The Whale’s Tale

There are whales alive today who were born before “Moby-Dick” was written. –Smithsonian.com

Well, gee, where to begin.

You’re only as old as you feel.  I swim every day. And each day has its little surprises, its little delights. Sperm jokes, for example, never get old for me. And I’m still amazed that I can sleep without drowning.

Everybody wants to know about Moby-Dick. A book written by some guy I never met about some whale I never met. But the truth is, the book changed a lot for me. There’s that chapter about all the different kinds of whales, and I know a lot of people find that chapter hard to get through. So did I, but for different reasons. I knew almost all those guys. The right whale, whom Melville does not identify by name but was known as Al Henken, was best man at my first wedding.

On career day, my grandson asked me to come into his class and talk about what I do. I didn’t sugarcoat it. I said, “I swim, and dive, and eat enormous amounts of fish, and only half of my brain is operating at any one time.” And because it was a class of all-whale students, they really got that–you know?

I’ve lived in the ocean my whole life, and I’ve never visited the Great Barrier Reef. I should go.

When I was a kid, it was tough being a whale. There was discrimination and none of today’s emphasis on diversity. For example it was unheard of for a whale to marry a barnacle. And social suicide to even talk about having an oil deposit lodged in your head.  But after Moby-Dick, everything changed. All of a sudden whales were in. Whales today have it easy. But I don’t like to make a big deal of it. During that period of newfound fame I made some poor choices and that’s a time I’d rather not talk about.

I consider myself agnostic. Why would God make a creature that lives in the sea but has to go to the surface just to get a breath? But I was raised religious, Southern Baptist. As a child I was friends mostly with Jews, who account for a small percentage of whales, because how do you wear a yarmulke when you’ve got a blowhole?

When I turned 200, Esquire sent a reporter down to profile me. We spent a really pleasant afternoon together. Then I read the story. The first sentence was: “When I meet the 200-year-old whale, he’s floating naked in a dark, plankton-filled expanse of the North Atlantic.” I was like, what the eff? And around that same time my wife Liz left me. I was in a dark place and just feeling very needy. I know it’s a cliché, but I married one of my own barnacles. I was looking for someone to love me for who I was, and as they say in the song, “She was clinging to my back.”

I always said I would never go to Nantucket because of the whole whaling thing. And as I aged, I had trouble with changes in time zones. But after the Esquire piece ran, I said to hell with it, I’m visiting, and I did all the reefs, cavorted with the locals, let off some steam. You know–had a real blast. Does that make me a bad whale?

 
Gregory Beyer is a senior editor at the Huffington Post.