In January of 2004, my new brother-in-law, his wife and kids, and my wife and I stood on the deck of a large whale-watching vessel off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. My wife and I had only been married a few months, and, pre-children, we leisurely-yet-eagerly held binoculars and some sort of camera (our phones barely made phone calls at this point in history, multiple megapixel camera phones being years in the future), scanning the water for ANY sign of movement.
We someone had paid good money (we ourselves being relatively young newlyweds, it is very likely that my new in-laws had actually bought the tickets) to have a professional guide on a commercial ship take us out to the warm waters surrounding the island to try to catch a glimpse of the humpback whales which migrate to those warm waters to give birth to their calves.
The trip was delightful. We had a good lunch, enjoyed the incredible tropical air, and took in the beautiful scenes from this part of the North Pacific Ocean, scanning the ocean near and far for signs of aquatic life, particularly of the large mammalian variety. It was a lovely voyage, as any ocean excursion in Hawaii can be and will be.
But we saw no whales.
We saw no fish.
We did see a pleasant enough, but underwhelming, turtle, and that only as we floated back into port – the aforementioned turtle was meandering near a wharf where many non-whale-watching-vessel-patrons could see more closely and adore more soundly, from terra firma, and without paying for boat and buffet fare.
Of course, we were disappointed, but we took it in stride and had a good day nonetheless. I was with my new wife and my new family, and we had more days of Hawaii ahead of us. Plus, it was right there on the ticket – “no guarantees”. These animals are fickle, obeying no schedule other than their own.
That would have to be good enough.
It’s the summer of 2021, and I’m with my brother-in-law again. We are on a much smaller boat with a much simpler pair of goals: to not fall into the icy water around Kodiak Island, Alaska, while also trying to catch at least one fish (or to at VERY least not hook one of our fishing partners with one of the stunningly large hooks on our borrowed poles!). My brother-in-law and I know each other much better at this point, have had other adventures over the years, have watched our respective families flourish, and have sharpened each other as iron sharpens iron.
We head to sea in a borrowed landing boat, a new friend ferrying us through the chilled waters off the coast of Near Island, Kodiak, and on up north. We move at near idle speeds, at first, through the Woody Island Chanel, then once clear of channel traffic, at greater knots (a nautical term for speed that I had to look up) to the waters approximately 5 miles off the northeast tip of Kodiak Island. From our vantage point, even at such distances, we can still see not only Kodiak Island proper but also other large, green, jagged landmasses with appropriately verdant names like Woody Island and Spruce Island. There is even a “Long Island”, and while the urge is quite strong to make a dad joke about how a few mixed spirits might be welcome at the moment, I resist, not the least reason being the fact that I am bundled tight in my rain gear against the cold ocean spray and it seems too much trouble for, at most, a chuckle (but in all likelihood an eye roll or two).
Of course, I don’t know the names of any of these channels or bays or islands at the time, just know that we are surrounded by millions of gallons of strange, cold water with a series of small rock formations in the distance, and who knows what kind of sea creatures gliding through the liquid strata below us. The lands in the foggy distance look a bit like the island coast of Oahu, and as such also remind me a bit of the scenery from the TV show Lost. I try not to think of some of the ill-fated adventures of Oceanic Flight 815 as our very non-fiction boat slams through the relatively choppy sea.
About thirty minutes into our trip, the boat slows to trolling speeds again. At first, I think we have reached our fishing spot, and turn to look in the direction of the ship’s small cabin, where our captain stands at the helm. I quickly note that the captain, and a few of those standing near him just outside the cabin door, are pointing toward the front of the boat (a part of the boat’s anatomy that we now-seasoned seafarers call the ‘Bow’), seeming quite animated. I suppose that they might be thrilled that we have found our fishing spot, but even to a fishing novice like me, I know that you never get excited until the line is in the water and the fish begin to bite – until then, even the most promising spots are suspect.
Besides, this possibility is soon put to rest when I finally catch the word these excited pointers are uttering, a term materializing in the chilled sea spray like so much condensed saltwater.
I turn to the direction they are pointing, and immediately see nothing but what I had been staring at for the last half hour, namely miles of sea broken here and there by misty land formations. I squint into the distance, sure that what they THINK they are seeing, if it is, in fact, a whale, must be not more than a grey disturbance in the far distance, probably not distinguishable to my landlubbing eyes from the crests of the thousands of small waves within eyeshot.
I look back again at the cabin, sure that I will discover that the whale-spotters have either been mistaken or have lost track of what they THINK they saw and are ready to resume the trek to the fishing spot. But, if anything they are more enlivened, and I see some have their phones out (thank you, 21st century, for at least THAT aspect of advanced personal tech) and are stumbling toward the front/bow of the boat.
I turn back toward the bow, and that’s when I see them. Not miles in the distance, but yards, and a few at that. The water is disturbed by something grey-black, yes, but it’s far from indistinguishable. Long, smooth, black ridges ride in an arc just above the surface of the sea, a loud spray of water, dorsal fins, and then, in a stunning revelation of what we all hope and half-expect to see, yet which is stunning nonetheless when it appears: the symmetrical Y of the tail, with a width half as long as our boat, its interior white and stark against the slick black hide, an oddly thrilling touch of creation.
They are incredible, for no other reason than, if they chose, they could sink our comparatively little craft and swallow us whole, if one at a time.
These magnificent creatures, the same species of whale we so wanted to see from the high deck of our large boat in Hawaii, appearing now at the other end of their migratory pattern, in these much colder waters, here to feed and prepare for the 3000-mile trip south. They too are fishing, and while our eventual haul will seem impressive to us, it is a mere pittance compared to what they must be pulling in below the surface. (When we see them again later as we cast and drift in one of our fishing spots, it will even seem that these gentle creatures are helping us increase our catch, their presence seemingly placing a large fish on the end of every line in the water, as if the relatively few fish we are pulling in would rather take their chances in our fish bucket than inside the belly of these whales).
It was more than enough.
In Hawaii, we tried for hours to see these stunning animals, set out with others on a similar purpose to do just that, paid money for the privilege, and we came up empty. Now, while setting out with new acquaintances to enjoy some leisurely fishing and, more importantly, some building of friendships, we experience more than we even thought possible so many years ago, much less when we left the docks on a small inlet off Kodiak Island.
While I don’t want to overthink it, it seems like there’s a lesson there, a lesson about God’s provision and timing. It all seems a picture of how God works, sometimes.
Sometimes, yes, even though the gospel message is about us not being able to bring anything other than submission to the table, our hard work “pays off”, and we are blessed by God to be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
But, sometimes, when we just go with the flow, being in the moment, bringing nothing but our presence, that’s when God chooses to reveal some pretty incredible things.
Sometimes, God orchestrates the amazing out of the relatively mundane.
When we give up all the striving and just enjoy the moment in front of us.
God is good all of the time.
Sometimes, He chooses to surprise us with more than we thought possible.