It was late winter, and the cold and dark had outworn its welcome. The planet may have been on its post-solstice slow tilt back toward the light, but I was still slipping downward, soul weary and just weary, weary. Too many days marked by too little sunshine and too many to-dos began to fold in on me, and I wanted—I needed—to steal away. To tuck into a cozy cave with books, wine, long naps, bad TV. Lacking a cave, we headed to a condo. Actually, our family headed to the land of condos—tacky, high-rise, has-been, edge-of-the-continent mega condo-world, a.k.a. sunny Florida, which in late February isn’t all that sunny. Especially under the deep shadow of ubiquitous For Sale and foreclosure signs. My in-laws have had a time-share in this particular condo development south of St. Augustine for decades, so we retreat here often. It’s easy and familiar. We settle into beachy routine, with no compulsion to go explore uncharted territories. Here, we simply chill. We walk on the wide, white sand beaches, read or snooze by the pool and, if energetic, play tennis on the condo’s lone court behind the parking lot, where garlic exhalations from the pizza joint across the street derail my focus. We have our favorite landmarks and haunts along A1A: the biker bar with the Ten Commandments posted over the entry; the Shell Shack with its pet hermit crabs; the WAVES store that likely accounts for half of China’s GNP through its massive inventory of Florida shot glasses. On the other hand, the world-famous Alligator Farm is always good for jump-starting the vacation mind-set. Nothing like watching hundreds of gators idle like prehistoric statues to get you in a glorious do-nothing mode. On this winter-break escape, do-nothing was the goal. My high school girls needed a mid-semester reprieve, and I needed a midlife one. Grappling with difficult diagnoses for both my parents left me feeling more like a member of the gauntlet generation than the sandwich one. So I was curled up on the couch, reading, when my husband got up and looked out the window. “Hey look, there’s something BIG!” he exclaimed, eyes peeled on the ocean. “Seriously!” he added, after we didn’t budge, assuming he was joking. “Really big!” and he ran outside. We followed, and sure enough, something big and gray emerged then splashed down in a heavy freefall. A few seconds later, another rise and fall—it looked like two oddly-shaped pewter canisters twisting and then plummeting in a hefty splash, a watery exclamation. Pelicans floating nearby took flight. “Whales!” my daughter realized. An immense mermaid tail rose up, heaved left and right, as if waving an affirmative, “You got it!” We watched, mesmerized, as these creatures hoisted themselves in the air, twirled and plummeted. Awkward arabesques in a sheer choreography of heft. At one point, it looked as if one whale was standing on its head, waving its fluke back and forth like a beauty queen in a small town Christmas parade. They rolled and rollicked, danced and breached, only about 75 yards off shore, oblivious to their gawking audience on the sand. We learned from other passersby that these baleen Baryshnikovs were migrating right whales, and that they venture down from New England each winter to this very spot, their birthing grounds. What we were witnessing was hard labor, a thrashing, frothy delivery, leaping and lurching toward new life. I’ve since learned that only 19 right whale calves were born last year, total. In the world. There are fewer than 400 North American right whales in existence, by all accounts a critically endangered species. We had happened upon more than a spectacle; we were observing the indomitable, amazing force of nature, the way and will of all living things—to surge forth, to say yes, to survive. In The Moon by Whale Light, writer Diane Ackerman sets out to crack the mystery of whale song. Along the way she learns about right whales from scientist Roger Payne, who claims that “the right whale is an important bellwether of the human condition.” This, he explains, is because the right whale is the only near-decimated species on earth to have the run of the ocean. “Every species of animal that we have brought to extinction has occupied a limited area—an island, an archipelago, a continent. We have never in our tenure on earth brought to extinction a truly cosmopolitan species, one with a worldwide distribution.” If we did, he says, it would “be the lowest, the most careless, the most outrageous thing that humanity had yet done to the planet.” So here, off the coast of one of our most built-up and debased shorelines, a land of spec houses, specious greed and condo-fied fat-cat retirement, we watched this magnificent mammal do her urgent part to help stage a comeback, graciously redeeming our species while she was at it. Her display of aerial grace and splashy wonder both humbled and awed me. I had ventured south to recharge and renew, and so, too, had she. As I realized that this huge and rare animal swims in the same surf that I do, that we frolic in the same waves, that we both give birth and dive deep and hold our breath, I felt a solidarity, a sense of fierce hope and sober solace. The stakes are high, my whale friend, and the ocean is vast. But we find our way back to familiar waters, we return to our stomping grounds, we dance the wild and necessary dance, and endure.
Let us take care of your precious smiles!
Mary W. Crockett, D.M.D Board Certified Pediatric Dentist
102 South Venture Drive Greenville, SC 29615 (near intersection of Pelham Road & Patewood Drive)
Stephanie Hunt is a Mt. Pleasant, SC, freelance writer, whose work appears in a number of regional and online publications, including skirt!, Literary Mama, and the blog, A Life Still. Contact her at stephaniehuntwrites.com. skirt.com
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