The first time we saw it, we were rowing under Barnes Bridge, cool shadows flooding our lungs with their mossy scent. Like the black swish of an eel, only larger.
Eight blades dropped in the water at our cox’s command, “Hold it up!”
Our voices splintered.
“OMG is that a-“
The waves softened as our breath rasped. Training for Henley Women’s in the midst of A-level exams was slaying us.
A few feet away a black curve rose and breached. Water sluiced over its sides, the pale underside of its belly. Its wide tail smacked the river.
“Whale,” we breathed as one, gripping the sides of our boat.
Coach’s voice crackled on the cox box. She was on the launch, back with the second eight. “Girls, why have you stopped?”
She said she’d call the government hotline and ordered us to finish our piece.
Sunlight pierced the clouds, whitening the surface of the river.
All morning we’d been struggling with the turns and dips of the blade, each slide and recovery. All week Coach had moved us around like chess pieces, looking for the combo that delivered the ultimate speed and power.
Now we pulled in time, adrenalin firing our muscles. We found our rhythm and skimmed across the water, hearts buoyed by the sight of our whale.
After, we rowed back to the club, stored the shell and hauled weary legs up the steps to the Boathouse mums. As we gulped down bowls of porridge, they said there’d been another sighting near Chiswick: a baby minke, stranded from its mother.
We bristled at their downcast voices and shaking heads. We’d seen it; it was magnificent. It could survive on its own. It could swim to freedom. We survived Covid, survived months in our rooms, in our pyjamas, biding our time through family meals, family movies, family everything. Released back to the wild, we’d bolted back to school, to rowing, to parties, to life.
The whale would make it too. They’d see.
At Kew Bridge, we jogged along the river and scouted through gaps in the brush until we spotted a long dark shape sloshing its way westward.
Cupping our hands, we shouted, “Turn around!”
The baby minke flicked its tail but kept swimming with the tide toward Richmond Lock. Away from the ocean.
Flipping flood tide. We knew all about its syrupy drag. We knew all about aching muscles and ripping fatigue. We also knew all about endurance, how Coach’s voice made us dig deep, how we’d learned to carry on past our limits.
We shouted some more. For a moment the whale responded to our encouragement, swimming so close to the bank we saw its blowhole gape open and shut.
“Yes!” we screamed.
We texted our mothers to say we wouldn’t be home, shrugging off their concerns about dinner, schedules, A-level revision.
On the concrete ledge by Richmond Locks, people jostled, snapped photos, speculated in bright voices. Night fell.
Rescue workers in full-body waterproofs and divers laid out strips of sunshine yellow tarp. We wrapped arms around each other in the chilly haze of streetlamps as they tried hour after hour to coax the baby minke onto the inflatable.
The whale thrashed arcs of phosphorescent water, lit by searchlights and strobing blue lights.
People began to leave as the baby minke’s protest diminished to a mere flick of its tail.
They called it at two thirty.
The last time we saw our whale, we stood with fingers entwined as they switched off the emergency vehicle lights, the searchlights, the diver’s headtorches.
The river was one with the night, inky black and still.