Jennifer O’Conner, PhD stood at the back of the Shiley auditorium on the campus of the University of San Diego and surveyed the crowd that was assembling to hear her lecture on humpback whales. She always filled lecture halls at the various colleges, mostly in Southern California, where she was a regular speaker. She was thirty-six years old, but no one ever believed it. She was usually carded in bars when she asked for a beer. It was more flattering as she got older, but was still a pain. Her green eyes always sparkled along with her smile when a bartender showed disbelief after looking at her driver’s license. She hated the picture, but others told her it was a perfect rendition of her freckled, Irish face.
She walked up the side aisle and slipped in the side stage door. A murmur ran through the crowd as people recognized her. Her thin, almost boyish body easily disappeared into the curtains stage right. She nodded to Dr. Emanuel, the fifty-something head of the oceanography department at the university. He smiled, checked the rubber band holding his long, grey hair into a pony tail, and walked to the podium set up slightly to the right of center.
“Ladies and gentlemen, students and faculty, visitors and fans, it is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Jennifer O’Conner, visiting professor of Cetology from the University of Hawaii.” He turned to her and started the applause that roared through the crowded auditorium.
She walked out, embarrassed, as she always was when met with this adulation, but she loved talking about her favorite subject, humpback whales. She was world renown for her work on their songs, publishing two books on their repetitive patterns, and working with Cetologists from Queensland University in Australia to identify many of the sounds and create a dictionary translating the sounds into English.
As she motioned for the crowd to quiet down, she looked back to the screen behind her that showed a 45′ adult black-humpbacked whale breach, turning over, white belly skyward, and then splashing on its back into a frothy white explosion of Pacific Ocean water, all performed to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s Fifth. After a short dive the whale again breached until only his tail was still in the water, this time spinning 360 degrees and splashing on its stomach. A mixture of oohs and ahs rippled through the crowd. As the camera view pulled back into the sky, leaving the playful whale a tiny speck in the distant waters. When the camera zoomed in there were three humpbacks playfully romping through the choppy waters. The students applauded appreciatively.
Jennifer tapped the microphone to make sure it was on. “I have followed that whale on the left almost from birth.” She grinned. “I call her Maggie, after my Grandmother.” A tight-lipped smile spread across her cute, round face. “But you didn’t come here to get my family history.” Using both hands she pushed her pixie cut, light brown hair behind her ears. “No, you came to hear about my favorite subject... humpbacks.” There was a smattering of anticipatory applause, and many in the crowd leaned forward. Jen clicked the small remote control and pulled up a picture of a humpback’s head just above the water. “Do you see all those bumps all around his jaw? Those are called tubercles and they are hair follicles.” Her thin eyebrows rose. “If evolution hadn’t rendered them useless this fellow would have one hell of a beard.” Laughter from the crowd encouraged her. “Did you know that whales used to be land mammals, walking on all fours… like a hippo? Now wouldn’t that be a sight.” She clicked again and a detailed drawing of a whale-like creature with four stubby legs appeared. It was wading in a few feet of water at the edge of an ocean, a thick jungle was in the background. A low murmur washed through the crowd. “It was roughly between 30 and 50 million years ago when creatures like this populated the shores of what was then the Tethys ocean, which was located in what is now Egypt.” She paused and surveyed the faces of the crowd, which was a mixture of surprise and awe.
Jen clicked the remote and a picture of a desert appeared. “This is Wadi Hitan in Egypt... the valley of the whales. Thirty million years ago, this was the Tethys Ocean. Today it is a treasure trove of whale bones, heaven to a paleontologist, like Dr. Philip Gingerich, who has spent a lifetime studying the evolution of whales.” She clicked again and the picture of a smiling man in his fifties appeared. He had rough, tanned skin on a long, wide face, centered by a sandy brown mustache. Thin wire-rimmed glasses sat on his bulbous nose and a floppy tan hat covered his full head of sandy brown hair. Thin smiling lips rolled back over crooked teeth. He was standing in the middle of a rolling plain of sandstone mounds, most looking like giant turtle or snail shells, interspersed with shallow pock-marked craters, he looked very happy. Heaven on earth.
“Whales have come a long way on this evolutionary trail from giant, slow-moving land mammals to the swift and powerful kings of the ocean.” Another click showed a pod of humpbacks frolicking in the smooth waters of the Pacific. “Dr. Gingerich’s studies suggest that the brain capacity of the land whales was much smaller than their modern cousins. Today they have the largest brains of any mammal on the planet, either land or sea.” Another click showed two brains side by side, extremely similar is shape, one almost twice as large as the other. “I think you can guess which is the whale’s.” The crowd nodded and laughed.
“There has been much speculation about the intelligence of whales, considering the size of their brain, and most cetologists, including me, are speculating that they are extremely intelligent. Research done by Dr. Richard Le Conte and Dr. Kelsey Baker has shown that the physiology of whale brains shows a remarkable similarity to humans. We know they are trainable. How many of you have ever seen the SeaWorld shows?” Almost every hand went up. “Were you impressed?” A ripple of nods and a murmur of yesses, ayes and swirled through the hall. “Well, I believe that is on the order of training all of you to walk. It is the simplest of tasks, baby stuff. Whales can handle so much more. But what is the only drawback?” She looked around at the blank faces. “The problem with teaching whales…” She paused for dramatic effect. “Is learning their language. We can’t communicate. Look at the work done with Koko the Great Ape. She has learned more than anyone ever thought once she was taught sign language. Just think what could be done with whales.”
She took the microphone out of the holder and stepped away from the podium. A few deliberate steps brought her to the edge of the stage. She sat, legs dangling. “What can anyone tell me about whale communication.”
An Asian girl with short black hair raised her hand and said, “We know they sing.”
“Yes!” Jen said excitedly. “Sometimes, long and intricate songs. And they repeat them at the same spot in the ocean every year.”
“Haven’t they been known to make certain sounds repeatedly when hunting for food,” a tall, heavy-set kid with long blond hair and a scraggy beard asked, smiling proudly.
“Exactly!” Jen jumped down to the aisle and stepped towards the smiling kid. “We believe they are calling their friends, announcing a large school of some tasty fish. And they make different sounds depending on the fish.”
“And they herd the fish,” a young red-haired girl with a face fresh out of high school said. “Right?”
“Exactly! They talk to each other and plan their strategies. Linguistic researchers at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia campus have found up to 50 plus sound combinations that they have identified as language.” As the chatter among the students and visitors grew louder, Jen grinned, loving how her lecture had inspired this slowly growing roar of excited discussion.
She let them chatter for a few minutes and then opened the floor to questions. They were the same as always: do whales sleep? Yes, for very short periods of time. Do they mate for life? Not always, but sometimes. Do their breaches mean anything? Yes, besides just being fun, they are used to attract mates. Do they call each other by names? Possibly, but we haven’t confirmed that yet.
She checked her watch. The lecture was scheduled for forty-five minutes and she was almost at fifty. “Thank you for your attention and excitement…” She had to pause to let the chatter dim. “Thank you all for coming but our time is up.” Boos mixed with applause. She craned her neck to look to the back of the auditorium, where the next group of students was waiting to come in for a class. “I know. I wish we had more time. I can talk about this for hours. But if anyone is interested in more information on humpback whales you can find my new book on Amazon – ‘SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES’ and you’ll see that fishes is crossed out and replaced by ‘MAMMALS’.” Smiling at her own joke, she reached on stage and grabbed a copy of her book that Dr. Emanuel brought out. She held it up as people left. “And all the proceeds of the book go towards my latest research project.” Waving as the crowd filed out, she added. “And I’ll come back to fill you in on that research in a few months.”
She stood at the edge of the stage for a few moments and then went around to the stairs leading back up. As she handed the microphone to Dr. Emanuel, a nice-looking man, roughly in his early forties, approached the stage. She saw as he came forward that he was coming straight to her. He was close to six feet tall with short, curly blond hair and was wearing Bermuda shorts and a colorful, Hawaiian shirt. She smiled at him. “Do you have a question?” she asked when he was just a few feet away. When he smiled, dimples appeared on both cheeks. There was a sparkle in his sea blue eyes.
“I do, professor. But I’d like to walk with you while we talk. It’s getting a bit crowded in here. If that’s okay.”
She looked around at the large crowd that was refilling the auditorium, and then at the grey-haired professor who was walking across the stage pulling a small, wheeled piece of luggage, probably filled with the material for his lecture, she assumed.
“Sure. I have a few minutes.” She jumped on stage and packed her stuff in a purple backpack and slipped it over her shoulders. “What can I do for you?” she asked, coming down the stairs and walking slowly towards the back of the hall.
Walking beside her, he reached out to shake her hand. “My name is Andrew Ligeros.”
She smiled and shook hands. “Pleased to meet you, Andrew.”
They exited the hall to a large lobby. People mingled in small groups. Many nodded to Jenn as she followed Andrew outside. Bright sunshine glittered off tall palm trees scattered around a wide courtyard. She followed him to a round patio at the center.
Young men and women in sharply creased black pants, ruffled white shirts and black bow ties were setting up tables and chairs for a formal affair. A wedding? she wondered, glancing at an arched trellis being set up near the rear. Or maybe a sorority’s spring formal. In any case, she and Andrew weren’t going to be here long.
He sat on a white concrete bench and looked up at her. She pulled out her I-phone and glanced at the time. “I do have to attend a meeting soon,” she lied, sighing as she sat down.
“This won’t take long, Doctor.” He smiled, thin lips curling back over perfect teeth. “I just wanted to ask you some questions about Siva.”
Her eyes popped wide and she sucked in air through her nose. Quickly composing herself, she asked, “The Hindu God? That’s not in my field of expertise.”
He tilted his head and squinted his left eye, focusing his right on her. There was a sparkle in the corner, not caused by the sun. “I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Who are you?” she asked, trying to sound in control, even though her stomach was jumping and her pulse racing.
“I’m a freelance writer... magazines mostly. My last two articles were for JOMS.” She tilted her head, eyes widening questioningly. He chuckled a little. “Sorry, I thought you would know it. The Journal of Oceanography and Marine Science.”
“I know it. Who did you work with?
“The editor for my last piece was Dr. Mwashote. It was a piece about the trends of El Nino and La Nina.”
“That’s a very prestigious journal.” She leaned back a little, resting both palms slightly behind her on the hard bench. “Where did you go to school?”
He shrugged and said nonchalantly, “Stanford. I majored in writing and minored in oceanography.” He crinkled his nose. “Hence my interest in Siva.”
She took a deep breath, chest heaving, and asked, “What makes you think I’m working on something called Siva?′
His face grew very serious. “Let’s dispense with this little game, Doc. You know what I’m talking about and you know I didn’t just pull this name out of my ass. Your secret project will be safe with me, but you do have a small leak in your team.” He pursed his lips. “This is what happens when your crew gets too big. Someone tells someone something and they mention it to someone else and bingo, the ship sinks.” He grinned. “Metaphorically speaking, that is.”
She laughed nervously. “I should hope so. My ship costs a fortune.” Still leaning back, she crossed her legs, studying him intently. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. And you are in our circle. Will you tell me where you got your info?”
“Not directly from anyone on your team. Though I don’t know all the members of your team, but my source got it during massage therapy...” He grinned. “The full release kind.” He waited for a response, but she just stared. “Let’s just say when my friend heard it she thought I might be interested. It piqued my curiosity so I started digging around. After a few dead ends, I stumbled on your name. Your area of expertise, and your reputation. They fit the pattern of the rumor. So, I dug a little deeper...” He shrugged. “What can I say, I’m a good reporter. So, I took my shot.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “But if you were a better liar when I first asked, I might have walked away.” He winked. “Don’t ever play poker, Doc.”
“I’m not giving you a story. I don’t care what you’ve dug up. I’m ready to go into the final phase on this, and I don’t want a lot of people digging around, causing havoc.”
“Me neither.” Eyes wide, he focused directly on her. “What I’m proposing is to add me to your crew. Eventually you are going to publish all of this, and if what I’m hearing is correct, it’s going to be a blockbuster.” She nodded slowly. “I just want to write the story. I’m a qualified writer, I have the background in oceanography.” He shrugged, the twinkle in his eyes growing. “I’m the perfect fit for you.” Pressing his finger to his lips, he added, “And, I can keep a secret.”
She pressed her lips together and sucked a deep breath in through her nose, exhaling slowly. she took out her phone. “Look, I’m already late. Give me your phone number and I’ll talk it over with my colleagues. I’m not promising anything, except to think it over.”
“Deal,” he said, taking her phone and typing in his number. “I hope to speak with you soon.”