Excerpt from Elephantoms

Excerpt From Elephantoms
by Lyall Watson

It was fine to be in a place where “as far as the eye can see” means something. It is no idle boast here, but a confident statement of fact. You can see almost forever….

Looking inland, I saw where fynbos and forest had been cleared to plant martial rows of alien pines and thought it a poor exchange. All that was left of the patch of forest out of which we had run in panic from a ghostly elephant was the great yellowwood that had been the focus of our attention. It was intact but, deprived of the forest around it, showed more than a hint of nervousness, like someone caught unawares, unclothed. The sea was just the same, rolling in almost in slow motion, leaving, even on this fine day, a haze over the rocky coastline. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the white noise of all this from the cliff top, letting it lap over me, evolving other oceans, other times spent whale watching—and when I opened my eyes, there was a whale right there.

Southern right whales are common here in the winter months, coming in to calve in sheltered bays, but this was summer, and I looked again. Out beyond the breakers in deep blue water a long dark back rose gently to the surface once more and blew, or rather blasted, a single thin column of condensation forty feet high. There was only one whale capable of such a spout. A blue whale, the largest animal the world has ever known. A hundred tons of sleek grace, belying its great size, sliding slowly over until it showed just a hint of fin before the tail flukes touched the surface. Definitely a blue whale, one of a population gradually bouncing back from the slaughter of the 1930s, beginning to be seen more often again.

I waited for her – female baleen whales are often larger than their mates – to surface again, knowing from experience that she would blow at least one more time before flicking her tail up on the last breath before a dive, enjoying a sight that is rare from the land. I wondered what would bring her here, so close to the coast, during her tropical fast. Not just the scenery, surely? Then up she came once more, another great vertical spout as she surfaced almost horizontally, and as I watched her, I was aware of something else, of a throbbing in the air, of what Katy Payne calls “silent thunder’. It is a sound that sneaks up on you, something you feel rather than hear, a rumble which is more visceral than cerebral, threatening to addle your mind. I rose to my feet and stared out at the whale in amazement. I knew that blue whales can make high-energy, low-frequency moans that last for thirty seconds or more, but I had never heard one before when watching blue whales off Baja California or Peru. I supposed that the sound of ship engines and generators might have masked it, but I hadn’t imagined that the calls would fall within our range of hearing anyway…

The sensation I was feeling on the clifftop was some sort of reverberation in the air itself. Perhaps an interference pattern set up between the whale call and its echo from the rocks below? That too seemed unlikely, and I was still puzzling over it when I realized that the whale had submerged and I was still feeling something. The strange rhythm seemed now to be coming from behind me, from the land, so I turned to look across the gorge, sweeping my gaze across the cliffs, over the great milkwood tree – and then swiftly back to the tree again, where my heart stopped.

I was twelve again, barefoot, sunburned, carefree, and riveted to the rock once again, because standing there in the shade of the tree was an elephant. A fully-grown African elephant, facing left, staring out to sea! A big elephant, but this time not white or male. A female with a left tusk broken off near the base, looking for all the world like the stub of a large cigar. I had never seen this elephant before, but I knew who she was, who she had to be. I recognized her from a colour photograph put out by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry under the title ‘The Last Remaining Knysna Elephant’. This was the Matriarch herself. But what was she doing here?

The thunder was gone. I could no longer feel it in my bones. I was awestruck, however, both by her and by the circumstances. She hadn’t been seen for months, but here she was where and when I needed her to be! That moment of hubris quickly passed as I began to understand. She was here because she no longer had anyone to talk to in the forest. She was standing here on the edge of the ocean because it was the next, nearest, and most powerful source of infrasound. The underrumble of the surf would have been well within her range, a soothing balm for an animal used to being surrounded, submerged, by low and comforting frequencies, by the lifesounds of a herd, and now this was the next-best thing!

My heart went out to her. The whole idea of the grandmother of many being alone for the first time in her life was tragic, conjuring up the vision of countless other old and lonely souls. But just as I was about to be consumed by helpless sorrow, something even more extraordinary took place …

The throbbing was back in the air. I could feel it, and I began to understand why. The blue whale was on the surface again, pointed inshore, resting, her blowhole clearly visible. The Matriarch was here for the whale! The largest animal in the ocean and the largest living land animal were no more than a hundred yards apart, and I was convinced that they were communicating. In infrasound, in concert, sharing big brains and long lives, understanding the pain of high investment in a few precious offspring, aware of the importance and the pleasure of complex sociality, these rare and lovely great ladies were commiserating over the back fence of this rocky Cape shore, woman to woman, matriarch to matriarch, almost the last of their kind.

I turned, blinking away the tears, and left them to it. This was no place for a mere man.

Lyall Watson is a naturalist and author of over 20 books, including most recently Jacobson’s Organ. He is based in a cottage on the West coast of Ireland. As a child in South Africa, spending summers exploring the wild with his boyhood friends, Lyall Watson came face to face with his first elephant. From that moment on Watson’s fascination grew into a lifelong obsession with understanding the nature and behavior of this impressive creature.

back to previous page