by Laura Wild
After lunch, the kids want sharks. Barry squints behind his shades as sunlight gives way to the deep shadows of underground. Kahlia and Jason dart ahead, their bare feet slapping against the smooth concrete as they round the bend and disappear from view. The path slopes, winding down into the depths of the aquarium, leaving the screams of waterslides and rollercoasters behind.
Blue light filters in through the glass tanks lining the winding labyrinth, dappling the polystyrene stone walls. Chambers containing a colourful collection of purple, green and pink deep-sea creatures drfting through the murky water. Everywhere, the decaying, vegetable smell of the sea filling the air.
He follows Kahlia and Jason’s echoes through the maze of caverns. The kids are shoulder deep in a touch pool of starfish and wary stingrays by the time he catches up. Barry collapses onto a bench. Kids make him feel old. He’s 55. He fixes muscle cars and Harley Davidsons for a living. He isn’t old, but in the hours since his little sister sent them off with sunscreen and sandwiches, he’s aged a century.
The bench is the most uncomfortable seat his ass has ever had the displeasure of knowing. One ear open to the kids, he stares without seeing into the depths ahead. A blink later, Jason’s awestruck ‘whoa!’ jolts him alert. Where the empty blue expanse filled the glass a moment before, there is a giant eye.
Not an eye, but a white oblong circle splashed on black. Beneath it, tiny by comparison, the real eye. A mouth that could swallow him, head and shoulders.
‘A killer whale!’ Jason presses himself to the glass.
‘It’s called an orca.’ His sister corrects.
‘It’s called an orca.’ Jason parrots back.
The descent into squabbling is immediate. Barry doesn’t notice. He’s seen nature documentaries on whales before, but the real thing is something else. It’s massive. A leviathan. In his mind’s eye, he sees men pitched overboard from wooden boats by sea monsters. His gut quivers with the thought of teeth and blood. The eye floats before him.
‘Tell him, Uncle Barry!’ Kahlia tugs on his hand. ‘They live in families.’
She stamps a tiny foot.
She jabs a finger at the interactive screen beside them.
‘His name is Akelo.’ She says.
Barry leans down to read the glowing font. Akelo is 13 years old and weighs 5168 kilograms. He was captured off the coast of New Zealand eight years ago with his mother and three other wild orcas. The screen does not say where the other four whales are.
Barry looks back at the whale. He can see the other side of the tank, lined with more viewing platforms. On the information screen an animated orca leaps out of the water, smiling.
Showtime with Akelo every two hours from 9AM to 5PM, daily. The real orca slips away, propelled by a lazy flip of its tail. With nothing left to argue over the kids race on, dragging
Barry away. He looks back at the empty tank.
Barry goes home that night and boots up his ancient computer, opening tab after tab of Wikipedia entries and National Geographic articles. Sometime after midnight he fumbles off his reading glasses to swipe at his face, swearing at the dust that isn’t in his eyes and pretending the salty trails disappearing into his beard have nothing to do with the news story about a grief-stricken orca mother carrying around the body of her dead calf for seventeen days. In the small hours before dawn, Barry watches Blackfish.
The documentary runs for ninety minutes. Barry manages to keep it together for seventeen of them then dissolves into a puddle of wretched heartache.
Later, for lack of a better term, the media refers to Barry’s unhinged gambit as an environmental activism stunt. Barry wouldn’t even call it a plan, which implies at least some level of forethought. Roaring down the empty highway back towards Big Splash Water Park as the soft beginnings of dawn creeps into the night sky, all Barry can think about is the whale.
Where Barry thinks he’s going to go with a five-tonne cetacean is anyone’s guess. Bolt cutters liberated from his workshop make short work of an employee entrance gate. Determined, he marches down backstage walkways and through staff change rooms, leaving a trail of mangled padlocks in his wake.
He’s scarcely managed to scale the viewing platform beside the tank when the floodlights snap on, pinning him under a spear of light. The police have arrived, summoned by security guards Barry hasn’t bothered to consider. In the slip and slide chase that ensues as officers surround him, a young policeman dives to spear tackle the giant. Barry leaps back with a bark of laughter, bolt cutters raised high. The heel of his heavy boot, made to mount Harleys and Triumphs, skids on the slick fibreglass. For a moment, all one-hundred and eighty kilograms of Barry are airborne. The wild shout of victory dies in his throat as he plummets, backward, into the tank.
The water is cold. Too late, Barry sucks in a last breath and inhales frigid water. The grey and pink sky disappears as the world sucks down into a dark bubble. He sinks, dragged down by sodden leathers. He flails his arms in slow motion, eyes and lungs burning. Barry can’t swim beyond a dog paddle. Doesn’t know how. In the depths, unconsciousness rushes in.
Not unconsciousness. A shape, massive and pitch black, barrels towards him. Briefly, Barry thinks of Dawn Brancheau, the trainer killed at Sea World; her body dragged from an orca tank with an arm missing and her scalp torn from her head. Death is coming for him, giant and inescapable. Its dorsal fin is a blade. A scythe. Barry needs to breathe.
He wakes to an overzealous police officer attempting to resuscitate him through the sopping curtain of his beard. Vomiting up saltwater, he throws the officer off and rolls to his hands and knees on the fibreglass pool edge. The orca surfaces, gliding past to inspect the scene above. Someone claps a hand on Barry’s shoulder and a pair of handcuffs over his wrists.
He’s ushered away, frogmarched past empty attractions and through an indiscriminate door near the front of the park. At the entrance early bird families and tanned teenagers mill, waiting for the park to open. The sight of a soaking wet bikie dragged from the water park in handcuffs has the onlookers lifting smartphones, cameras ready.
Barry is a man of few words. He’s found that the more words that come out his mouth, the more trouble he ends up in. But Barry is also a man who attempted to free a giant carnivorous whale based on nothing more than empathy and sheer determination. And he failed. He’s not ready to give up just yet.
A donkey kick staggers the cop clamped on his left forearm. Even as the surrounding officers swarm in to replace their fallen man, the crowd of cameras lift to capture the moment. ‘ORCAS HAVE FAMILIES.’ Barry bellows, tearing himself free of the hands that reach for him. ‘ORCAS ARE INTELLIGENT.’ Arms snake around his biceps to drag him to a waiting cruiser. Barry digs in his heels and bowls over the two officers clinging to his right arm. ‘BIG SPLASH ARE KILLING WHALES.’
Inch by inch, Barry is stuffed into the backseat of the cruiser. As his head is forced down and into the car, he lets out a final roar. ‘BIG SPLASH ARE MURDERERS.’
Barry’s sister, Bridgette, picks him up on bail later that day. She sighs at the sight of him. ‘I’d be more mad if I didn’t get to watch the video of you getting arrested on the way over.’ she says. Barry has gone viral. In the weeks that follow, somehow security camera footage emerges of Barry’s rescue attempt.
Bridgette sends him the video. He watches himself slip and plunge into the tank, watches the water foam and go still before sliding away from the blunt torpedo with Barry on its nose. Then he turns off his computer. He does not watch it again.
The clip of the orca pushing his limp body from the pool is viewed three million times in its first week online, twelve million in the second. Animal rights groups begin calling, and journalists. Big Splash makes a statement, which it later retracts when a series of celebrities call for fans to boycott the water park. Barry stays quiet, partly because his sister and lawyer tell him to. Partly because he isn’t sure what else he has to say.
For a few months, Big Splash is also tight-lipped about the ‘incident’. In the news, helicopters hover over the water park to snap aerial images of the tiny tanks. Photographs of captive dolphins and whales from around the country surface online, showcasing cuts, lesions and broken teeth. Elton John and Snoop Dogg write a song together, Free Akelo. Finally, after months of plummeting stocks and millions in lost ticket sales, Big Splash announces their intention to release Akelo back into the wild.
Barry is there the day Akelo swims out into the open ocean for the first time in eight years. He only cries a little bit. Bridgette fends off the reporters while he and the kids stand on the beach, watching the water long after the crowd has gone.
The next week, Barry sells his workshop.
His first few days aboard The Sea Serpent pass in a spiral of violent seasickness. The crew pointedly skirt around why Barry thought it would be a good idea to join a direct-action wildlife conservation vessel when he clearly has never been on a boat in his life. Barry hangs limply over the bow as his stomach empties itself into the ocean and wonders the same thing.
By the end of the week his nausea settles to a miserable shudder and he works to make himself useful. He fixes things about the ship, mending domestic items deemed too unessential for the dedicated mechanic to bother with. He cleans and takes turns cooking. He learns how to recognise and record the movements of the whales and dolphins monitored by The Sea Serpent. And he listens for news on Akelo.
From the day of his release, Akelo is monitored daily. The public follows the news insatiably, giddy with pride. Around the world Facebook feeds clog with videos of the orca frolicking in the open ocean set to uplifting music. Marine biologists and aquatic veterinarians report him healthy and well.
Before long Akelo tracks down a pod of wild orcas, shyly flirting at the edges of their formation. The group circle and call out curiously in response, but a day later the lone whale is spotted chasing fishing boats around a harbour. The pod moves on.
Barry scours the news reports each evening, updating the battered map on his bunk wall. The Sea Serpent and Akelo dance frustratingly in and out of range of one another. The humpback whale mother and calf the crew has been studying drifts steadily south and away from Akelo’s meandering journey along the coast. Once, Barry thinks he spots him. On the horizon, a curved dorsal fin maybe rises, silhouetted against the sinking sun. But it may have been nothing.
For three years Barry sails with The Sea Serpent. Public interest in Akelo wanes as he fails to interact with other orcas, and the reports grow thin. Barry updates his map with whatever news he finds, plotting their paths towards one another doggedly. Slowly, they grow closer.
As their coordinates circle towards each other on the West Australian coast, Barry sets himself in a camp chair on the bow and stares out to sea. He sees the whale in every drifting mass of seaweed, roiling just beneath the surface. He waits, and he watches. Then he finds him.
Akelo beached himself on Hamelin Bay sometime between the 3rd and 6th of November. He died long before The Sea Serpent pulled into the bay. No one knows why.
Akelo is buried where Barry found him, beneath a cairn of stones piled high by schoolchildren. Barry returns years later to lay his own pebble. He feels stupid, laying a rock on top of a dead fish, but his eyes burn.
There are sixty orcas left in captivity, where they will die. At 58 years old Barry will outlive all of them. Orca life expectancy in the wild is up to one hundred years. In captivity, it is seventeen.
Barry has his own wildlife research boat now. He even knows how to swim. He tells people the kids named the boat, but the red flush that engulfs the giant man says otherwise. The boat is called Akelo.