What it Takes to Breach

Author’s Note: Whale Whispering is an ancestral commission, an ode to water, a work of interspecies translation and co-creation between me, humpback whales and other cetaceans and people, a diasporic healing quest, an exploration and transmutation of the legacy of trans-Atlantic enslavement through music. Based in Praia do Forte, Brazil, it is a soundtrack for personal, communal, and global transformation, a love song for whales, for Bahia, for Earth, for the ancestors and for life. As I address the generations of sexual trauma that have left my own womb and those of so many Black womb carriers diseased, I am learning to wail with the whales as a form of curative release, just as the Africans who crossed the Atlantic in slaving vessels surely did. This siren call summoning awareness of the unity of all being(s) and resonating with the movement in support of planetary healing is offered as a vibrational antidote to environmental destruction and racial, economic and gender-based violence. I am listening to and singing with the whales to tap into the echoes of the Middle Passage that are contained within their songs, to bring forth sounds that honor Nature’s prescription for this time of reckoning and share the wisdom of water as it is relayed to me. Through underwater and studio recordings, filmed documentation, blog posts and community gatherings focused on collective singing and water blessing rituals, Whale Whispering serves as a way of dreaming forward via the lens of the so-called past. 

Credit, Todd Cravens

Before, I did not understand. I had an idea, an inkling…Now I carry the knowing in my body, a recently recovered aspect of my identity—one who rises, with weights around her waist, from the sweet sanctuary of Olokun’s[1] embrace, where she feels safe, I feel safe, I am safe. It takes a lot to come back up from that mother’s milk on the half a breath I have left after exhaling impulsively when the ocean’s pressure put my lungs in a squeeze that made me feel like a python’s prey. With the whales crooning a cocoon around my suspended (actually slowly sinking) body, I am free, and I taste how fine it would be to stay here always. I hear what they heard when they got down this far, with or without life in them still. The true blue medicine on the other side of the bitter pill of being heaved overboard or choosing to jump rather than go down with the ship toward whatever hell it might be approaching… Whalesong. Before, I didn’t understand. Yes, it’s the weight of the world pulling me in, it’s the warped womb, the liquid tomb. But she is still in bloom, creation’s song booms rapturously throughout the healing rooms inside and outside of me and there is indeed a balm to make the wounded whole. Some of them stole/themselves back/from death; this is what I know now in a way that I could not have known, before 

I breached. I had and have spent so much time marveling at the whales’ ability to troll gravity by flying all their weight out of the water at any given moment, and I’ve had several experiences of tuning in to a particular whale as they rose, having a semi-vicarious sensation of what it was like in a flesh-and-blood sense. This, though, was my body, and when I dove on a quest to meet the songs at their source, to feel myself fully enveloped in the mighty, mellifluous balm itself, it was without flippers and with a weighted belt that (I later found out) had just a little too much poundage. In retrospect I realized that I didn’t take enough time or care with the intricacies of locking myself into that situation, and this lesson has come to resonate with significance in so many contexts since then. I sank with ease where I had been buoyant on earlier tries. I couldn’t see them with my eyes but I didn’t need to see: the whales’ auric presence is massive. I knew they were under the boat and within 75 feet of me at basically the same level where I found myself, about ten meters down—and they were absolutely aware of me climbing into their reverie. Crown-first, I entered the zone where the sea pulls rather than pushes and quickly figured I had about twenty seconds to hang after a check-in with my lungs, then melted into the sound of salvation where the only truth is that I Am One with all of creation.

The treasure I dive for isn’t one I can touch or feel with my hands but my heart, my soul, my mind can expand to hold the heavy of all that this song is encrypting into me. Every atom in my 3-D form thrums with the whales’ emanations and I don’t yet know that it’s exactly what I will need in the moments to come, but I don’t have to know. I am Present…Here…inside the sound…The first thing that happens when I stop all thoughts is that I sense my time-bending capacity ratchet up exponentially and those twenty seconds stretch into centuries; the Middle Passage millions set me a-tingle with their proximity. I feel more than hear them through the veil of the whales’ mediation/mitigation. They’re translating, using their voices to filter out the screams, the moaning, the grunts and the growls, the howls, the chain-rattling and the keening that, in addition to the singing, comprise the actual record left by those ancestors in these waters. To hear all that would do me tremendous harm. The echoes and strains I do catch periodically are enough to sear my spirit, triggering memories of branding and my own sizzling flesh and the feel of a baby’s mouth de-suctioned from my breast–I would not survive hearing the entire choir. The whales’ skill at distilling these African vocal spells into show-and-tell is a marvel of gorgeousness that slides in through every broken part of me, mending, illuminating as it blends into my blood, activating my DNA…so I remember how to breach.

Some of them knew how to do it. Some of them had actively prepared for it through their initiations and training, knowing they must not die so that the magic could live. To sink in shackles and then resurface is the work of workers of miracles; my awareness of them surges as my lungs push back against the peace of this apnea and I unfurl, go from fetal to feral in a flash as the weight at my waist wakes me up to what it will take to rise. I’ve been so faithful and so foolish, I see, refusing the flippers because they always feel awkward to me, and forgetting to learn how to unfasten the belt that now feels magnetized to the planet’s core. Oh, this will take so much more than I had understood when I descended, confident in basic skills gleaned from freediving in deep tidepools near the shore without this leaden lasso encircling me. For the briefest instant I have the sense that this will be too hard, this struggle against gravity to get myself those thirty feet up, back to the surface where air awaits. The rope I’m holding is slack and therefore useless as a support in hoisting myself, still I grasp it like it’s a lifeline as I locate the Power inside me and tap it like a rubber tree. I cannot panic—in the ocean panic can mean death. I must know, I must know that I am the Power, as the ancestors have already told me. So, I inhale. Not breath, not water, but sound.

It’s already everywhere, reverberating lavishly, so I’m not surprised when I start to feel the whales’ song work on my physical form. They code-switch on me like champions, and without missing a beat or changing a note shift into a transmission that my body downloads with ease, taking a shape I’ve never felt before, flexing, repositioning, and coordinating muscles in a way I had never imagined possible, generating what truly feels like a superhuman force from my waist down to move me through what is definitively the most difficult thing I’ve ever done physically. As they always do, the whales know. They sing me up, sending out vibrations that propel me as I hone my focus on the surface, a streamlined, fully-embodied intention to access oxygen. Simultaneously, their voices hypnotize me into maximum fluidity, I am sleek and sliding higher and there is no thing that is not me—a breaching whale is a leaping lizard is a mermaid rebirthing herself is a miraculous resurrection of one discarded, all parting water. Whalesong glitters the endless saline solution with astral technology through notes both audible and beyond my capacity to perceive with my ears; only my soul can hear the deeper utterings. Either way I will never, ever fully know what they mean, because mystery is mystery is mystery is mystery still and always, Hallelujah. I elevate.

The whales remain below as the ancestors accompany me, they are my school as I rise. Afterwards I will reflect on visions of them slithering back onto ships then standing tall as they drip Earth-tears and dare with death-defying stares anyone to send them over the rail again. After this it will click for me that only upon living through this do I legitimately grasp what it means to be Undrowned[2], though Alexis Pauline Gumbs, prophetic as always, wrote me into the book with certainty that the knowing was inside me, was what propelled me to Whale Whispering and would eventually awaken to permanently alter my consciousness–as it has. 

In my rising, a zillion thoughts nip at the periphery of my awareness: I should have tested this belt! I should have formally trained in free diving! I WILL NOT DIE IN THE OCEAN TODAY…I hear them but only process them consciously after I surface; I am a laser, I am a rocket, I am a baby whale learning from Big Mama what it looks and feels like to spread my flippers and fly. It’s fun. It’s what I was born to do. I am gaining momentum as I near the Above and I feel what a magical machine my body is, I know this story has a happy ending—but. Just as I get to within a few feet of my destination, my lungs contort with the urge to inhale rightnow rightnow rightnow rightnow, and I am still pushing, still focusing on the whales’ now-distant dirges, I am two feet from the surface and feel myself about to implode, faint, imbibe the entire Atlantic in a quest for air and I sense the last of my resistance slipping from me, still I know with my entire being that somehow this ends with me bobbing up through the Blue safe and well. Through a fleeting ripple I get another whiff of ancestral terror. Then a splash and a hand, I am reaching up as Zá, owner of the @scubaturismo boat and my whole merBrother reaches down to clasp mine. He tugs me the last eighteen inches of the way so that I soar with support, definitely projecting further upward than I would have on my own, and I am already grinning as if the oxygen were helium making me speak in dolphin squeaks, making me a balloon, I swoon as I go weightless again, this time breathing in as I breach. The half dozen folks on the boat break into cheers when I break the surface and from Below the whales hum their approval up through the soles of my feet, their vibrations cradling my womb. 

So that’s what had happened, on levels and levels and levels. I went down deeper than I ever had—foolishly, hastily—and found myself in a place from which it was extremely challenging to return. Was it as deep as deep can get? Hardly, and eventually, I will go deeper, much more carefully. But I surely could have stayed right there, forever drifting in Blue to the tune of the whales and the muffled thunder of the ancestors, sacrificing myself to Olokun. As it is, it’s taken me months and months to truly begin re-emerging from the place I touched; it’s like that with Olokun, more than slightly mind-blowing…I could call on some of my biologist colleagues to help me insert the right language to discuss what is physiologically involved when whales sault in slow motion from the sea, but none of it would relay the spectacle that is watching these winged cetaceans set sail. At my first hint of struggle in ascending, they whispered into my cells, unleashing the dormant knowledge of what it takes to breach, to break through, to get out from under. I imagine that each individual body has its own formula for propulsion at the end of the day; for me it was trust, more than any of the physical processes involved, that served as the ultimate fuel for my flight. Then and now I trust in the Power, I trust myself. I trust in ancestral protection, the guidance directing me, and in the helping hand that always, always, always appears when I need it, right on so-called time.

[1] Olokun is the deity of the ocean, its depths, mysteries and riches, and primordial wisdom in the diasporic spiritual traditions of the Yoruba people.

[2] Gumbs, Alexis Pauline; foreword by adrienne maree brown. Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. AK Press, 2020. 

Salto (filmed by Eduardo Melo)

To hear the whales: We are One: A Portal to the Portal

About the Author

Michaela Harrison is an international vocalist and healer whose career is rooted in relaying the transformational power of music and supporting others in accessing the healing energy available in nature through ritual and creative practices. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs and a Master’s in Africana Studies. After nearly two decades of calling New Orleans home, Michaela has returned to her native Washington, DC, yet continues to spend time in Brazil, where she has headlined music festivals and performs at various venues and events. She has toured and recorded extensively, co-facilitated and attended numerous workshops and retreats, and is currently engaged in a project called Whale Whispering, a musical collaboration on water, healing and ancestry with humpback whales based in Bahia.

To comment on this article, please click here.

Return to top