This is one of my favorite true stories. It comes from the book The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson.
Peace is a suspiciously remote and ethereal concept, one far too abstract to end a book with. But such a peace can, I think, come as the steady accumulation of particularized moments: the moment you looked and wondered but did not take, the moment you feared but did not destroy. Peace of the sort that comes from the wisdom of seeing something you do not fully understand, something that could be dangerous or maybe not, but that you decide in any case to leave alone.
Before she studied elephants, bioacoustician Katy Payne applied her scientific training and observation skills to whales.
One time, while scouting out locations on the northeastern coast of Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula to begin new research on the behavior of southern right whales, Payne heard of a place where the ocean depth and currents conveniently drew whales near to shore. Indeed, as soon as she and a friend, Ollie Brazier, launched their small boat at the same spot, they watched a whale drift right past them. They maneuvered into a position where they, too, were drifting in the current, and then they cut the engine.
The giant creature ahead of them turned around and swam their way, disappearing beneath the surface, soon to emerge as a glistening wall rising up alongside the boat, drifting there for about two minutes. The wall was the underside of the chin of a vertical whale. A pair of eyes, located on either side of the chin, were just below the surface and apparently examining the boat.
The wall slipped back to the horizontal, and the whale once again turned downstream in the current, ahead of the boat, but now he began swimming backward, back in the direction of the boat. Payne and Brazier could recognize the creature’s underwater presence by a ruffled flurry on the surface, and then they saw, right beneath the surface, a massive tail waving slowly back and forth. The tail -waving may have been a threat, and certainly that immense and gracefully flexible tail could have raised itself out of the water, covered the boat twice over, and crashed down on it and the people inside. Instead, however, the enormous appendage simply flattened out and reached, as if it were the open palm of a hand, right beneath the boat.
With his tail thus flattened, the whale lifted the boat entirely clear of the water and held it and the two people in it above the surface for a minute. “He held us steady for a full minute,” Payne writes, “two people on a tray six inches above the water’s surface.”
The whale then lowered them and their craft gently back down. Payne looked into the dark water and saw the giant mammal swim or drift downstream again, once again drawing ahead of the moving boat-and then she saw him once more swim in reverse. She saw the tail wave back and forth, beneath the surface, and then she saw it again reach out flatly, beneath their small boat, and again the vessel and its two astonished occupants were lifted entirely out of the water. After a time, the tail lowered them gently back onto the water. The whale swam or drifted forward in the current, then swam again in reverse. And a third time the vast creature made the same gesturing wave, the same deft reach, the same gentle lifting of vessel and occupants, the same gentle lowering.
It’s hard to know what the whale was thinking or experiencing that day as he surveyed two alien beings in an alien vessel, gently measured their heft and probed their significance before leaving them intact; but it’s easy to believe that he had thoughts and a subjective mental experience. And it may be easy enough to conclude that he examined, considered and, with some degree of deliberation, chose not to destroy what he did not entirely understand. That’s what I mean by a particularized moment of peace.