Paddlers love nature. We are immersed in it, dive into it, and have a passion to protect it. Stories of paddlers who have their breath taken away by close encounters with our natural world are some of our favorites. Here, travel writer Lisa duBusc Miller, offers a tale of paddling with the migrating whales along New York’s coast off the shores of Montauk.
Stand Up with Nature: Paddling with Whales
Even the ocean sleeps sometimes, on certain days when there is no current and a flat calm —Ernest Hemingway
I consider a day good when I can spend part of it floating and gliding on my paddleboard. Being out in the wide open ocean is a high, a connection and an adventure that I long for—that so many long for. But one day in particular was a stand out one, and most definitely worth sharing.
It was the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, 2019 and I was at the popular Ditch Plains surf beach in Montauk, New York. And it was a hot and still day, and the beach attracted its biggest crowd of the summer.
Sunrise Paddle: The Unexpected Journey
No man was ever alone on the sea. —Ernest Hemingway
I began that day with a long sunrise paddle along the shore on my Starboard 9’0” paddle board. It felt good to be salty and solo. It was, as it always is, a mental reset button, and a way to reconnect with myself and with the sea. After a brief coffee from the Ditch Witch, I put that board back into the water to catch the small waves off the jetty.
It was a pretty crowded line up but at least by surfing a paddleboard, the odds were higher of catching and riding those little nuggets than if I were out there on my surfboard. There was zero wind and current, so the water was clear and the surface was glassy smooth. The conditions were almost strange. And as it turns out, it was the calm before the Hurricane Dorian swell hit.
Then, I caught my breath and gasped just a little, as a heart-lifting sight played out on the horizon.
It was a pod of humpback whales. And normally, I would be content with that view of mesmerizing marine life and just keep catching waves. But this was not a normal day. This time was different. This time I pointed my paddleboard away from shore and began to paddle hard, furiously even, out to sea. I was heading toward the pod. Alone and without a clear plan on what I would do when I got there.
It was an odd decision, but it was as if some sort of magnetic pull was in play. And my inner voice, tied to the tides, said go. Maybe I was channeling my inner Old Man and the Sea. Who knows. But I paddled, and paddled some more. The supremely calm sea allowed me to get out there quickly and in no time at all I was about two thirds of a mile from shore.
As I got closer to the pod, the water turned choppy, but not from wind or current. It was a vast and dense school of bunker that was churning the surface, making it come alive. I was floating on my board, with little in the way of protection, except for my Kialoa paddle, which was paused in mid-air, almost like a harpoon. This fish field was extraordinary. It was beautiful. And it was indeed the reason for the breaching whales, who were just here having their lunch.
Just then (he) jumped making a great bursting of the ocean and then a heavy fall. —Ernest Hemingway
A wedge of fear wrapped with doubt and indecision worked its way into my thoughts. Was I close enough? Was I too close? I was full of this internal dialogue when, suddenly, a black volcano erupted directly in front of me, only yards from my body, my board. He shot straight up with such force, such power. The spray hit me and I felt colder for it. And as this magnificent creature punched through the surface there was so much water displaced. I felt the void. It was like being on the edge of a crater.
(He) rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the old man in the skiff. —Ernest Hemingway
I stood with my feet rooted to the board and my legs shaking a little, as the board was rocked by the water and the whale. I was fully present. Then the whale hung there in the air. He meant me no harm. Then in the next moment, that wedge of fear disappeared and was replaced with pure unadulterated enchantment. I fell completely in love with this black barnacled whale, who had just came out of the sea to me.
They would leap high into the air and return into the same hold they had made in the water when they leaped. —Ernest Hemingway
My respect and love then spread out over the whole ocean and all the creatures that live within it. As the noble whale crashed back down into the ocean crater with a mouthful of fish, I threw my paddle into the air with both hands to celebrate my big love for the majesty of the ocean and everything in it. Behind me I heard many hundreds of people let out a collective sigh. They had seen him from the beach. But we were all made one by the rise of this whale.
A lifeguard pulled up beside me on a loud jet ski and told me I was in danger of being hit by a whale. He said a whale would not care about a paddleboard. He said I could be flung very far in the air by the whale’s tail. I could not believe he was talking like this about my beloved whale.
But I paddled back toward shore, away from the fish field and from the whale pod. I gave in to my earlier fears, the ones that the lifeguard had managed to put back into me with his words. But I felt different. I felt changed by the whale. I felt stronger. So after catching and riding a few little waves, I paddled back out to the whales again.
He’s headed almost East, he thought. That means he’s tired and going with the current.—Ernest Hemingway
When I got far out this time, I found some like-minded surfers out there. Mike Avallone, was also on a stand up board, and Erik Schwab was paddling prone on an 11-foot surfboard. The three of us quietly followed the gently breaching pod as it traveled east. We followed them a long time. Their black backs occasionally broke the surface of the water. I still had no way of capturing this day, but Erik had his camera. I resigned to just stay in the moment and respect it.
And this is why paddle boarding means so much to me. It is the ultimate freedom, allowing you to connect with the ocean in such a powerful way. It can even mean having your very own whale moment. And that’s not something you ever forget.
If more of us could have this kind of connection, then more would care deeply for the ocean and all that it holds. This care would lead to more actions and decisions that protect our oceans, and do them less harm. We need healthy oceans and we certainly need more happy healthy whales.
Written by: Lisa duBusc Miller
About Lisa duBusc Miller:
Lisa duBusc Miller was born in Greenwich, CT. She received her BA from Bucknell University and her Masters in Psychology from The American University.
She lived in London, Thailand and Vietnam before returning to work on Wall Street where she was a published Sovereign Credit Analyst. Today she is a freelance travel writer with a focus on SUP, surfing, sailing and skiing. She has written about her own world travels, as well as profiling athletes who excel out in the ocean, and those who serve to protect it.
Mrs. Miller lives in Rye, NY and Montauk, NY with her family, which includes three children and two dogs. She writes and gets out on the water almost every day.
You can find her on Instagram @departuresbydubusc and follow her blog www.joyfulsurfmom.com where she shares her travel stories so that others may learn from her mistakes and successes.