Book Excerpt: The Seastead Girl


Excerpt from The Seastead Girl:

My heart pounded in my chest as the three of us flapped our flippers toward the juvenile whale. Even though the juvenile was small for a humpback, it was still so huge that I felt like Thumbelina compared to the whale.

I was surprised to see a number of fish swirling around the whale, as if they were paparazzi pursuing a celebrity. Then I recognized them as sucker fish, whale suckers. We had studied them earlier this week, in preparation for our whale watch. They were also called remora. They were not exactly parasites, but they were annoyances to whales. This baby was unable to defend itself against the little hitchhikers, and so dozens of them had started to follow it. About half of them were attached by their suckers, and the other half were swimming nearby.

Although I had my oxygen tube hooked up I almost forgot to breathe. Kaplan swim within a foot of the whale’s head, meeting its gaze with his own. From where I was, I could see the intelligent appraisal in the whale. It recognized a fellow creature and, amazingly, it stopped thrashing so much and allowed Kaplan to stroke its nose.

The juvenile whale remained fairly calm as Kaplan pulled out his cutters. He gestured to Fiona and me, and we took our places around the body of the whale. The cutters were like scissors but optimized to work underwater. They were very sharp so I had to be careful not to hurt the baby whale.

I also had to be careful not to cut myself, not with the scissors, but on barnacles. The whale was encrusted in many places with barnacles. These were little circular creatures with a single mouth like a cyclops on top. They grew on the whale’s skin much the same way they would grow on the column of a pier on a dock. They were as sharp as razors, and if they ripped open my diving suit, that would be bad.
The water was clear enough that up ahead I could see the shadow of Jacob approach the submersible whale hunter robot. He made contact, stroking it almost the same way that Kaplan had stroked the nose of the whale. But in Jacob’s case, I figured he was looking for the control panel cover.

I lost track of him as the hunter continued to tug. It was forcing the whale back under the water and forward at an alarming speed. Jacob had not turned it off yet, nor had our own submersibles succeeded in slowing it down.

The mother whale and the two large male whales were dark blue shadows in the sapphire blue that surrounded me on all sides. Just as Kaplan had predicted, they shadowed the juvenile and never let the baby out of their sight. I worried that they might inadvertently knock over the ship, or even us. They might not understand we were trying to help the baby, and they were so huge, it was impossible not to be aware that they could easily harm us if they intended… Or harm us even by accident.

The scissors made short work of the net, but the barnacles had captured the netting in many places, and the whale had rolled itself into yards and yards of the rope material. So it wasn’t that simple to cut the net free from the whale. We were now 30 meters deep and I was growing worried that the whale would take us too far and too deep.

However, eventually the strong pull on the net ceased. Jacob must have succeeded in disabling the hunter. Ironically, without tension on the net, our job was a little harder. The loose knit floated around the whales body and it was hard to keep track of which sections we had already cut free. The only solution was to keep snipping away at any part that seemed to be pinned to the whale.

Something brushed my hair. Startled, I glanced up and saw a sucker fish trying to attach itself to me. My hands were busy, so I couldn’t wave it away. It continued to try to attach itself to my head, or my oxygen tank, or my thigh, for several minutes before it gave up and swim closer to the juvenile whale again. I was glad that it had not been able to attach itself. I would feel very silly with a remora attached to my leg. Did whales get embarrassed about having hitchhikers? Did young whales tease each other about having whale suckers, the way human children teased each other about having cooties…meaning lice?

Gradually, I became aware that more shadowy figures had joined us in the water. My heart leapt. Had the pirates had come to claim their catch....?