At the Cape Disappointment State Park, we did not have any cell coverage at our campsite, so in order for Tom to work he had to drive to find service. On this day I stayed at the trailer while he drove a couple miles to the jetty—a long stretch of rocks extending into the ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River—and parked at a turnoff alongside the road. From there he could hear the ocean and see some weedy sand dunes and the back-side of the jetty. He worked for a couple hours before he realized that he was hearing a LOT of sea bird chatter, as well as an intermittent "whooshing" sound that he didn't recognize. Deciding to investigate, he walked over and climbed up on the jetty only to see a mob of sea birds and amongst them, whales!—at least five humpbacks circling about in the protected water just offshore, following some unfortunate school of fish.
After taking some photos, Tom drove back to the campsite to get me and together we headed back to the jetty, parked, and ran to the top of the rocks. Just then—with splendid story-telling timing—a whale breached directly in front of us, so close we could practically step off the jetty onto its back—that is if we hadn't been paralyzed with awe.
And what a transformation in the bay! What had been a relatively calm scene just the day before had turned into a storm of birds. Hundreds of pelicans were crash-diving into the water, each followed by a train of indelicately squawking Heermann's Gulls all converging on the pelican's pouch as it surfaced, hoping for spilled fish. Other gulls of all shapes and sizes flapped and soared about squabbling for scraps. Cormorants dove and surfaced smoothly; grebes and ducks bobbed here and there; terns shrieked overhead. Flocks of migrating Surf Scoters shot through the throngs like handfuls of fat black darts. But most impressive was a tremendous (and I don't use that word lightly) swirl of Sooty Sheerwaters out in the open water near the end of the jetty, a dark cyclone spinning over the ocean, being fed by birds streaming down the coastline. Here, right in front of us, was a river of birds, a riot of birds from all directions, all being swept into this rapidly wheeling funnel-cloud before being spun out to land in swathes of diving, snatching, squawking, flapping rafts feeding on the fish below. How many were there? It felt like millions. It had to be in the tens of thousands. There were too many to count, too many to even think about birds as individuals, only as this giant force of nature descending on this speck of ocean. And amid the frenzy, the dark bulk of the heavy whales rising unexpectedly for a glistening moment before descending again into darkness.
All evening, as the sun set over the ocean, we watched and listened to the spectacle. The light dimmed, the school of fish shifted here and there. We stayed until it was too dark for pictures, and still birds continued to collect from all directions, drawn by the shrieks and calls of the flock. The whales made a couple passes along the jetty, then moved off into more open water. The sun disappeared behind a cloud bank. The air cooled. We walked back to the truck in the failing light, full of wonder. We had a long evening ahead of us of packing everything up in prepartion to move camp tomorrow in the predicted rain, but tonight we were happy, exhilerated just to have been here. This evening all of our hard work of the past year was worth it. To be outside, close to life—our own and that of so many other creatures—was exactly where we wanted to be.
(This happened on September 22, but I have not had a chance to sit and reflect much since we have been on the road, and there are some experiences that I don't want to miss noting, so I will have some retrospective posts. The picture is one Tom took of the whale surfacing near the jetty. This is the underside of the head with some barnacles stuck to it.)