In 1994 I lived just north of Fort Bragg. I’d been working as a bartender/waitress off and on in between owning two bars. Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg was the heart of the area with urchin boats and the crab and salmon fleets coming and going. The Wharf Restaurant was a meeting place for everyone involved in the harbor and that is where I met Captain Joe Michaels. He was a crusty transplant from New York’s Hells Kitchen. Joe had bought a Sacramento River ferry boat and had brought it up to Fort Bragg and was having it outfitted as a whale watching boat. He had been working on it for several years to make it sea worthy and meet all the standards imposed by the Coast Guard. Often we would sit together at the bar and he would lament the hoops he had to constantly go through and the fortune he was spending to come into compliance. Finally one day he burst into the Wharf with a smile from ear to ear. The Coast Guard had passed him and he was ready to go. The Noyo Belle was her name and whale watching was her game and Joe asked me if I would be his First Mate. It would mean passing the Coast Guard piss test and after that I would have to have instruction on how to steer and manage the boat if he fell overboard and bring it in through the “jaws” safely into harbor but it all sounded fine to me and we struck a deal. I would be First Mate if I could rent binoculars to the passengers. Agreed! I bought five pairs of binoculars and we were ready to go.
My instruction began at 6:00AM the next morning. I met Joe at the dock and he showed me how to untie the boat I had to leap on board as he steered away from the dock. Lucky for me I had long legs because I waited a bit too long and almost missed the boat……no pun intended. Joe showed me how to turn the ship, which buoy to watch for and how to find them on his radar in the fog. The next day we went out with a Coast Guard officer and he tested me on maneuvering the boat in and out and declared that I was seaworthy. Capt. Joe and I were in business.
The Noyo Belle was almost like a Greyhound bus inside. It had four rows of seats with an aisle down the middle. There was a bathroom on board and a viewing deck in the back. The seating area was enclosed with big windows so passengers could sit inside sheltered from the cold, wind and spray in various degrees of comfort, depending on the tossing of the ship. I never did get all the nautical lingo right but I do know that the bow was my spot. Joe would be up in the wheel house and I would hang out below on the bow, sort of like on the Titanic, and watch for whales. We didn’t have a fish finder so it was all by eye. I had a really good eye for spouts. For some reason, my Suncloud sunglasses enabled me to see spouts miles away. I would yell at Joe and point in the general direction of the spray and he would follow my hand.
Sometimes we would have a full boat and other times, maybe only a few passengers, but everyone had a great time depending on the mood of the ocean. We wouldn’t go out in the rain, but we would go out under most conditions. Sometimes the ocean would be flat as a pancake and visibility would be for miles and other times there would be great rolling swells that would break on the bow covering us with spray.
One morning our guests were a family from Indiana who were experiencing their first visit with the ocean. The two kids were all over the place with excitement. I strapped on their jackets and with the parent’s permission, I took them up on the bow and leashed them to the rails and we started out of the harbor. Joe and I would yell back and forth like we were pirates, saying things like “Ahoy Mate, what do ya see?” Or “Aye, aye Captain, shall we bring out the plank?”……… As we went out of the harbor we started hitting swells and boat would smack down sending spray over the bow. I had my arms around each of the kids, holding them tight to me and the rail. They were screaming with delight, getting all wet. We hit some pretty good swells but after we got out a bit, the sea calmed down and we began to head north towards Westport. We chugged along for about a half hour when all of a sudden I saw spouts. I yelled to Joe, motioning with my hand in the general direction. As we honed in on them, I saw there were a lot of spouts and that we had hit a large pod. Joe backed off and killed the engines and we sat still in the water, waiting for them to surface. Joe and I never harrassed the whales. He always cut the engines and let them come to us. Mom and dad came up from below and we all hung onto the rail looking down into the sea. All we could hear was the lap of water against the side then suddenly there was a huge “shoosh” . We turned in unison to see the spray shoot high into the air. It smelled of deep sea as it settled over us in a fine mist and then there he was, right next to the boat, his barnacle covered back so close we could have touched him. Up surfaced another and another and suddenly we were surrounded by beauty. Whales and tails all over the place. One behemoth lay up next to the boat and rolled so his eye was looking right at all of us. Staring into the eye of a whale is a very spiritual experience. It’s mesmerizing, hypnotic and ageless. People say it’s like looking into the eye of God and I think that is a very proper comparision. He looked at us for a long time and then dropped down into the sea and moved on. As the pod passed, not a word was spoken. Even the children stopped their chatter in respect for the gift that we were being shown. Finally, when they had all moved on, we sat for awhile marveling at what we had shared. Joe started up the motor and we headed back to land, leaving the magical migration to continue to find their way
I worked with Joe for that season, but then I bought the Riverwood and moved away. I will never forget that incredible experience. The early mornings on the ocean, the spray of the whales and the peace and wonder they brought to my heart. Joe is gone now and so is the Noyo Belle. He passed away a few years ago and the boat was sold.
I saw on the news recently that a lot of the whales appear to be malnourished. The plankton that they need is in decline due to the shrinking ice in the Arctic. It makes me so sad to think of their incredible urge to migrate and how difficult it is becoming for them. I imagine that we will start seeing more whales washed up on beaches in the future. It’s all happening really fast now and it scares me. Gary and I will go over in a few weeks and park the motor home and watch for them to pass. If I look hard enough, I might see the Noyo Belle with Joe at the wheel, following the whales.