Whale Watching from my Tent


Whales have been frolicking & feeding right in front of me for at least 3 days now.

Whale watching, here in Southern California, usually involves renting a boat with some friends (one of whom will inevitably be quietly throwing up during much of the ride), while we head out into the usually choppy ocean (thus the throwing up) with an optimistically cheery guide in search of whales. We are taught to watch for the spurt of water which is often followed by the whale diving – sometimes the body comes out of the water – and if you are lucky – it will show/flap it’s tail. Seeing that once justifies the whole exhausting afternoon.

But here I sit in my comfortable chair, shaded by the tarp I’ve rigged next to my tent, and at any given moment, I can raise my binoculars and watch spurts and tails galore. There must be 40-50 whales now spread along the mile of ocean in front of me.  It started with about 10-15 a few days ago and they are obviously gathering here – this is the place to be.

I believe most have come for yesterday’s big dramatic event:  into the world of whales came these waves filled with (being ridden by) dozens and dozens of sea lions (and/or the sea lions were creating the waves…still not sure.) Yes, these waves were followed by the whales jumping in & out (and yes, I was wondering if those adorable sea lions were dinner for the whales – but I didn’t know at the time if these were seal-eating whales or not) – and, in addition to that picture, there were thousands of birds migrating north as far as the eye can see, flying only 1-3 feet over the water, sometimes stopping to rest on floating areas of seaweed where they were obviously finding a source for dinner.

Then, when the waves of sea lions hit these seaweed patches – my goodness – it was wild party and everyone was invited!

Pelicans and other bigger birds would dive down into the fiesta – and the wind was blowing so wildly that the waves had an electric power – sharp, dynamic waves – plus, for me, the sound of my tarp canopy flapping wildly in the cool breeze sounded like a huge flag or applause celebrating the wildly rich and musical Sea of Life display before me.

Yes, there was the majestic, slow-motion beauty of whales – sometimes frolicking in groups where they’d have the “who-can-lower-their-tail-the-most-slowly” competitions (which I believe were part of the “family picnic” each pod would have later in the day), and sometimes they were diving in and out of the waves of seals (and if one did not know they were preditor and prey, one could assume it was all play) – oh ’twas a mix of beauty and the Impermanence of Nature.

And almost NONE of this is visible WITHOUT BINOCULARS.

In other words, one could – as I did for a few days – simply sit here and meditate and soak in the air, the open space, the sea sparkling in the sun, the heartbeat rhythm if the foghorn – and see the gentle, restorative, simple gorgeous view … not having an inkling that the rich events of yesterday (that continue today and were inevitably present before I started watching 3 days ago) were taking place! Didn’t even occur to me to look for it – until I saw a spurt – then I reached for the binoculars.  (And actually, I imagine that yesterday would probably have been visible to some extent with the naked eye – but mostly as some splashing and something happening, maybe  – definitely missing the details of the unfolding. And it wasn’t until I raised the binoculars that I could even see the endless flying birds were there – they so blended into the vibrant, sparkling sea .)

Binoculars.  Mindfulness is like binoculars.  It enables us to see the events happening below the surface – sometimes we’ll only see a “spurt” on the surface – but that should be our cue to grab the binoculars.

Then we may start noting some stuff moving around in there – maybe there’s a drama or a show – something is splashing, – who knows – but whatever it is, it’s much easier to deal with when you know it’s there. And it makes the world a richer place – i.e. my view of the ocean is now enriched – just as the view of all my “underlying issues” (which I come to this secluded place to process) also enriches my appreciation for the whole, for the rich world of inner and outer processing that creates this sense of “I am.”

And with this richer, more complete view, then our decisions are based on more of what’s really there – whether we are appreciating the view or taking into consideration what we see for optimal survival and growth  – always honoring and respecting these different creatures and their journeys (within us or the ocean.)

I take these longer solo retreats in nature to process, digest, connect with the rhythm of nature (that living in NYC or LA for the past 30 years makes me require these trips to get), and to practice simply being present, without an agenda, allowing insight to arise – or not – basically practicing acceptance with whatever is.

I’ve been coming to this spot for years and the journey is always a bit different each time – different weather, animals, personal issues.  I’ve been on this spot (on top of a hill) during an exciting electrical storm, during hail, seeing the sky totally orange from out-of-control fires miles away, and while totally enveloped in a thick sea fog that silences everything.  I’ve wrestled with raccoons, watched deer & mountain lion, and witnessed the full moon set into the ocean.  But this trip is about the whales – and all the creatures that are gathering here to live, to feed, to nest (oh yes, did I mention the birds mating in the tree next to me?) – and I am enjoying the themes that are presenting themselves – Impermanence, Equanimity, Sensory Clarity and ….. Presence.

And now I return to my perch with a view … and, of course, these magnificent whales.

Om [and/or insert whale sounds here.]

Categories : Personal Experience


  1. Ellyn Hartman says:

    What a blessing! Nature first and secondhand with your keen descriptions. Your rich analysis of insights included… Above and below the surface. Thank You Stephanie.

  2. Bill M says:

    Hi there,

    You have me recall the following:

    Trees, rocks, sand, even dirt and insects can speak. This doesn’t mean, as some people believe, that they are spirits or gods. Rather, if we reside in nature near trees and rocks, we’ll discover feelings and thoughts arising that are truly out of the ordinary. At first we’ll feel a sense of peace and quiet that may eventually move beyond that feeling to a transcendence of self. The deep sense of calm that nature provides through separation from the troubles and anxieties that plague us in the day-to-day world serves to protect the heart and mind. Indeed, the lessons nature teaches us lead to a new birth beyond the suffering that comes from attachment to self. Trees and rocks, then, can talk to us. They help us understand what it means to cool down from the heat of our confusion, despair, anxiety, and suffering.

    – Ajhan Buddhadasa: Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree: The Buddha’s Teaching on Voidness

    But tell us, where were you camped out?


    Bill M
    Vero Beach FL

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