All around me cameras were clicking. The starboard side of the boat was lined with people shoulder to shoulder. About 50 metres away was another boat the exact same, a small Navy with an arsenal of Canons, Nikons and every other brand, shape and size of photographic equipment. Between the two boats was an 18 metre Sperm Whale, the star of the circus. He was occasionally blowing out a spurt of water, to the clicking applause of lenses. The guide had been quick to point out that this wasn't a zoo, the two hours we spent roaming around in the rough seas backed this up but the atmosphere wasn't too different from one. We watched the whale's smooth back bob up and down at the surface before it flicked up its tail to wave goodbye and disappeared back into the deep.
Seeing a whale in the wild has always been on my bucket list. The grandeur of the creatures is undeniable. People I know who have become involved in organisations like the Sea Shepherds talk of their first encounter with a whale to be this all encompassing moment of epiphany that changed the course of their lives. This is kind of what I was hoping for when I gave over a hundred and forty of my hard-earned dollars to a whale watching company in Kaikoura, New Zealand.
I was really excited. After weeks of planning and talking about it I was finally going to get to see a whale. This was the only "touristy" thing that we had planned so it wasn't a problem forking out for it. Of course "touristy" is just a way of saying that something's a bit of an over-priced gimmick but let's not get too cynical yet, after all today was my day to be the chump. We watched the safety video, got the bus to the harbour and boarded the boat. It was big and blue with enough sick bags on-board to hold the contents of a blue whales stomach. We took our seats and started listening to the guide. He was telling us why Kaikoura is such a haven for whales, he went through some of the different birdlife of the area and generally filled our brains with whale trivia. This was all well and good but the group gave off an overwhelming feeling of "just show us the bloody whale".
We bobbed around in the sea for about two hours tracking the whale. The guide was telling us how the whale we'd picked up was a crafty beggar and had a knack of dodging the intrusive boats. About a minute after I'd decided how I'd spend my 80% no-whale refund we got a location on where the whale had surfaced and rushed over to watch him. It wasn't so much a moment of epiphany as a kind of "there it is" moment. Not life-changing, just getting what I'd paid for. The guide talked about what the whale was doing on the surface, excreting the lactic acid and carbon dioxide that it had gathered during it's one hour dive time. I made sure to remove my camera from my face for a few minutes to try let the full magnitude of the moment wash over me but I was left dry.
The whale disappeared and we made for the shore. I hate to be cynical because I know that what I witnessed comes into the category of majestic and awe-inspiring. I wasn't disappointed, just underwhelmed. The guide had been great, all the staff were friendly and I'd gotten exactly what I'd paid for, I just hadn't gotten what I'd came for. I hadn't had the moment I'd wax lyrically about for years to come but what was I to expect? I'd gone to a brothel looking for true love. As soon as I handed over my money, I gave away the chance to have the moment I was looking for. Just like true love, these moments can't be bought or forced.