I could hear Luke and maybe two other surfers yelling at me as I tried to focus on the next set of waves. It made me angry so I turned around and decided to drop in on the next wave, before the guys came any closer. I looked over my shoulder and began to paddle furiously. These waves were seriously big but still rolling slow enough to paddle into. I had purposely grabbed a gun surfboard because the increased waterline of a gun made it easier to carry speed and get into big waves. I needed all the help I could get so a wave didn't roll under me.
I paddled like mad and actually matched the wave’s speed! I popped up and began to push the nose of my board down hard so I could accelerate down the face. Then I arched my back and looked forward. The drop was incredibly steep, much bigger than anything I had ever surfed. I felt like I was looking out the fourth floor window again. It was the scariest thing I had ever done. But to my amazement, I made it down the face and started my turn! The northwest swell created a right-hand break and it was pumping out the biggest barrel I had ever seen! After managing the turn with a steadiness that shocked me, I slipped into the long fast barrel.
The ride was incredible! It was both thrilling and terrifying to experience a wave that only the very best surfers dare ride. Halfway through the barrel I reached out my hand and ran it along the tube. I felt the wave’s energy surge through me, like having the ocean’s heartbeat in my hand. Dr. Evans and I had talked many times about the spiritual energy he found in his music and as my hand swept along the impressive wave, I began to understand the connection. I honestly felt a pulse. And then the pipe suddenly closed out and I kicked out the backside. I had survived it!
In the distance, I heard the cheers of the other surfers in the water and as I turned to look at the shore, I saw the beach and shallow water, lined with even more people now, who were waving and pumping their fists in the air. Lost in my excitement, I wasn’t paying attention and just managed to push myself under a near breaking wave. I realized it wasn’t safe to become overconfident. I paddled out beyond the break and relaxed for a minute, watching the other surfers.
I saw Luke paddle into a wave. I heard the wave close out and saw his board shoot above the crashing wave. My fear kicked in again as I realize he must have been tumbled really hard. Thankfully, a minute later, I saw him paddle into shore.
As insane as it was, I decided to actually go for another one and ride it all the way in. But on my next attempt, I couldn’t paddle fast enough so the wave got by me. Then it happened again. And a third time. So I decided to sit on my board and roll over the next set of huge waves and focus on my breath. It was a strategy that my mom taught me and one that Dr. Evans also liked to use in our sessions. I slowed my breathing and shut my eyes. I took large deep breaths until I no longer felt even a hint of anxiety. And for a moment I was able to slip into a meditative state and almost forget where I was. I held onto nothing, my mind empty of thoughts.
Maybe it was being on the ocean itself, as I just breathed, but I felt something. I could hear the waves and the seagulls, I smelled the salt air, I felt the water and the sun. A gentle thumping of the ocean seemed to rise from below the surface. I pushed away another thought that invaded my mind and brought myself back to floating on the water. And I just felt lighter. I felt peace. I felt free.
After a few more breaths I opened my eyes. I was ready to ride another wave. I let one roll by and then turned and began to paddle as fast as I could. This time, I easily matched the wave’s speed, then popped up. I began to race down the face and was doing great. The same rush of adrenaline was building and I felt more confident. But suddenly something was off. I heard a strange sound that threw my focus. A slightly high-pitched moan to my right followed by clicking noises. There was also a strange movement in the water and an enormous dark shadow. I immediately thought it must be a large school of fish…or perhaps the clicking meant dolphins.
I lost my concentration and my body slipped out of position. I realized I couldn’t make the turn in time. The wave began to catch me and I was headed for a deadly wipe out! I tried to cut back up the face and kick out the back side, but I couldn’t get ahead of the break and time it right. The thrill I was feeling had turned to sheer panic. I got close to the top of the wave, but I couldn’t make it over. The oncoming break pushed me back and I started to fall down the face of the wave, plunging towards what would most likely be the deadliest wipe out of my life!
Terrified, I remembered to kick my board away so it wouldn’t hit me, and then something appeared beneath me in the water. The dark shadow that I thought might be a large school of fish suddenly became one solid being! It was incredibly massive and I had no idea what it was.
I fell into a giant opening while the huge wave crashed and beat down on me with unbelievable force! I immediately thought it must be a whale shark but quickly realized this was much bigger. I screamed as I fell and I saw that a net of some kind was covering most of the opened mouth of the monster. I reached out to grab the netting, but I missed. My hands slid through some stringy and slimy black colored strands that appeared to line the mouth like a curtain. It all happened so fast!
The wave continued to beat down on me and I suddenly felt the yanking of my surfboard leash around my ankle. I hung upside down, struggling to breathe as water gushed in all around me! I could barely lift my head to see my surfboard lying across the netting and the mouth. It was getting darker and the mouth was closing! I scrambled to free my leg from the leash. In my panic, I didn’t think to use the surfboard leash to pull myself up and out.
Once free, I tried to turn myself right side up but the force of the water kept pushing me down. Everything went dark as I sank further inside. I was tossed one way and then the other, as the creature and the water sent me in different directions. Then it seemed to level out but the entire cavity was filling with seawater! I took my last big breath before being completely submerged in the darkness.
The next few minutes were terrifying. In the blackness, I held my breath and struggled to escape. I tried in vain to figure out which way was up, in case the water had not completely filled the entire space. I tried swimming up and then down, to the left and the right. But the creature was swaying again and I found a wall in every direction. I had no idea which way was up and realized the area was entirely full of water. I knew from free diving with my dad, that I could hold my breath for almost two and a half minutes, but I had never done this while using so much energy or in such a panic. I forced myself to stay still for a few seconds, so I could think.
I decided that I must be inside a very large whale. And a baleen whale, because the stringy curtain that I grabbed with my hands must have been baleen plates. Then I remembered my surfboard and leash. The leash was inside the mouth of the whale so my surfboard must be hanging outside of the whale’s mouth. I remembered that the whale definitely closed its mouth while I was trying to pull the velcro off my ankle. I thought about the leash on the inside and the surfboard on the outside. I figured if I could find the leash and follow it, I could find my way to the mouth and then maybe slide out between the whale’s lips or the corner of its mouth.
I started to frantically swim around, reaching out, trying to feel for the leash in the dark. But I was wasting time. I stopped and floated for a second and thought about the baleen. If I found the baleen, I would find the leash. I knew the mouth was enormous, lined with rows of baleen, approximately three hundred plates on each side. Each plate is roughly three feet long but my leash was almost double that length. I tried again to calmly swim around and feel for the baleen. I reached a wall and swam along it, hoping that I was headed toward the whale’s lips. I could feel different textures and bumps. Without any light to see, I had no idea if I was on the roof of the mouth, the tongue, the sides, or the back.
I started swimming faster in search of the baleen and tried to remember what I knew about baleen from everything I had read about whales. The baleen are stacked very close together, so as the whale closes its mouth, it squeezes out the water through the plates, leaving only the krill inside. Then the whale swallows the krill.
I felt a twinge of hope as I realized that the whale should soon be squeezing the water out through the baleen! And I would be able to breathe! But I wasn’t sure how long this would take. My legs began to cramp, and I knew it was the lack of oxygen. My body felt like lead, time was running out. I couldn’t hold my breath much longer, I felt certain I was close to two minutes without air. My lungs were on fire and my heart was pounding out of my chest! My head was pulsing so hard, I thought it would burst. And my ears ached like crazy.
And then I realized the pounding in my ears was not coming from me, but something else. It was a constant drumming like a herd of elephants all stomping together, over and over again. I had heard this sound before. My God, this was the same pounding I heard in my nightmare! This thundering yet soothing beat was actually...the whale’s heart! Of course. The heart of a whale this big could be heard beating through the ocean for about two miles out. I heard it when I was floating on my surfboard, and as I surfed inside the barrel.
It was crazy but my panic actually eased a little as I somehow felt less alone and resigned to my fate. This nightmare that I had endured, over and over, it was a vision of my own death inside this whale. I couldn't believe it.
This was the end. My body couldn’t hang on and wanted to let go. It wanted to slip away to the sound of the whale’s heart. But my own heart wasn’t quite ready. I squeezed my eyes tight and tried to picture my parents, Simone, Mr. Chipchaw, and Dr. Evans. I needed to see them in my mind because this was the end. I was going to drown inside this whale and never see them again!
It felt all wrong that my life was ending this way, I was just fourteen years old. It was a cruel irony that so many times I desperately wanted to escape my life, even end it, like today, and now all I wanted to do was live! It just couldn’t end like this, not now! The thought of life and my family going on without me was unbearable. I yelled in my head, “No!!!” And I fought back choked sobs.
And then I felt something brush against my hand! Was it my surfboard leash?! I reached out but felt nothing. But there it was again, something lightly brushing against my hand! This time it was followed by a stinging sensation. Next, was a stronger sting on my foot. My eyes couldn’t help but pop open in surprise, even though it was dark inside the whale’s mouth. And then right in front of my face, there was suddenly a dim white light in the cloudy water. It was faint and fuzzy at first but started to glow brighter.
I thought, this must be the white light that we supposedly see right before we die. Until a couple more lights magically appeared near the first. I saw two more lights, then three, then four, then suddenly ten or so. All round in shape. Each one started out dim and then grew brighter.
I stared hard, trying to make out what was attached to the lights. Was it the baleen? No, these were long brownish strands, growing out of something pink and flowery. And then I recognized the strange lights, they were jellyfish! And they were lighting up the dark cave that was the whale’s mouth! It was still hard to see but I quickly looked around to try to identify my surroundings. I tried to move my body, it was so heavy, and swim to the closest wall.
I hoped that with some light, I could move along a wall and find my way to the baleen plates and my surfboard leash. I had become extremely light-headed from the lack of oxygen. I touched a wall but my hand sank into the strange tissue. At first, I thought I imagined it, so I touched it again. This time my hand went deeper into the fleshy wall. And although it felt as if my muscles were barely moving, I managed to put both my hands and then my arms inside the strange opening. I tried to separate my arms wider. I was so lightheaded that I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. Was I actually pushing through the whales lips?! Or was this a corner of the whale’s mouth?!
I stuck my head inside the opening. Then tried pulling myself through, sliding deeper inside. I started to feel some hope that I could squirm out and escape! I got my shoulders through and kept wedging my body inside the opening. Seawater pushed through with me, making it easier to slide into the narrow passageway. With the last bit of strength that I could muster, I used my elbows to pull myself all the way inside.
Suddenly my head was out! And because my lungs were ready to burst, I involuntarily started to breathe. I gasped and sucked in tiny bits of toxic air. It was pitch black now and I was confused. Where was the ocean and the waves? The surface? I kept pulling myself through until I finally spilled out into the dark cavity. I landed on a wet and squishy surface. My lungs gasped for sips of air.
A little bit of water rushed in after me. I felt some puddles of water in the strange cavity. The air was incredibly thin and hot, but at least there was air. It felt like I was in a steam room that had been turned up as high as it could go. It scorched my throat and nostrils as I tried to catch my breath. Gasping and choking on the stifling air, I tried to figure things out. I had desperately hoped to find the ocean and then the surface but I was still inside the whale. At least I hadn't drown.
Something told me that I couldn’t stay here for long. I tried to think but my head felt like it was being crushed in a vice. The whale’s heartbeat was louder and clearer now, without all the water, and the loud dull beat was intense. I fought to remember the anatomy of baleen whales and the only logical conclusion was that I was sitting inside…the whale’s stomach!
I slowly got on my hands and knees and carefully felt my way around. The floor of the stomach was wet with seawater, but it was barely a few gallons. I felt a few small jellyfish and plastic bags. One of the jellyfish glowed a tiny bit, putting off a little light. I tried sliding it into a puddle and splashed it with more water. After a few seconds it brightened some, and if my eyes were seeing clearly, the space I landed in was about the size of a minivan. The walls and floor slightly pulsed and were covered with giant veins. A few small dead fish were inside the stomach with me, along with a couple of small clumps of krill. I could make out some seaweed and a few items that looked like plastic garbage. There also appeared to be a few small pockets of sand, pebbles, and shells.
I remembered that there are three or maybe four compartments within a whale’s stomach and that baleen whales are filter-feeders and can’t chew their food. Their complex stomach system helps digest the unchewed food. My head was still really fuzzy and it was hard to think, but I felt certain that the first chamber was a mechanical stomach compartment where food is stored. And if this whale was a baleen, perhaps even a blue whale, I knew that a healthy blue whale can hold a ton of krill in the first stomach area. This stomach crushes the food and then passes it on to the second stomach where chemical digestion takes place.
I gasped for air and sat on the squishy soft floor and leaned against a wall, trying to slow my breathing. My lungs, along with every cell in my body, screamed for oxygen as I tried to suck in tiny mouthfuls of the awful air. I was lightheaded and my limbs felt ten times heavier than they really were. The image of a fish on a boat deck, flopping and gasping for water, its mouth opening and closing flashed inside my head for a moment. I promised myself that if by some miracle I survived, I would never go fishing again.
In the extremely dim light, I took another look at the garbage inside the whale’s stomach. There were plastic shopping bags, a couple of pieces of tangled net, a few plastic water bottles, and other debris like bottle tops, straws, toothbrushes, and pieces of astro turf. Despite the extreme heat and the fact that I was in a full body wetsuit, I suddenly felt cold and began to shiver.
Since I had entered the stomach, I heard a little bit of water trickling down from the whale’s narrow throat and into the stomach cavity. It had stopped though. I wondered if the seawater in the whale’s mouth had possibly filtered out through the baleen plates. I decided to try and climb back through the whale’s throat to see if the water had been filtered out. There would be more air in the whale’s mouth, and it had to smell better than the stomach.