Congratulations to Rebecca Malkewicz for becoming our 2023 PureTravel Writing Competition Winner. Her brilliant article is published below, together with the comments of our Head judge Jeremy Lazell.
Whales and Burials
I never expected this would be part of the job description.
One year ago, amidst ten-foot waves, arctic waters, and from the deck of a wooden schooner, I saw my first glimpse of a distant whale tail. A minute later I was retching over the side of the railing in front of the entire crew. I’ve been chasing whales ever since.
The boat slowed to a floating standstill beneath my feet as the captain’s voice crackled in my ear.
“We’re gonna stop here.”
“Roger,” I muttered into the microphone on my collar.
At the stern, two forlorn faces stared at me. A young married couple with their 3-year-old daughter, the only happy one among them. I nodded toward the wife. One hand gripped the railing behind her desperately as the rolling swells of the North Pacific rocked us.
Not a boater then.
The other hand held a glossy black paper bag close to her chest.
“We’re ready.” I told her. Eyes trembling, she hesitated, embarrassed.
“I’ve never done this before, what – how do we…?” It was a question I’d been asked many times before, but never felt qualified to answer.
“We’ll stay as long as you need—for the process itself…” I glanced upwards towards a flag attached to the upper deck. Quickly gauging the direction of the wind, I cleared my throat awkwardly.
“Best to use the starboard side corner.”
They threw flower petals. A swirl of reds and pinks surrounded us, the only color in a gray background. The only noise was our foghorn. All of Monterey Bay was obscured in a ghostly haze. Ten feet from the boat the world disappeared.
Half a mile to our left would be Lover’s Point. Although I couldn’t see them, I knew that tourists would dot the beach like many specks of sand. Amateur tide-poolers would ravage the craggy coast with squinted eyes. For a fleeting moment many of them would stop, transfixed, as flower petals emerge from the mists desperately clinging to wet skin and slimy rock. The last traces of a life.
This was my role. Like Charon in Greek mythology. A ferry for departed souls. My coworker came to stand beside me.
“Spouts were spotted five miles north. Looks like humpbacks,” he whispered, giving me a subtle thumbs up. An oddity. A whale watching boat that also buried the dead.
The wife pulled out a plastic bag of ashes. Sometimes there wasn’t a bag. Urns made of rock salt could be dropped in whole, floating gracefully before sinking. I always wondered about the journey down. Perhaps it would glide through giant twisting schools of sardine, or be caressed by swaying kelp forests. Maybe harbor seals and playful sea lions would watch its descent with gentle curiosity.
Sometimes the families would impart stories of their loved one and show photos.
“All water is connected. She’ll be a world traveler now. She loved traveling.”
So it was that without ever having met, I knew the sum of them, and saw their lives tied up in pretty bows.
Sometimes there would be music. Amazing Grace played on bagpipes. Chanted prayers. Whispered song.
Always there were whales. The searching for whales. The distant breaths in heart-shaped spouts. Some days, pods of fifty or more dolphins would surround us. In bad visibility, the only confirmation of their presence would be the numerous powerful exhales echoing alongside the humming engine in beautiful solidarity.
Most of the families were grown children losing a parent, or children a grand-parent. Today’s couple, by far, was one of the youngest. The husband was protectively holding their daughter. I noticed the wife struggling to open the zip- tied bag. I pulled out my pocket knife.
“Do you need help?” Tears stained her face, and she could only nod. Reverently reaching for the bag, I stopped.
Ashes were usually about the size of a bread loaf. This one made up only a handful. Too small. Much too small.
Ugh, this is a really powerful piece, I feel quite overwhelmed by it. The ending is absolutely stunning. “Too small. Much too small.” It’s understated, tiny but utterly immense.
That, in fact, could be said of the piece in general, which sketches round the edge of the picture, hinting at what it’s all about. It’s subtle, suggestive, mesmerising, pulling us in and along with its quiet, oblique brush strokes.
It is also compellingly vivid. “All of Monterey Bay was obscured in a ghostly haze,” says the writer at one point. “Ten feet from the boat the world disappeared.” We can see it all, we are right there with the writer on that deck.
This is complex story told with deceptively simple, devastatingly simple prose, picking out details to paint a poignant, but never cloying, never oversentimental scene. A deserved winner – I love it.