A whale of a time (Creative non-fiction – humor)

(February 2020)

Trapped in a bubble, suspended 1400 feet above the sea, along with four strangers half my age; help! What on earth am I doing here, and how, exactly, is this going to end? Yesterday I was sedately heading home, having survived the very real danger of being beaten (again) at cards by the 7-year-old grandson. Yet here I am, on a stomach-rearranging pitch, travelling 150kmh over sea-blue expanse, trusting my life to a complete stranger, just to see something I could safely watch on TV in my own home!

Being a bit over-weight (let’s be honest; very over-weight) and with a bung knee that’s inclined to collapse, adventure should sensibly be confined to an armchair. Grandmothers are meant to knit, eat cake and get beaten at cards. When I forget to look in the mirror it’s easy to pretend there’s life in this old girl yet, but is today a step too far?

Yesterday, travelling north, my beloved Whiskered One looked at the looming fork in the road at Waipara, and asked ‘left or straight?’ Left meant home, my favourite place, and exciting responsibilities like mowing lawns. Straight offered unplanned mystery; carefree and footloose. No decision really; my heart gave a little leap as we passed the turn-off, and I gleefully text the off-spring ‘going out of range, will call.’

Kaikoura is an adventure town; even a major earthquake couldn’t force the roading people to remove crazy intersections and parking challenges, and they’ve clearly not heard of traffic lights or roundabouts.

Genteelly admiring the joys of a tourism town (jade, kiwi mementoes, t-shirts and cafes), the Whiskered One abruptly darts into a shop-cum-office that’s adorned with pictures of whales and aircraft. As the only whale in his life, I’m mildly surprised. It wouldn’t be like him to be mesmerised by the lovely bright lass who greets us, but yet, he’s asking about flights. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but for me the idea of seeing a real live whale (other than in the mirror) is bucket list material; even enquiring about it is tumbling my heart.

Costs start at about $130, and soar from there. It’s tempting to grasp at anything, just to say I’ve been, but with no guarantee of actually seeing a whale (they are wild creatures after all), I want real value; the flight must deliver something else.

Tragically, there’s no flight available. High winds have shut them down. Oh well. At least the operators aren’t willing to spin me in a tumble drier.

The Whiskered One surprises again by saying we’ll come back tomorrow; I didn’t even know we were staying overnight. Briefly considering the uniqueness of a yurt or tepee (forecast 100kmh winds blew that idea away) we selected an iconic hotel/motel/restaurant complex. This should have been mildly forgettable, except that the chef bathed the salad in oil, every sign/information sheet was mono-lingually English (despite most guests not speaking the lingo) and one motel groups cooking provoked the fire alarm. To top it off, our shower blasted pain into every pore; a great strategy for conserving water.

This morning we were sensible; the museum (average viewer age similar to some artefacts), and the peninsular where the seals had the nous to keep deep water between themselves and any humans. Mt Fyffe walkway entrance, with it’s cacophony of native cicadas, restored some peace after the tourism bustle.

Away to the airport: the Whiskered One is staying earthbound in order to collect on my life insurance. I should feel bad that my three co-passengers paid full fare, but Scottish heritage and Kiwi pride had gleefully accepted BookMe’s two-thirds price as only fair and reasonable.

A cheerful young man asked me to check in on a screen, but I’m an awkward sort of soul, so the very first question caused a problem; ‘How did you hear about us?’ There are over a dozen options, but none cover the impulsiveness of the Whiskered One.

All life died when the young man asked me to step on scales. They now know the truth. Too heavy? I could imagine the shame; ‘Sorry ma’am but lose twenty kilos and come back next year.’ Oh dear.

‘All good’ he said. Whew!

I signed my name on the computer screen with my finger; the result did look vaguely like my usual scrawl but I wouldn’t bank on it. Meanwhile the Whiskered One, an engineer, studied the new-looking terminal’s log construction, appalled by the quality of the build with it’s log hearts off-centre, surprisingly deep cracks, and a door struggling to close into a shifting frame only confirming his concerns. I hoped my helicopter was built better. A viewing platform let me observe that returning adventurers looked happy; not a sick-bag in sight.

The safety briefing was a hoot! If the helicopter falls into the water from 1400 feet, as I know it will, what on earth makes them think that I would be in any shape to swim, or operate a life-jacket. Assuming I do miraculously survive (unlikely, given that I can’t fall off a chair without hurting myself), when I open my mouth to blow the whistle, I’ll swallow half the ocean. At least that will give the others a sporting chance of getting back to dry land, where there’s knitting and cake. Apparently the life-raft is at the back of the helicopter, under the tail. How would I get that out, bobbing in the ocean, encumbered with an inflated life-jacket? Everyone else was nodding wisely, so I did too, but secretly hoping someone had seen the wisdom in designing automatic airbags for under helicopters. No? Oh well.

A second video told us about whales, and the area; stunning facts like the whale killing its prey by shouting at it (my children used to try that on me). It’s sonar really (the whale, not the children). We learned that the whales we’re most likely to see are isolated males feeding up before making the long trek north to find a likely mate; all that effort just for sex!

Next we were fitted out with life-jackets. There was, of course, the temptation to pull the cord to check whether it inflates like they do in movies (PS I love you) but I behave. Our pilot, the check-in guy, led us out to this little bubble with rotors they euphemistically call a helicopter. It seemed barely big enough for two people, let alone five, and it’s outer skin was way too thin for confidence.

I looked at the bits of bent metal called rotors; they’re meant to hold us up? What if a bolt is loose and a rotor falls away, spinning far out to sea? Can I quiz the engineer? Disappointingly, there’s no crescent handy so I can’t check anything. Oh well.

My co-adventurers were invited to sit in the back seats. The young woman sensibly placed herself between the two guys; her view isn’t as good, and she’ll be last out when we ditch, but at least she’ll be cushioned on impact.

The pilot cheerily suggested I hop in the front. Hop? I could barely walk, let alone hop. With no elevator available, I inelegantly used the handles provided, to haul myself in. Settling into a surprisingly comfortable seat, it dawned on me that if the pilot has a heart attack I’d have a birds-eye view of what happens when the co-pilot has absolutely no idea what all the dials and buttons on the front dash mean.

My feet rested on a thin metal rod, preventing them from inadvertently popping open the sealed window. Below them I could see the ground; fine whilst parked at the airport, but at 1400 feet?

The headset went over my ears, and a small grey fluffy thing, alarmingly resembling a mouse, bent around so as to virtually touch my teeth. I wondered who else had put their bodily fluids on it today. Disconcertingly, this microphone only works if I can hear myself, thus reinforcing that I’m just as capable of silly questions as anyone else.

Seatbelts done, doors closed with an unsettlingly gentle click (I prefer a reassuring slam), the engines started, the rotors turned, and we felt this previously benign machine gather power, reminiscent of sitting of a full-noise car with the handbrake on. The pilot finally let the beast lift; in that moment I remembered that I hadn’t gone to the toilet. Oh dear.

The pilot clearly thought it unnecessary to check the helicopter would actually maintain flight; he headed straight out over water. Maybe the sea provides a softer landing? I wished he’d concentrate, but no, he told us interesting stuff about Kaikoura and its surrounds. I discovered that my three international co-passengers had no idea about the life-changing earthquake which occurred here just three years ago. As a New Zealander who watched the aftermath on TV night after night, their innocence seems incredible. One gent even asked if that was why all the road-works. Dah!

On we flew, or at least, the helicopter did. The pilot suggested that we search for the puff of water-cloud which would indicate a whale. And so, I find myself suspended in a bubble 1400 feet above the sea, with five pairs of eyes earnestly scan the vast ocean for the impossible. Are we going to just keep flying further and further away from land, until the fuel runs out, never to be seen again? I wonder if, as a last loving gesture to the Whiskered One, I can increase my life insurance. What am I doing here? Madness… where’s my knitting and cake?

White froth taunts us from far below, but our target is elusive, until those magic words come over the radio from a sister aircraft; ‘found a whale!’

Our helicopter abruptly changes course, as if by voice command, and soon we find ourselves tucked in behind a small plane, staring down at a magnificent mammal far below. Even though we are so high, the whale can apparently hear us; he must not be disturbed so we cannot fly closer. He is refilling his body with air, in order to dive the 2000 metres to his favourite food, squid with eyes the size of basketballs. We stay with him, hanging around for longer than the plane, waiting for the iconic tail-lift of this enormous old dark-grey mammal. His body quivers, gathers momentum; he ducks under the surface, lifts up high, then dives. His broad sweeping tail rises majestically above the sea for a moment, then he is gone. That’s when I realise that I’ve forgotten to breathe for a while, but it was so worth it.

Feeling that life is complete, I barely register the two huge albatross flying below us, but swarming schools of fish feeding on krill bring me back. Hundreds of seagulls party on greedy fish who have forgotten to keep themselves safe.

 Soon we are approaching land, and in just seconds we have a mountain face directly ahead of us. The pilot appears oblivious; he’s looking for deer. Thankfully, the helicopter desires to live another day; it effortlessly climbs above the ridge.

We circle a tiny clearing high up on the ridgeline. It’s too small for anything like this machine, but the pilot lowers the helicopter to it anyway, settling so that the tail rotor hangs out over the edge of a steep slope. We all exit into a gale force wind, our cameras automatically recording the views.

I study the drop-off, imagining the helicopter falling backwards over the edge, and contemplate walking back. Surely it would only take a couple of days?

Reluctantly returning to join the others, I find that the seating arrangements have changed, and I’m to sit in the back. That’s fair; the box seat always hits first anyway. We are in, the helicopter lifts, and we are away! We climb up ridges, fall over edges, duck and dive up valleys. Adrenalin rushes galore. A quick peek at the guy sitting in front reveals white knuckles clinging to a handle; fortunately not the pilots. I realise then that none of the other passengers have been in a helicopter before. There’s oohs and aahs, gasps and nervous laughter, but not from me. This is better than any roller coaster; the endorphins are flying free.

Suddenly we are out over flat land, and the airport is just in front of us. The descent is smoother than any elevator, and we regain ground without a bump. I see the Whiskered One waiting patiently. My co-adventurers rush away to their next holiday hotspot. Me? This grandmother just wants to do it all again!

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