Moments later an inflatable boat raced up to me. I was pulled aboard by several crew. They threw a blanket around me and gave me some water and then oxygen. We sped directly to a Coast Guard cutter that was steaming our way. The crew carried me up from the inflatable to the cutter and then my mom and dad practically crushed me in their arms.
“Jonah, I love you and I’m so mad at you,” were the first words out of my mom’s mouth.
“Thank God you’re alive,” was my father’s response to her when he finally let me go.
“I’m sorry Mom, Dad. I didn’t mean to do this to you.”
Mom responded, “You better be sorry…” and then stopped herself, hugged me again and cried into my hair.
Quite a few people on the ship greeted me and told me how happy they were that I survived. They introduced themselves as marine scientists and divers and Coast Guard crew. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe all these people had come together to try to save me. I kept asking questions about what happened while I was in the whale and everyone kept telling me that I needed to rest and be examined by the doctor. One marine expert, Dr. Andrea Lipton, promised to answer all my questions and explain everything in detail after the doctor examined me.
The crew wasted no time putting me on a stretcher and carrying me below deck to the medical area where I was examined by a Coast Guard doctor, Dr. Brown. After some tests, she told me that I had elevated levels of carbon dioxide in my blood but was recovering quickly. My vision and hearing were good, I wasn’t confused, and my heart rate and blood pressure were normal though my oxygen levels were low. I was still having some mild muscle tremors, sweating, and felt a little dizzy, but all that was normal as the effects of the CO2 wore off. She put me on a cot, started an IV to hydrate, and slapped a mask on me with pure oxygen. Dr. Brown suggested to my parents that they bring me to the closest emergency room for observation once the ship docked.
The cutter’s captain, Captain Harris, offered to have me air lifted to the nearest hospital, but Dr. Brown didn’t think it was necessary. I sat up from the cot I was lying on and removed the oxygen mask.
“I want to go to back to the beach,” I said.
My parents looked at Dr. Brown. Dr. Brown raised her eyebrows. “Why is that, Jonah?”
“I need to see some people back on the beach,” I said.
Captain Harris interjected. “My last report from land is that there is still a crowd waiting on shore. Once we had Jonah in the inflatable, my communications director radioed our guards on the beach. They made an announcement to all those assembled. There’s quite a party going on right now.” He turned and looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re famous kid. You’re all over the news.”
“Please let me go back to the beach,” I asked, looking from Dr. Brown to my parents. “Please? Come on Mom, I’m finally invited to a party.” I smiled.
“I’d say you’re the guest of honor, Jonah,” said Captain Harris, laughing.
My parents looked at each other and then turned to Dr. Brown.
“It’s up to Dr. Brown, honey,” said Mom, still looking concerned.
Dr. Brown smiled. “I think we can arrange a quick visit. But until we get there, I want you to lie down and keep that mask on. And you need to hydrate and get something into your stomach. I’ll check you over again before you leave the ship. After that, I need your parents to get you to the ER tonight.”
I thanked the doctor and lay back down on the bed. My mother wouldn’t let go of me while my dad sat close. Just then Simone and her family entered the cabin.
“I knew you’d make it out,” Simone said sarcastically.
And then she ran over and hugged me right in front of my parents. I hugged her back. It was embarrassing but really cool. I had a girlfriend.
“Dude, I never cried so much in my life,” Marcus said, hugging me.
The Coast Guard cutter brought us as far as it could and then transferred us back into the inflatable to take us to the beach. The beach was lit up with bonfires and cell phones as we approached. I could hear music, shouting, and lots of cheering as the small boat hit the sand.
My parents helped me get on shore. I felt wobbly my first few steps but became a little steadier as we headed up the beach. I couldn’t believe all the people who were waiting for me. My dad’s customers and workers, people from my mom’s yoga studio, people from church, students and staff from school. People kept hugging me and told me how happy they were that I survived.
Many of my classmates and former friends apologized for not sticking by me. A lot of them teared up. I was overwhelmed and thanked them all.
“Jonah!” Jesse Williams called out. He ran up to me, lifted me off the ground and spun me around. “Whoa man! I was so scared. I’ve never been happier to see anyone.”
“For real dude, we were tripping.” Timmy Brandon added, bumping fists with me.
“Hey,” Jesse began. “All that bullying stuff. We’re sorry man. We should have been there for you.” Timmy nodded, agreeing with Jesse.
“You tried a couple times, Jesse. It’s cool. I know those guys didn’t make it easy on you either.”
“Well, we got you covered man. You walk to school with us. And we’ll be hanging out.”
Then Dad nodded toward Brian Pullman and his friends. I had seen them out of the corner of my eye and knew they had been waiting to see me. I walked over to them. They stood around a small bonfire with their hands in their pockets. They were all there. Patrick Reilly, Harry Jamison, Eddy and Todd Manning. Even Chris Hall from my grade and a couple of the other ninth grade bullies. I looked at each one. I could tell they weren’t sure how to begin so I made the first move. I turned and looked right at Brian.
But before I could speak, Brian asked, “Are you okay, Jonah?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. I have to go to the ER to get checked out, but I’ll be fine.”
Brian nodded. He looked down at the sand and then back at me. “So, look Jonah, the guys and I, we just want to say that we’re really sorry for the way we treated you. We know you wouldn’t have gone out in that dangerous surf if we hadn’t…if I hadn't...you know…hurt you, the way we did…we were wrong…I was wrong and…”
“Brian, I forgive you.” I said, interrupting him.
I looked at all the boys and said, “I forgive you all. Yes, you treated me like shit. It was horrible...and I was…I was feeling desperate. But I had time to think things over while I was trapped inside the whale. And I know the right thing to do is to forgive you all. So…can we just… get along?” I could barely choke out the last few words as the tears gushed from my eyes. All the emotion that I didn’t have the energy to feel earlier suddenly poured out of me like a bursting dam.
“Yeah!” Brian said, welling up with tears himself. The other boys agreed. Brian stuck out his hand and offered it to me. He said, “Friends.” But I didn’t shake his hand. Instead I stepped in and threw my arms around Brian and hugged him. Brian hugged me back, and I felt him wiping away tears at the same time. The other boys crowded around us. They were all talking at once, saying how sorry they were and that they were glad I was okay. As they said goodbye and walked away, Brian turned to me and said, “Don’t worry Jonah, things will be different.”
And then Dr. Evans and Mr. Chipchaw walked over to me and my family. I hugged them both. There wasn’t anything that needed to be said between us. And as my family and Simone’s family started to leave the beach, I turned to watch Brian leave with his friends. He said good bye to them and then walked over to a man who must have been Brian's father.
“Dad, is that Brian’s father?”
“Yes, it is,” he said. “Mr. Pullman actually came over and spoke to me while you were talking to the boys. And he wanted to know if the four of us could all go to a ball game together.”
“Really?” I answered, surprised. I looked at Dr. Evans and Mr. Chipchaw who were both smiling. I watched Brian and his father walk off the beach together.
We walked to the parking lot and saw the police officers keeping the press waiting.
“I got this,” Mr. Chipchaw said. He walked over to the reporters and told them that I wasn’t available for interviews until tomorrow. Doctor’s orders.
When we got to my mother’s car, I turned and gave Mr. Chipchaw and Dr. Evans another hug. “Besides my parents, you are both the most important adults in my life. I’m sorry I scared you. But I know things are going to be better from now on. And I just want to say, thank you.”
“We’re always here for you, Jonah,” said Dr. Evans, his hand on my shoulder.
“Roger that,” agreed Mr. Chipchaw.
I climbed into my mom’s car and lay down in the backseat. I was exhausted. My mom looked inside. “Jonah, wait here for a couple minutes. Your dad is just running home in the jeep to get you some dry clothes and I’m going to talk to the Police Chief, I think he wants to give us an escort to the hospital. I’ll be right back.”
A few seconds later, Simone climbed into the car next to me.
“Hey! Mind if I join you? I want to show you something before you go.”
“Okay.” I sat up and she pulled out her cell phone. She clicked on an app called WhaleNet. Then she told me what happened when I was trapped inside the whale. Some of the details I had heard from Dr. Lipton and my parents on the ride back to shore, but I wanted to hear it all again. None of it felt real. I wondered if it ever would.
“A lot of important people were on that big ship trying to figure out how to save you, Jonah. They tried for hours. They were hoping to save the blue whale too. Her name is Maximilla. They call her Maxi for short. This group called WhaleNet tagged her years ago and they have been collecting data from her, during her migrations.”
Once in the WhaleNet system, Simone clicked on “Maximilla” to get into the blue whale’s chart. She turned and showed the screen to me.
“You see that blue dot? That’s her. On her way to San Miguel Island.”
I studied the screen. “Whoa, this is cool.”
Then I asked her, “Would they have let the whale die, to save me?”
Simone didn’t hesitate. “Yes. You came first.”
I nodded and looked back down at her phone.
“Watch this.” And she quickly clicked two tabs on a side bar and the screen showed Maximilla and other colored dots, about a dozen, all headed toward San Miguel.
“Are these other whales all headed to the same place?”
Simone nodded and smiled. “Other blues. It’s the start of their feeding season and they’re headed to one of their favorite spots to stuff themselves with tons of krill. You see these two lighter colored blue dots? Those are Maxi’s calves, Rosie and Ruby. Phillip Hersch, he is the marine scientist I met who works for WhaleNet, he told me that Maxi usually meets up with her babies at this spot almost every year.”
“Wow. That makes sense, blues are solitary. Sometimes they travel in pairs, but many are loners.”
“Yes, that’s what Phillip Hersch said. He actually put a new tag on Maxi while they were trying to save you.”
I looked up at Simone and smiled. She reached over and squeezed my hand. “I’m so happy that you both survived.”
“Me too.” Our foreheads met and then I lightly kissed her lips.
Embarrassed, Simone looked back down at her phone and watched the moving dots for a few seconds.
“I didn’t expect you to be on the Coast Guard ship, but I’m glad you were.”
She smiled. “Your parents said it was okay.”
“So, what exactly happened after I fell into the whale’s mouth?”
“Well, Luke Shepard and the other surfers found the whale and saw your surfboard hanging outside of her mouth. She was all tangled up in a giant gillnet. There was nothing they could do so they hurried onto the beach and called for help. Then literally a couple thousand people showed up at the beach. TV stations were there and newspaper reporters, the story was all over the news.”
“Wow.” I swallowed hard.
“I know. Lots of boats went out to help and people from the aquarium and that famous oceanography institute…”
“Right. First, they used giant lines to pull Maxi out into calmer water. Then dozens of divers tried to pry open her mouth to get you out. When that didn’t work, everyone agreed to cut away the gillnet and untangle her.”
“That’s when she started to swim.” I added.
“Yeah, that’s right. The marine scientists think a commercial fishing boat dropped the net too close to a marine sanctuary in the Channel Islands and Maxi accidentally swam into it. They believe she had been twisted up and drifting for maybe three days. She couldn’t swim or dive, she was struggling just to stay upright and keep her blowhole at the surface so she could breathe.”
“Wow, so she was drowning.”
Simone nodded. “She was really weak and running out of time. The scientist from WhaleNet, he said she had plenty of battle scars. Probably from fighting off orcas and maybe even sharks. Lots of bullies.”
I looked down at the dot again. “But everyone must have known that if they cut her free and she swam off, there was no way to rescue me.” I started to tear up at hearing what I had just said.
“We all knew that. And your parents and me and Marcus begged them to try something else. But no one believed that you were still alive inside the whale. Except for your mother. And me.”
I looked up quickly at Simone and saw her wipe away a tear. She took a deep breath. “Yeah, so when they couldn’t get you out and they were certain you had run out of time, everyone decided to cut her free. That’s when Phillip Hersch told us that if you were still alive and strong enough, and if you positioned yourself just right and held on to your surfboard leash, you actually had a chance to make it. He said the whale would dive and lunge feed and you could flip yourself out before tons of water rushed inside her mouth…and killed you.”
I nodded. “I think I met him?”
“You did, when they first brought you onto the Coast Guard cutter.”
“Okay, I think I remember him. I was kind of out of it. But he was right. That’s exactly how I got out. My surfboard was hanging outside the whale’s mouth and once she dove and opened her mouth to feed, the board was pushed under her. I pulled myself onto her bottom lip and was immediately yanked out and under. I went racing underneath her belly and her tail, while she swam right over me. Then my board carried me to the surface.” As I said it, I couldn’t believe it actually happened. Just as the marine scientist predicted.
“I have his cell number. He told me you should call him when things settle down and you’re feeling better. He really wants to talk to you about what it was like inside the whale.”
Then I thought of something else. “Why didn’t I see him again on the Coast Guard ship?”
“He left the cutter when the doctor was checking you out. He’s following the whale and observing her. Jonah, he actually climbed up on the whale to tag her just before they cut her free. He slid right down to her mouth, almost to your surfboard. He kept yelling to you and trying to tell you to wrap yourself up in the leash and hold on. Maxi kept bobbing her head up and down and then slapping her tail, and she sent him flying into the water.”
“Really? Wow. You know, I think I heard him. I thought I heard someone yelling my name. But I was so out of it. At times, I didn’t know what was real and what was a dream.”
“I bet. And I want to hear all about it tomorrow. When you feel better. Then we’ll get you on this app. Phillip Hersch wanted you to have access. So you can follow your whale.”
I smiled and looked back down at her phone. “My whale.”
“Jonah and the whale,” she said, smiling.
I took a deep breath. “Simone, I’m sorry. Sorry I put you through all of this…I never should have…”
“It’s okay. I’m just glad you’re alive.
“So, did you find what you were looking for out there?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I think I did.”
“And?” she asked, playfully. “Because you know Marcus is going to want a full report.”
I hesitated. “Ah…”
“Oh, I get it. This is between you and Maximilla.”
“Are you worried about competition now?” I teased.
“Bring it,” she laughed.
I laughed too. “I think I found a few answers.”
Simone smiled. “Sounds major. Go on.”
“Well, I realized something as I was begging God to save me. Ever since I can remember, I have gone to church with my parents. But sort of going through the motions, saying the prayers and singing the hymns, but kind of ignoring the meaning. And day dreaming through a lot of sermons.”
“Doesn’t everyone do that? I know I do.”
“Right, but then I was suddenly being bullied and I lost all my friends. And I finally needed God. And I prayed a lot. Because God finally mattered to me. But I got angry and I felt alone and I lost faith. God wasn’t coming to my rescue and giving me what I wanted. He didn’t make me grow, or make the bullies stop, or give me back my friends.”
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s supposed to work that way, Jonah.”
“I know. But because of this strange and unbelievable experience with the whale, I finally faced the truth. I finally heard the people around me. And I finally heard the song you sang in your church and what it means.”
Simone thought for a moment. “Maybe God did hear your prayers. Maybe God sent you the whale. Just like in the Bible.”
I nodded. Somewhat astonished that I hadn’t thought of this.
Simone smiled. “I also think that the help you wanted from God…was always there. You just had to believe and have faith in the people who care about you.”
We sat in silence for a moment, letting the lesson sink in. I was glad Simone understood. And I was even happier that she knew I’d been bullied and I’d been afraid and desperate, but she still liked me.
“Assuming you’re in school tomorrow, how about lunch in the cafeteria?” she said, and winked at me.
“Roger that.” I laughed.
Mr. Chipchaw would be proud.
That night, after getting home from the ER and a lot of hugs from my parents, I settled in and slept better than I had the entire school year. And this time, no nightmare. I dreamt I was paddling out on the ocean. The sun was warm and bright and the water was calm. There was no song in this dream but off in the distance, I heard a whale call. And I saw a magnificent blue breach several times. It was a peaceful, easy paddle. I woke up filled with love and gratitude for all the people who supported me this school year. And these feelings fed my new faith.
With Dr. Evan’s help, I knew I would keep paddling toward the light. Dr. Evans calls this light the goodness and love of God. He believes this light exists within us all. And no matter what life throws at us, we have to fight against being swallowed up into darkness. We must keep faith. Always.
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