Whales | Photo by Mike Shuster
Nantucket Essays

The Grace of Whales

by Robert P. Barsanti

We believe in summer sun, but the truth of Nantucket is fog. Nantucket lies near the confluence of the warm water Gulf Stream with the Canadian Labrador current. The waters mix and mist over the shallow water of the George’s Bank, and the sand bars leading up to the island. In addition, the humid tropic air gets pumped up one side of the Bermuda high and crashes into drier inland air. All of those collisions leave Nantucket in the Jim Cantore sweet spot of dense fog, mildew, and warping doors that hang ajar. Welcome to July, bring a rain coat.

Over the last week, we have fog or rain for the last six days. While mist means great things for libraries, bookstores, and Netflix, it doesn’t bode well for the vacationer. My fatherly heart reaches out to the man I saw with his children downtown. He wore jeans, a Swarthmore sweatshirt. and anguish on the corner of Main and South Water Street, by the Pacific Club ATM. His four children stood in front of him as he gave them twenties from his wallet. He took two weeks of vacation time, rented a house, brought the car over, and prepared for some time on the sand only to find himself staring at the Dreamland movie listings and wondering how many times they can watch Spiderman before his wallet gives out.

The beaches are cold and wet, the hikes and the bike rides are damp, and the only way to get the young ones to put down the electronics is to bring them into town. Along with everyone else. In the current summer boom, Nantucket can function as well as we promise in the calendars and webpages when the sun is out. When the fog rolls in, one small, cute, historic town cannot entertain the tens of thousands. We can sell them ice cream and tshirts, but we can’t give them the happy ending that they expected; wish in one hand, but the other fills up a lot quicker.

My neighborhood was built with a lot of wishing. The street contains many lovely houses, floating in a foaming sea of Hydrangea, rose bushes, and Rosa rugosa. The master bedrooms look out on a wider sea of moors and marsh, but ignore the fact that the neighbors are moored one tennis serve away. So, when the house three hedges down hosts a bunch of college kids with a Karaoke machine and late night “Whistling Dixie” firework displays, the wishful thinking dies in a flurry of police calls and 7 am car horns. After one early morning performance, complete with police and neighborhood delegation to the Sons and Daughters of the New York Bar Association, one of the young people displayed a bed sheet from the upstairs window: “Isn’t this America?” Yes it is, and it is coming out of your deposit.

Cell phones intensify the wishful thinking. I was in an accident on Wednesday that couldn’t have happened ten years ago. Myself, the Boon Companion, and the moss covered, three-handled family Toyota Truck were stuck on Vesper Lane, waiting for the traffic to shift. The Boon Companion let loose a duck shattering bark just before a young lady looked up from her phone and bonked her aqua bike into the passenger door of the car. She was none the worse for the startle, the door shook loose some more rust, and everyone smiled at each other.

We are an island of texters on bikes. We all tell ourselves lovely stories that will put the consequences of our selfish actions to sleep. Then, we weep bitterly when those consequences swarm like ants across our picnic. After a week of rain, traffic, and entitlement, I root for the ants. I am cheered by near accidents and angry frat boys.

My own myths run to dark and poetic justice. I would like to believe that the selfish are punished, the generous are rewarded, and the Giving Tree never gets cut down, but provides shade and sport to generations of little boys. Like all of the myths, mine also won’t stand the light of day. The fog rolls in as it always has. And I have come to expect that every story ends in tears, unpaid bills, and expensive t-shirts. I have grown familiar with the disappointment of another felled tree and another sad old man sitting on a stump.

Which means that when I get surprised, it comes with warmth, sunshine, and flukes. When I saw the first pictures of the whales on the south shore, I assumed someone was having fun with Photoshop. Then, after a host of reliable witnesses and a warning from the Coast Guard, I drove through the rain and fog to Nobadeer Beach.

And there they were. Four whales near the shore, surfacing, blowing out a spray, and then sinking with a flick of a massive tail. They seemed impossibly close to the beach and impossibly real. They were just beyond the outer sand bars, just beyond the first breaking waves. When they sank beneath the surface, the ocean looked as it had before and how I expected it. Then, they surfaced and nothing remained the same and my expectations burst.

I didn’t think that healthy whales would ever return here, just as I never expected thousands of seals to take up residency around the island. My personal myths never included that sort of grace. When you take a step back, the impossible becomes probable.

Of course, there would be whales. For centuries, whales were seen off of the south shore. The Wampanoag carved up the corpses that washed up. Fifty years of environmental stewardship has brought the whales back to Nobadeer. Conservation efforts have been successful in protecting not only the whales, but also the menhaden that they eat. Humpbacks wouldn’t be swimming up the Hudson if that river was still the GE death zone. I didn’t believe it would work; cynicism is the cancer of hope.

I am sure that the genius of Nantucket is working hard at making a cheap buck off of fifty-ton visitors. Somewhere on island, t-shirts are being printed, yoga classes are being scheduled “with the whales” and someone has made a special Nobadeer Humpback cocktail ($24). Until that happens, we have the silent swimming surprise of whales on the south shore. Grace always surprises us. The Giving Tree can grow back.

Articles by Date from 2012