The ocean was an untamable beast. The waves swelled up and up, climbing higher and higher, like mountain peaks. The foamy cerulean water lashed against the side of the boat, spraying cold water onto the deck. I gritted my teeth and clutched desperately at the helm. As I attempted to steer the boat on course, my knuckles shone white.
The boat sliced through the incoming waves, rocking violently to the side. I fell to the ground, sliding across the deck and thunking my head on a wooden beam. As I hurried to my feet, I slipped on the pools of water collected on the deck. I stumbled back to the helm, where I hesitantly felt the back of my head. Warm, sticky blood coated my fingers. I shuddered. It’s ok, I told myself. This is the last time.
Finally, the ocean settled, allowing me to leave the helm. The tracking device that I had been using to follow Victory showed me that the whales were swimming further and further away towards their summer feeding grounds. I had left the coast of South America just after Victory’s pod, but my rented one-person boat was no match for the whales’ prowess in the ocean.
That’s strange, I thought, as I scrutinised the device. I was closer to the pod than anticipated, and they seemed to be moving slower than yesterday. I glanced up and caught sight of snowy mountain peaks in the distance, black rock shining like obsidian. The Antarctic Peninsula was close, and if the tracker was any sign, so was the end of my last expedition.
As the boat traversed the ocean, I thought of Tilly. That last day in the hospital, when she looked unrecognisable. Her soft blonde curls were gone, while tubes fed into her arms like weeds infesting a garden.
“I want to see Victory,” she murmured.
“You will, honey,” I promised, my eyes welling with tears as I clutched her tiny hand.
Suddenly, the tracking device beeped furiously. I grabbed my binoculars. My eyes skimmed over the water, searching for the pod. But I couldn’t see it. Instead, there was only a singular blue whale. It was half submerged in water, but as it came up for air, I caught sight of its fluke; a v-shaped tail, dark blue, with mottled smatterings of black and white. It was her; it was Victory. But why had she been separated from her pod? And then I saw it. Her body was entangled in a trawling net; the water around her was stained with red.
Panic coursed through me. Victory, who I read about in books as a child. Victory, who had been the constant throughout my career. Victory, who I introduced to Tilly on her very first trip with me. Victory, who Tilly wanted to see one last time.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I said as I hurried below deck. I pulled my burgundy gloves from my hands in a frantic and desperate frenzy. Then, I stripped off my jacket and my clothes and unwrapped my scarf from around my neck. The cold air felt like daggers against my bare skin, but my hands were slippery with sweat as I pulled on my diving suit. The neoprene fabric, elastic and stretchy, slid quickly onto my skin. Clawing my way back onto the deck, I fitted the snorkel on the left side of my head and pulled the flippers onto my feet.
I leapt into the ocean. The water was ice against my face, but I ignored the sensation. A hundred metres separated Victory from the boat, the closest I could get to her without risking injuring her further. The distance was meagre, and within a few strokes, I was close enough to be at the marge of the blood spillage. My heart was racing, and my head was pounding as I anticipated the inevitable.
When I reached Victory, she emitted a sorrowful whine which reverberated through the ocean. I shuddered, the noise reminding me of Tilly’s pained moans and my gulping sobs during the apex of her treatment. I swam below the water. For a moment, I floated in the water, my arms and legs outstretched, watching mesmerised as colourful fish swam past me. Then, the blood clouded my vision and panic enveloped me once more.
The net was wrapped tightly around Victory’s lower torso, restricting her movement and cutting into her flesh. Her dorsal fin was sticking out of the crisscrossed black material at a peculiar angle. My heart sank. I felt tears pricking my eyes, but I had to do something. I grabbed the knife strapped to my leg. Unsheathing it, I began cutting through the net carefully. The knife nearly slipped and cut her skin as she began writhing underneath the net. Please, I implored silently, please do not move.
After a few moments, I had cut away most of the net. Now, the only section that was left was her tail. It thrashed violently as I touched her lightly. Red water droplets sprayed over me. I patted her with one hand, soothing her, until, finally, she had calmed down and I could cut away the last of the netting.
She was free.
Apprehensively, I assessed Victory’s injuries. The lacerations were deep, too deep. Jagged cuts peppered her smooth skin. My hand which I had used to grasp the net as I cut through it, had faint white bumps in a braided pattern. Blood gushed violently from the wounds spreading through the water.
I have to get out of here, I thought suddenly. The blood would attract sea creatures. I was all alone, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest coast. What could I do?
I rushed back to the boat, the wretched net grasped in one hand. Flinging myself back onto the deck, I retreated to the cabin, where I cried for the first time since Tilly died. I stared at the wooden floorboards and counted as the waves pushed against the boat, rocking it. The familiarity of the water’s repetitive movements was comforting and soothed my tears. One, two, I counted. One, two, one, two…
I was on a boat like this one, but much larger. We were near the Gulf of Mexico, observing the North Atlantic blue whales. Tilly was on the phone, my mother listening to my every word over her shoulder. Tilly asked me how much longer I would be gone. “Not long,” I lied, walking towards the navigation room and the research team who knew me better than my daughter. Suddenly, Tilly appeared before me. Blood streamed down her nose, her face flushed, her eyes hateful and angry.
“You left me!” she screamed.
I jerk up with a start. The ocean had lulled me to sleep. My body was sweating profusely. I lay on the bunk panting for a few minutes. Silent tears streamed down my face. The two greatest loves of my life were whales and Tilly. I knew that. But now, I feared that I loved one too much and the other, not enough. Tilly was always waiting for me to come home from my expeditions. And, when she became sick she could finally stop waiting. My poor baby, I thought, I’m sorry.
Once I calmed down, I returned to the top deck and stared over the railing out at the ocean. The boat glided across the tranquil water. It was closer now to Victory so I could see her clearly. Her movements were still graceful as she sank into the ocean and rose back up for air. But she swam slowly, and I noticed she came up for air less and less frequently.
Hours passed. Victory and I were alone with the ocean. And Tilly, Tilly was always with me. The sky erupted into red and orange. The sea mirrored the blinding light exuded from the setting sun. I glanced at my watch, nervous about the time since Victory last surfaced. I feared she was gone, but then, she somersaulted into the air. The movement was slow, and my boat had nearly outraced her. I knew it was for the last time. I stared at Victory, and she stared back.
“Victory,” I whispered. My cheeks were wet. I wiped my hands against them as Victory sank into the ocean, slowly descending to the sea’s bed.
I retrieved the urn from the black duffel bag that had followed me from Auckland to Ushuaia and across the Drake passage. As I cradled it in my arms, tears streamed down my cheeks. The evening air brushed against my face. The sky morphed into hues of purple and pink and I could see the sliver of the silver moon in the distance. My hand trembled as I unscrewed the lid. Steadying my ragged breathing, I tipped the urn over the railing. I watched the ashes float like fairy dust dancing across the aqua sea. The water glittered, and I smiled.
We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.