacherish lady spots my nametag.  “Time to leave, Jake!” The crowd cheers. Fat Joe blocks the gangplank like the fullback he wishes he’d been. Six minutes later, I announce, “Let’s see whales!” and maneuver the tourists around the fat guy. I’m a beacon to them in my orange shirt, smiling red whale on my back.


I climb to the top of the Moby II gangplank and begin the ticket-taking. Over on the dock I spy the wife --definitely the other half of the fat fellow. Even an XL size can’t hide the pounds under her too-tight Nebraska Huskers T-shirt. Hand in hand they huff up the gangplank and onto the boat, dragging a skinny kid in their wake. Another day for me, the tourists, and the whales.


I’m not sure why I’d waited for them.


Cap’n Sam has the Moby motor humming. I smell breakfast--macadamia nut muffins and coffee.  I need caffeine.  Too many Mai Tai’s at Kimo’s Grill last night. The boat should be sailing past the harbor buoys by now.


I refill the coffee cups with what Sam claims is the real honest-to-goodness super expensive homegrown Hawaiian coffee. Actually he uses a blend of cheapo beans. I escape to a spare seat for a couple of minutes of R&R and attack my muffin between sips of hot java. I shut my eyes. Like a lizard crawling up my leg, a kid’s sticky fingers move around on my just-laundered Sam’s Whalewatch shorts.


“I've got whale questions. For my second grade project.” The runty kid is practically standing on my toes.


 “I’ll be telling you and all the folks about the whales in a minute. I’m on my break.” 


He has his dad’s persistence.  “How many come every winter?” He hops up and down on one red canvas boat shoe.  “I’m Charlie.”

How could two porky parents have a skinny kid like him? “Later, kid. Like I said, I’m on my break.”


 “Jake. Time for the mike.” Cap’n Sam wipes his leathery forehead with the sleeve of his faded blue shirt and points to his watch. A week ago he promised me a raise.  I thought it was set, but next day when I was coiling lines after the trip, he frowned at me and said, “Money’s tight this month, Jake.” 


Sam’s profits are more than okay. He’d come to Maui years ago, bought the Moby II and got his whalewatch business going. He’s living well off the whales, though he doesn’t even like them. Makes jokes about the humpbacks being stupid two-ton hunks of blubber. Calls them his giant meal tickets.  Sam talks about changing jobs. One year it’s insurance, another year he dreams of making a pile selling condos on the hills of Haleakala.  Till Sam delivers on my raise, my plan is for best behavior.


 I take Charlie by the collar of his new purple Sam’s Whalewatch shirt. “Come hear my talk, kid.” I plop him down in a front row spot for my spiel. “Listen up. You’ll learn a lot.”


I pick up the mike and shout, “Aloha! Welcome to the winter waters of the largest humpback whale population in the world.” My tourists have bought out the Front Street shops. Most of them wear spanking new aloha shirts. A price tag still dangles from one guy’s sleeve. 


“These whales have been gorging on a ton of fish a day on their summer holidays in Alaska and now they’ve come back to Maui.” I point out toward the water where I hope the whales will soon show their stuff.


 I’m good at the talk. For a guy who a year ago knew next to nothing about whales, I’ve learned to answer most any questions the tourists throw me. 


“Maui’s their bedroom, where they have their sexual adventures.” The crowd chortles and imagines the whales doing their thing beneath the waves. I have a few X-rated jokes to spice up my talk, but when I look at Charlie, I decide to let those go. I tell the folks to look for a whale. Forty pairs of eyes rotate toward the ocean.


 “Whale! Whale!” shouts a sexy blonde who’d stripped to her bikini.  


I get her name and congratulate Mary Jane. She’s won an authentic Sam’s Whalewatch shirt. Great women on these trips, but they fly back to the mainland too soon. 


“The whales jump out of the waves like animals in my pop-up books,” yells a little girl in flowered pink shorts.


The tourists cram their stomachs against the railing, and binoculars point from their eyes. I watch the huge, black humpbacks perform their giant breach--rockets rising from the ocean. The folks snap photos so they can take these whales back to Nebraska and Minnesota. Charlie sticks up his hand.


“Do the little whales swim around with other little whales?” he asks in a quiet voice. His dad videos him asking his question, videos the aloha-shirted folks, videos the muffins. 


I answer a few questions and tell the tourists to look for more whales.  I pour myself another coffee and grab a seat. In less than a minute, Charlie scrunches down beside me.


“How’d you know so much about whales?” 


“See, Charlie, if you live in Maui, you get to know whales personally.” I’m half teasing the kid, but he wiggles his bottom closer and fixes his eyes on me.


I pull myself out of the wedge between the corner and Charlie’s bottom. “Gotta work. See ‘ya, Charlie.” 


I head for Sam at the wheel. Time to brown-nose the old guy. “Trip’s going well today, Sam. Full boat.”


He pulls a soda out of the ice chest. He twists his Sam’s Whalewatch hat around on his shaggy gray hair and squints out at the ocean. Sam turns back to look at me.


“Time to get the snorkelers going.”  He points to the basket of pink snorkel tubes.

 

I clamp my lips tight before I say something I’ll regret.  


With a tanned hand at his mouth so the tourists can’t hear, Sam whispers, “Keep the people happy, and you’ll make lots of dough from tips.”


Tips help my cash flow, but a raise is what I want.


I start fitting feet and handing out the snorkel masks and flippers. Charlie’s folks aren’t in line for the swim. 


The dad pulls me aside. “I’m not much of a swimmer,” he says. “Wife’s not either.” He laughs as if he doesn’t give a damn, but I know he doesn’t want to waddle around with rolls of stomach fat sticking out over his bathing suit.


“Nebraskans don’t go in for swimming. We’ve come for Charlie.” He lowers his voice. “Charlie’s crazy about Flipper and the dolphins and the whales.” He coughs a few times.  “So here we are in Maui. Mean a lot to the wife and me if you’d watch out for him when he’s down under the waves.”


 “Don’t worry about Charlie. It’s my job to take the passengers down.”


I hand a mask and tube to Charlie, but he backs away. “Not now. The waves are too big.”


“No problem with the waves, Charlie. Time to snorkel!” Can the kid swim? I stick a life preserver, a snorkel tube and mask on him and send him down the ladder.


“Aren’t you coming, Jake? I don’t know what to do.”


“Just paddle around. I’ll keep an eye on you.”


I execute an amazing dive off the boat, a surefire maneuver that always catches the eye of every woman on board and the envy of the old guys. I lead the other snorkelers down to the coral reef. We watch the little fish dart around. I point to a few, rise to the surface and ID them for the snorkel brigade.


Charlie is up on top, fighting the waves. He holds the tube in his hands and spits water in all directions, gasping like a dying fish. Not happy. 


“Hey, Charlie. Get the mask and tube back on.”


“I can’t. Let me go on the boat!” He starts to cry.


I put the mask over his face and pat his shoulder.


“Keep diving,” I tell the other snorkelers. 


I swim over to Charlie. “Come on under. Let’s see some fish.”


Charlie gulps a mouthful of air, jams his tube in his mouth, and puts his head under four inches of ocean. His blond hair bobs up and down and out of the water a few times. Finally bubbles gurgle out of the pink tube.  I duck under. We’re swimming in a swath of liquid sunshine filled with orange and silver fish.


Back on top, Charlie pulls out his tube. “It’s like playing in a fish tank.” 


By the time he climbs up the ladder he’s seen a yellow Butterfly Fish and learned to dodge the ugly black Moray Eels.  

  

“Kind of weird down there,” he shouts to his folks. “I swam with a Parrot Fish. Got a beak like a bird. Crazy!” 


“We knew you’d have a ball. Good job, Charlie.” His dad winks at me.


The mom throws a striped towel around his shoulders. She pumps my hand up and down in her fat palm. “Thanks so much, Jake.”


“Glad he got down under. Beautiful world under the sea.” 


I see other tourists gazing toward the horizon and figure I’ll make sure all the tourists are happy. 

 

The Moby is sailing through a picture postcard world of rippled blue ocean with Lahaina’s church steeples sticking up on the distant shore. Everyone’s mellow and relaxed. Good trip today. No one’s upchucked breakfast.


Charlie has his dad’s big silver binoculars in front of his face. He’s the first to spot a new pod of whales “Look! More of them!” he shouts.  “A baby and his parents.”


I lead Charlie to the stern and show him how to lie down on the canvas tarp, hang out over the side. He’ll see every move that baby whale makes. 


“Hang on tight, Charlie. If the waves get choppy, come quick back to the deck.” I need to find Sam. Other tourists are on the tarp. They’ll keep an eye on Charlie. 


I head toward the wheel. “Hey, Sam.”


He shoves his cap up from his eyes. “All the folks happy, Jake?”


 “Sure they’re happy. They’re seeing whales, and they liked my talk.”


Sam takes a slow drink from his can of soda. “You ought to spend more time with the passengers. Talk about your whale buddies. Be worth your while.” He points to the tourists and turns back to the wheel. “Do your job.”


The raise better be good enough to make up for dealing with Sam.


Off starboard, I spot three whales. “Sam,” I say. “The boat’s too close.”


We both know the Coast Guard rules. No boat allowed within 100 yards of whales, but the tourists are excited. This is their once-in-a lifetime chance for close-up photos.


I go on the mike. “We can’t go right up to the whales. Think about their safety,” I shout. The crowd clusters on the starboard, screaming at Sam to follow the whales. 


Had they heard me? Or are their photos more important than the whales?


“Whales closing in,” I shout. “Change course, Sam! Change course!”


“We’re here to see the whales.” He clamps his hands tight on the wheel. “I’ll tell you when I want your advice, Jake. You think whales are so smart. Let them keep away from my boat.”


I see 2800 pounds of baby whale swimming straight toward the Moby.


I grab the wheel out of Sam’s hands and jerk it around to quick jibe out of the whale’s path. Folks scream. Sam’s hands grasp for the wheel, and I give it back to him. Figure he’s gotten my message. I’m sure he’d gotten it when I see saliva dripping down from his lips.


I hear him breathing hard. “Damn kid thinks he can run my boat.” 


The whale disappears under the hull. Ocean spray flies everywhere. 


The Moby’s rocking and rolling. Finally the black shadow of the baby whale appears out from under the port side. The big whales circle him and lead him away. 


“It’s like that whale that swallowed up Jonah and all the Bible folk,” a lady says. 


And there’s Fat Joe videotaping the fun and games. 


“Where’s Charlie?” I ask.


“Isn’t he with you?”


I’m thinking about Charlie’s floppy blond head hanging over the ocean. He’d have gone back on deck with the other tourists. Hadn’t he? My palms are sweaty.


I dash to the stern. No small freckled face.  Another look for the dad. I push through a crowd of aloha shirts and see the fat guy. Alone. 


The gulls are flying above, shrieking at each other. Whitecaps are getting bigger. 


A catamaran’s pretty small. I cover it real quick, three times. 


The cabin’s dark, but I step down into it. In the back, hunched over a table, I spot a purple shirt.  I stop breathing and just look at the kid. “Hey Charlie. You get scared out there?” I grab his boney shoulders. I want to shake him hard, but I jerk him toward me.


“Jake! Spell me your name?” Charlie pulls out of my arms. He holds up a giant-sized postcard with a picture of the Moby. “I found this card. Can I have it?  I’ve got to write my teacher.”


 I sit down at the table. “Sure thing, Charlie.” He’d already written on it. “So, you get a little scared?” 


He switches from a black to a red crayon. He has a Crayola box filled with a hundred crayons in every color of the rainbow.


“Kind of.  For the little whale. I’m glad he’s with his mom and dad. But I knew you’d save everyone on the Moby.” He looks down at his card.


“Spell me  ‘Jake.’”

I spell it, and he passes the card to me.


“Der Mis Woolsn,  I am on a big boot. It is the MOBBE 2. I saw wales. My nu best frend is Jake. He is nise and brav. Luv Charlie.”


“Real nice of you to write your teacher.” I’m trying to remember if I’d ever in my whole entire life ever thought to write a teacher. I hand the card back to Charlie. “Let’s find your folks.” We head out of the cabin and onto the deck.


The fat folks are washing down pretzels with beer.


“Hey, Dad. Guess what happened? I nearly went swimming with the baby whale.” Charlie grins at me. “I wasn’t even scared when the boat tipped.”


His mom folds him into a suffocating hug.


“Charlie’s fine,” I say. I grab a few pretzels. 


The dad reaches into a pocket for his wallet. Even his wallet is fat. “Thanks for the great day you gave Charlie.” He pokes some bills into my hand.


I feel a wad of greenbacks. “Just doing my job,” and I stuff the bills back into his hand. I’ve never before turned down a tip.


“Hey, Charlie,” the dad says. “Let’s get you on camera.”


Charlie sidles over to me and pulls on my arm. His fingers are coated with pretzel crumbs, but his hand fits right into mine.


“Dad, I’ve gotta come back next year to see Jake.”


“Your baby whale’s going to be looking for you,” I say. 


“You’ll be here, Jake?” Charlie asks.


I see Sam watching us from his wheel.  My eyes lock into his steel gray ones. Sam hates me, and I hate him. I can’t take Sam more than another couple of days. 

 

“Keep in touch, Charlie. Send me a postcard.”


I grab two orange Whalewatch hats off the “For Sale” rack and set them on our heads so the red smiley whales will show up front and center on Charlie’s photos.


I throw an arm around Charlie, and we wave at the camera.








Searching for Whales By Valerie Stauffer