Whale Watching

Judi and I spent the last 18 months traveling on tours previously canceled due to COVID. It reached the point of being nearly ridiculous. With two years of bookings being pushed back, we were away from home some part of every month for a year and a half. Occasionally, it felt like we were trapped in a travel marathon, finishing the laundry from one trip just in time to pack again. Finally, in October we finished off the last of the travel backlog.

This final excursion placed us on a small expedition ship named the Ocean Victory. It repositions from Alaska to Antarctica at the end of the summer season. Looking to maximize every opportunity to generate revenue, the company runs one trip each fall and spring between San Diego, CA and Costa Rica as the ship relocates. Several stops along the Western coast of Mexico and Costa Rica make for an interesting itinerary. We like being on the water, had never traveled on this ship, plus had never visited those regions in Mexico, so off we went. A well-appointed vessel with a capacity of only 200 passengers set sail with only 67 of us on board, which suited me just fine. We had 1.22 staff for every 1 paying passenger. That couldn’t have been good for the company’s cash flow, but we felt well attended to throughout the journey!

This year’s trip offered a bonus at no additional charge – hide and seek from hurricane Lidia. It was a slow-moving storm that lingered directly in our path for a couple of days, but eventually moved inland, smacking Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding area. A bit of itinerary revision was required, leading to two port changes plus an extra sea day, but nothing too disruptive. Fortunately, a wise captain’s plan kept us surrounded by pretty calm seas. Such changes in plans often present a prime opportunity for disgruntlement and complaint among passengers, but we didn’t hear a peep of mutinous frustration voiced by our group. If nothing else, it was a good reminder that flexibility is a handy quality to pack in your travel bag.  Our excursions, not to mention life in general, don’t always unfold as we imagined they would. Unexpected storms arise. Delays or re-routing may be necessary. They can ruin your day or enhance your experience. How we cope with those changes is largely up to us. An attitude of flexibility can be an important catalyst along the way.

This proved to be a low-key, expect-to-relax kind of vacation, just as anticipated. Occasionally, someone stationed on deck or peering through the full-length windows of the observation lounge would spot the unexpected. Or perhaps the expected and hoped for, but not guaranteed. The fin of a whale breaking water in the distance. Or dolphins acting as though they were assigned to escort the ship on its route. Or perhaps even a sea turtle, bobbing like a buoy, unconcerned with the passing vessel. There is something about seeing wildlife that generates a buzz in most of us. Attention turns. Cameras aim and shutters click, doing their best to capture the moment for later reminiscing. I have witnessed that buzz on ocean cruises and African safaris, but also on my own front porch as birds make their way to nearby feeders. Life is full of opportunities to be moved in that way. Experiences like those remind me of how influential a little thing like hope can be. Sometimes motivator and other times cheerleader, hope inspires us to believe or work or pray or simply keep on keeping on. Without it, dreams crumble and ambitions fade. When hopeless, we give up on many things and simply move on, perhaps with new determination focused elsewhere, but sometimes simply as a shell of our former self. On this trip, the simple hope that we might spot some variety of marine life kept several passengers on vigil, just in case. It reminded me of the words from the hymn “Open My Eyes.” The opening verse says,

“Open my eyes that I may see

Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;

Place in my hands the wonderful key

That shall unclasp and set me free.”

Catching a glimpse of the unusual, especially when it represents beauty or inspires wonder, leaves an indelible impression on the viewer. Often more than just a site to be seen, it opens new truths to us about our place in this magnificent world we call home. Most of us can recall moments when our attention was caught by the unusual.  That simple glimpse triggered a transformation of the moment. Our heart was moved. Our mind was intrigued. Something ran over our whole being. Some would go so far as to say that in that moment they felt as though they were standing on holy ground. I love moments like that. Such was the case for those whose hope and faithful watching was rewarded on our ship. Hours or even a couple of days later, you could still hear people recounting what they had seen and how spectacular it was.

Those whose eyes were trained toward the sea were quick to shout out their discovery so that others might also see. I appreciate it when others help point me to things I have not yet noticed (well, sometimes!) However, such sightings are a bit like bolts of lightning or rainbows, visible for just a few moments. Such was the case here. They disappeared before the rest could locate them. I, for one, did not see any of the creatures on this trip. Perhaps because I had seen them on other excursions, I simply wasn’t committed to this particular search. If it happened, great; if not, no problem. It reminded me that even if one has some small vestige of hope, it helps to look for the thing hoped for. It is difficult to overrate the importance of attentiveness.

Truth be told, I have an odd relationship with seeing. I have some of that “can’t see the forest for the trees” dilemma when it comes to finding everyday objects. Judi is pretty patient about it, but it drives me nuts. On the other hand, I can spot the unusual when others miss it. Like the night we passed through the garage after an evening walk. Judi went right by a possum that had sauntered in while the door was open and hidden itself behind the grill. She didn’t see it, whereas it was the first thing I saw when I entered the room.

A friend of mine once referred to me as an ordinary mystic. I presume that suggests he sees me as one who tries to see, hear and respond to God and mysteries of life. I do sometimes find mystery, meaning, and intrigue in places that others may not notice. I hope he’s right but I can’t be sure. An email arrived in my inbox this week that asked, “What signs have you seen of God meeting the world this week?” That was an interesting way to phrase the question. I don’t always have an answer for that question, but I do know that, like whale watching, one is more likely to catch of glimpse of the thing hoped for if we keep at least one eye pealed to that purpose.

We are approaching the season the Church calls Advent. Watchfulness is one key word dusted off and used to call people to alertness as a way of preparing for the Christmas. It is a good message, so long as we aren’t suckered into thinking that watchfulness is only important during this limited season. There is lot of life to be lived before and after advent. The larger objective should be to understand that being watchful is a good practice throughout the year. Where is God meeting the world? Where might we be moved and awed by those sightings around us? How does the experience inspire us and change us? Not just in a holiday season. And certainly not just while whale watching on a ship cruising down the coast of Mexico.

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