Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

Wildlife Highway

We sailed into Chacala before sunset, escorted all the way in to our anchoring spot by the most enormous dolphins I’ve ever seen. The anchorage was small, lined with densely forested hills with colorful homes perched on the cliff sides. Dramatic black rocks framed the sinking sun, dark boughs hung over the surf, music from warm palapas drifted out over the water. We split a bottle of wine in the cockpit under a black night full of stars and watched the underwater light show performed by throngs of undulating phosphorescent jellyfish and darting neon schools of fish. Every so often one of our huge dolphins swam by, like an underwater rocket in the bioluminescence.

A couple days later, we spent the entire morning motor-sailing in the glassy, steamy water alongside an enormous pod of whales. We got so used to seeing them surface every few minutes that a flip of a 10-foot-wide tail no longer was something to ooooh-ahhh about. I snapped several shots of not one or two, but four whales spouting at the same time. An almost hourly distraction was spotting large sea turtles languishing in warm surface water. We could sail right up alongside of their leathery backs, they would raise a wrinkled head and sort of smile a soft hello in our direction, then flap a flipper and descend below the bow with a smooth unhurried breaststroke and bubbling exhalations. A new kind of dolphins (dark grey with golden spots running down their backs), huge kaleidoscopic jellyfish, spotted pufferfish, ocean sunfish—all joined us over a very short distance. We’ve entered a constant state of Sea-World wonder down here.

We were pleased with the blossoming of the marine wildlife in this area, because we were headed to pick up Prescott’s family for a week of cruising between La Cruz and Barra de Navidad. We had promised them great fishing and whale sightings and all sorts of other tropical attractions, and it appeared that we’d chosen the right spot to take them on as guests. But even with all the wildlife we’d seen, we had no idea about just how close we’d come to it.

We spent one beautiful evening overnight sailing—an experience in itself for our guests, who got to sit in the cockpit with us under the millions of stars and participate in our watch-keeping rotation. By morning, we were all a bit tired and ready to arrive at our anchorage. We had just sighted our landfall and started making our way in towards the coast when a pair of grey whales surfaced off our port bow, perhaps 500 yards off. We were running parallel with them, and watched quietly as they rose slow and majestically, blew powerful spouts of steam, slapped their tails with echoing booms across the water. Soon we realized that there were not only two, but several more in their company, and Prescott and I were on full alert as we began to suspect we were running very near an entire pod. We were motoring, but throttled down and tried to stay far away from where we thought they were.

Prescott gave a startled shout to look out to port, and we turned to see a white mass rising no more than 30 feet away from the rail. Nobody moved. A huge grey fin pushed through the surface, white barnacles clinging to its glistening, cloudy skin. Then it arched as if in slow motion, and we saw its light colored underbelly as it plunged below, lifting its tail then slipping beneath, taking our words with it. All that was left was a glossy patch on the surface amidst the wind waves, a trail of bubbles following it down.

I’ve always regarded close encounters with marine life a good omen, as if they’re welcoming us to their sea. On our very first sail on Velella, from Tacoma to Seattle Washington, several small black-and-white Dahl’s porpoises happily played in our bow wake—which I took to be better luck than any amount of good wine poured over the bowsprit. The enormous gentle presence of this whale touched me in the same way. Because sometimes in the middle of the night when the wind is really strong and the salty swell is conspiring to take all the life out of me, I have to wonder if all this is really such a good idea. But when a whale surfaces next to us as if we’re part of the pod, I feel like we’ve truly become creatures of the sea.



  Peter C. wrote @

Good for the Harvey’s! What a great experience aboard Velella with you two.
But what’s that sea creature in your final picture? A sea turtle?

  Sara wrote @

Meghan, I am so glad that the Harvey’s are getting such a show. Seeing things in the wild is truly amazing and exciting in a way that seeing them in captivity can never equal. Be sure to get some video!

  janice wrote @

Meghan, I feel marine mammals, whales and dolphins, are evolved spiritual beings. They live in a dimension that we mere humans are aspiring to enter. Lately, I’ve been doing warm water therapy for my back. It is truly delicious. I think I will visualize being a small dolphin. The lucky Harveys traveling with you.
Has the fishing been good also?

  Caitlin wrote @

This is your best post yet!

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