On winter nights, Winton and his wife lie in bed listening to humpback whales breach and crash near the coast. The noise of a whale’s tail is as assured and powerful as “a bookie climbing into a Bentley after another day at the track.” During the day, the whale sounds distract Winton from his work. When the weather allows it, he and his wife take their paddleboards down to the water to get up close to the whales or to other large sea creatures like manta rays and dugongs. This winter, they’ve seen sousas—Australian bottleneck dolphins—for the first time, but they haven’t been able to get a close look.
The fact that Winton and his wife can not only hear but identify the sounds of the humpback whales demonstrates that they live incredibly near the shore, and that the ocean is an integral part of their lives. Their familiarity with the sea life suggests that they spend a great deal of their time at, or in, the ocean.
Winton has loved dolphins and whales since childhood, and after whaling stopped in Australia, he’s had more and more chances to swim with them in the ocean. When a blue whale washed up on the shore close to where he lived, he was fascinated by its rotting body. Though the humpbacks migrate annually, and he’s heard and seen them many times, the sight and sound still thrill him, and he paddles out to be amongst the whales as often as possible.
Winton’s fascination with the rotting whale carcass recalls his childhood attraction to danger and violence. Even though the whale carcass stinks and represents the death of a magnificent sea creature, Winton is still amazed by the natural process of its disintegration, a reminder that each phase of the life cycle deserves respect.
Early in the season, Winton will often give reckless chase to a pod of whales hopelessly far out from shore, though the exertion required is almost impossible to match. The first time he tried this, the sun was setting, and he was kilometers away from shore by the time he reached the whales. Later in the season, he takes a more measured approach, and the whales are closer to shore, seemingly escorted by a group of sousas.
Winton’s dogged hope of catching the pod of whales echoes his sentimental efforts in the campaign for Ningaloo. His love for the ocean, and more generally, for Australia’s wild habitats, drives him to commune with and protect it.
Winton finds himself surrounded by a pod of humpbacks who have seemingly slowed to check him out. He’s overwhelmed by the way they communicate with one another—their incomprehensible intelligence. The younger whales encircle him in the shallow water, and he finds it difficult to keep his balance on his paddleboard. He braces himself as one slides beneath him. Then another whale breaches, its tail only a meter away from him, so big it could have struck him dead instantly. Winton and his wife head back in, buoyed by their good luck. As they leave the water, they see a few sharks leaving puffs of silt behind them like a fireworks display.
Winton’s rapt attention in this scene demonstrates once again his desire to be one with nature and to respect each living thing’s role in its complex ecology. He’s so intrigued by this pod of whales that he seems to forget he’s even there and could be at risk if they make any sudden moves. His comparison of the puffs of silt to a fireworks display is a reminder that he delights in every detail of the natural world, and finds each creature worthy of celebration.