I’m not in Singapore anymore. Two weeks ago, I said good-bye to my parents at the airportand left for Sri Lanka. I will admit a certain lack of novelty in the destination: this is my second time in the country this gap year, after a weeklong family holiday back in June.
That, however, was scattered around the country, nineteen of us crammed in a traveler bus and descending upon place after place in one large, loud, hungry, Indian horde. I’m here this time, however, firmly moored in Colombo and without a family at my back.
There are a lot of firsts here. First internship of my gap year, first time staying away from my family for three weeks. (My sixth grade Renaissance summer course does not count.) First time working in an office every day, first time having to wear smart-casual to work. I never thought I’d miss the minimal effort involved in choosing and putting on scratchy uniform shirts. (The school shorts designed only for girls with a thigh gap can still burn in the fiery pits of hell, though.)
And as needlessly dramatic and cliché as it sounds, this is also the first time I’m realizing my earliest childhood ambition of marine biology. If this sounds pretentious for a childhood ambition, imagine it recited with all of a five-year-old’sconfidence. I don’t know where I pulled that phrase from, exactly, but it emerged somewhere in that time from a growing pile of whale books on my bookshelf, whale models in the bathroom, and endless Free Willy, Free Willy 2, and FreeWilly 3 re-watches. Whales were the first in a long line of naturalistic obsessions.
So it’s taken 13 years, but I’m finally, actually, doing marine biology. I’ve come to Colombo for an ocean conservation group, Oceanswell, an organization spearheaded by Dr. Asha de Vos. Oceanswell’s flagship initiative is the Sri Lankan Blue WhaleProject, aiming to document, understand, and conserve the whales off the coast of Sri Lanka. These whales were the second I ever saw, back when I was eight years old—on our first trip to Sri Lanka, just after the end of the civil war, I dragged my parents on what ended up being a six hour journey, buoyed by no-doubt irritating overenthusiasm.
In part I decided to intern with Oceanswell to see how far overenthusiasm now nearly a decade inthe past could take me. As shocking as it may be, I don’t think I’m the same person I was aged eight. Yet if these weeks have taught me anything, it’s that I still love whales. I hate conservation’s unilateral focus on charismatic megafauna at the exclusion of smaller, uglier, less appealing creatures—but god, whales.
Maybe it’s nostalgia for that first grade obsession, for those afternoons spent memorizing names in field guides, for the beeline I made in toy stores for the animal figurines, searching for a new species to add to my collection. But it returns—as always—to things larger than just me. There is nothing like the largest animal to ever exist to remind you of the puniness of humanity. You confront the limits of evolution, of understanding, an ocean vast enough to lose identity in.
Of course, a lot of people have been asking me how many whales I’m finding. The answer is loads! The catch is that they’re all photographs: I’ve been working on a variety of small projects for Oceanswell, re-organizing their database of individual whales as well as helping with some outreach materials for the fast-expanding whale-watching industry. The response to this, generally, is disappointed: so you’re not actually seeing them.
That’s not true, though. I’m seeing whales on a scale I haven’t before. I’m learning their lifehistory, distributions, behavior. I’m tracing blow patterns and dorsal shapes in field guides, reciting names like poetry. I’m reading papers—so many papers—understanding the research that has webbed out around them and the questions that people keep returning to (and getting excited to meet my professors next year!). I may not be at sea, but every day I’m seeing these creatures with new perspective.
This is why I’m taking a gap year—to come to things, new or old, and dive in headfirst without needing anything from it. For these firsts that let me see the world in fresh ways, over and over, from beneath the surface.
I think a lot how a blue whale must feel, with the three-dimensional weightless space of water to grow into, inhabitants of a world no mammal was ever meant for but that they have claimed, anyways, with sheer bulk. And I think about what they come from—weird furry mammals inhabiting the shore, slipping further and further into the water over millennia—and the theories (outlandish and widely rejected, true) that humans actually originated from aquatic apes. Once we may have posessed total comfort in an ocean that now mostly terrifies us. Unlike whales, however, we never embraced that vast horizon. I hope that eventually I’ll learn that kind of confidence, though. To immerse myself fully and not need the familiarity of oxygen for hours together.