“Can you understand me?” I call through my underwater translator over the gentle slap of cold, oily blue-green water.
The massive smoky-grey Bryde’s whale next to the boat doesn’t react. I look timidly up to the top of their open mouth, jutting from the water like a giant white arrowhead, trap collecting their assigned section of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Either the cipher I bought is no good or this Cetacean Reprocessors, Inc. employee/indentured servant is ignoring me.
“I say, whale, Bryde’s whale, I’m here to save you from Cetacean Reprocessors,” I say, hoping this revelation will elicit a response. How can I help them if they don’t listen to me?
Their mouth fills with a multitude of human detritus: plastic bags, plastic spoons, plastic straws, diapers, bottles, microplastics invisible and innumerable. Represented are every possible hydrocarbon polymer combination, chains unbreakable on the time scale of life on Earth.
If the whale hears me, they give no indication. Mouth full, they close it, take a last breath of air, and dive to the refuse deposit chamber beneath. Once full, the chamber’s buoyant raft will deflate and a submersible will guide it down into a volcanic vent for rapid breakdown.
I pick up my paddles and row to the next-nearest whale, whose mouth is still filling.
“I say, whale, Bryde’s whale, I’m here to save you from Cetacean Reprocessors,” I repeat.
The inrush of trash halts and the whale sputters, choking on some of the garbage.
Oh shit, I’ve killed a whale.
I stand at the edge of the boat and pull out my radio.
“Mayday, Mayday, this is Vince Smith of the only noncommercial boat currently floating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We’ve got a Bryde’s whale down.”
More trash floats out of the whale’s mouth and the animal rolls and sprays through its blowhole.
“We’ve got names, you know,” crackles a voice from my translator.
I nearly fall into the water. My stumbling around generates a spray of dirty, cold water onto my black wetsuit.
“You can understand me?” I’m so grateful the cipher works. I paid so much for it.
“Of course. Nur was ignoring you. Not too fond of humans,” says the whale.
“Nur?” I ask, bewildered.
“Oh, now don’t go getting worked up that a whale can be named Nur.” The whale gives a short huff through their blowhole. “That’s not their real name, it’s whatever your program made it into so you can understand it.”
“What’s Nur’s whale name?” This is not the conversation I thought I was going to be having.
“Well see, that’s the thing. No matter what I tell you, that translator of yours is going to tell you Nur’s name is Nur. We’ll just have to call that one ‘lost in translation.’”
“What do I call you?” I ask.
“Name is Yui,” says the whale as it holds up a flipper.
I’m not sure why I asked. “Well, Yui, any idea why Nur didn’t want to chat?”
“Look, human, if you can’t guess why a whale wouldn’t want to speak to you, might I suggest Baleen Google to fill yourself in on our prior encounters.” Yui snorts through their blow hole as they spin away from me in the water. The boat rocks vigourously and my stomach turns.
“There’s a whale Google?” I ask incredulously.
“Human, what did you say your name was?”
“Vince,” I say.
“Right. Vince, if you don’t know anything about us, can I ask you what you’ve come out here to do? Let me guess, you heard about our supposed plight on social media and thought it was your duty to come save us.”
A lump forms in my throat. This whale doesn’t know me. “I’m—I’m here to save you from Cetacean Reprocessors.” My cheeks redden. This isn’t how this is supposed to go.
Yui snorts again. The cipher pipes through a laugh. I wasn’t aware whales had a sense of humour.
“Vince, I’m sure you’re a good human, or think you are, but we don’t need any help. Check out Nur over there.”
“Nur” has resurfaced and is filling their mouth again with trash.
“What about them?” I ask, blinking rapidly to hold back … to keep the ocean spray out.
“Nur’s got twenty-five grand-whales. They’re old as hell.”
What is whale hell?
Yui continues after a breath. “They’re old, but they love this shit. They can’t think of anything better than gobbling up human trash to save the ocean for their family.”
I can’t believe my ears. “But you and the others are being used by Cetacean Reprocessors! They’re forcing you to work without adequate compensation!”
“What do you know about what’s good for a Bryde’s whale?”
“Uh, I mean, um …” I stammer.
“See! You have no idea. If you knew anything about us, had ever talked to a few of us before, you’d know that we’re just happy humans are participating in this process. In fact, some of us think we’ve bamboozled you into finally getting your act together.” There’s that laughter snort again.
I blink, no words forming. What am I doing here?
“So do us a favour, Vince?” Yui, the Bryde’s whale, pauses for my reply.
I bumble, trip, over my response. “Uh, yeah, yes, Yui?”
“Stop trying to do what you think is best for us, get out a net, and start cleaning some of this crap up,” says Yui. They open their mouth wide, engulf trash, and dive to the underwater receptacle.
I watch Nur splash in the distance and the cipher picks up a chuckle.
I’m mad, hurt, angry. This isn’t how this was supposed to go. I turn over the motor to propel myself away, but it gets stuck on a laminated cover of Architectural Digest’s “Trash Dump Chic” issue.
Ugh. I survey the slimy debris, lift my eyes to the distant whale disentanglement pontoon operated by Cetacean Reprocessors. They’re too far away to notice my embarrassment, the humiliation of not accomplishing what I thought I was supposed to be doing here. If nobody saw me, or I guess even if they did, what’s the harm in admitting I was wrong? Yui’s right after all. If I want to help, I should help how I’m needed, not how I think I should be helping.
“Hey Nur, can you help me find a net?” I call through the translator.
I wonder if Cetacean Reprocessors needs any more human employees. These whales are doing good work.
Copyright © 2022 Jason P. Burnham
Jason P. Burnham is an infectious diseases physician and clinical researcher. He laments his existence in a timeline wherein cat allergies are incurable. He loves spending time with his wife, kids, and dog. He strives to do his small part in the collective actions necessary to ensure the things he loves have a planet that remains habitable for them.