Whale Hunting With...paul Theroux

updated 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Like a moth drawn to flame, Paul Theroux can't help but follow his instincts. Paddling a sea kayak off the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the 53-year-old author spots an explosion of water at the bottom of a cliff and moves toward shore to have a look. Several other kayakers watch him approach the blowhole, a cavelike opening that swallows ocean surges then belches them back in thunderous geysers of seawater. About 20 yards from the shoreline's giant jumble of rocks, Theroux nimbly turns his skinny blue boat and backs into the churning apron of foam. Just as he's about to be sucked into the deadly maw, he digs his paddle hard into the water and scoots out of danger. "How was that on the pucker scale?" one of the other paddlers asks. "You mean sphincter?" the writer deadpans. "About a six."

Theroux, who has come over for a few days' paddling from his home on Oahu, where he lives half the year, insists he's not suicidal and lakes only calculated risks. "I'm nosy," he explains. "I want to know things, especially if people say they're dangerous or off-limits. How else do you discover what's new and interesting?" Though he considers himself a novelist first, having written, among others, The Mosquito Coast and the recently published Millroy the Magician, he is equally known for his travel books, such as The Great Railway Bazaar and The Happy Isles of Oceania—all of which are infused with the same reckless curiosity that drives him to poke around surging blowholes.

Theroux learned to canoe at a Boy Scout camp in Amesbury, Mass., when he was 11. "It was very liberating," he says. "I felt I could go anywhere, explore anything. I'm still a Boy Scout." His passion for the water and small boats led him 10 years ago to buy his first sea kayak, a sleek fiberglass craft that he could use in almost any weather, even in the winter near his house in Barnstable, Mass. Eventually he bought a folding boat he could travel with on airplanes, as he did while researching the Happy Isles book in the South Pacific. "When I began to travel with my kayak, my life changed," he says. "I learned what all kayakers find out—you head for the offshore island, and often when you get there you see another, more distant island, invisible from the mainland shore. And so you are led onward, self-contained and self-reliant and utterly uplifted."

On this trip, Theroux is hoping for a close encounter with a humpback whale, a migratory species often seen in Hawaiian waters. His sinewy shoulders and arms settle into strong, windmill-like strokes. By midmorning he and his companions are riding the ink-blue ocean swells about a half-mile offshore. "I have no use for big cities," says Theroux. "I prefer being alone in open places. Out here I go where I please, and I'm not dependent on anyone else. I'm happiest when I'm on the water, when I'm free."

As seagulls screech overhead, Theroux points his boat toward a palm-fringed cove. Soon the paddlers are gliding over the clear turquoise water closer to shore. "Watch out for Portuguese men-of-war," cautions Rick Haviland, 38, a local guide to Kauai's coastal waters. He is referring to the poisonous jellyfish-like creatures whose tentacles often attach themselves to a paddle or an arm. Speaking in a slight British accent acquired from living in London for 17 years—with his former wife, Anne Castle, and their sons Marcel, 25, and Louis, 24—Theroux recalls the time off a South Pacific island when he suffered a painful jellyfish sting. "The only handy remedy," he says, "was my own urine, doused liberally on the skin, as the locals suggested."

After a break on the beach, the paddlers head a mile offshore. Theroux, his alert gaze sweeping the horizon at the top of every swell, has yet to give up his quest for a humpback. Finally, in the early afternoon, he spots a distant telltale plume of spray. Excited, the men paddle hard, moving closer for a better view. Suddenly, a school of spinner dolphins are frolicking around the boats. "Not at all like sharks," says Theroux, who has bumped against sharks in the past. "I read somewhere that more people are killed worldwide by pigs than by sharks. Actually, sharks go after surfers, not kayakers. A surfer with legs dangling in the water looks like a turtle to a shark. And turtles are M&Ms to sharks."

The paddlers spot a few more whale spouts, along with rising tail flukes, but the massive creatures, often 50 feet long and weighing 50 tons, appear to be moving away. Just then a dark, giant shape slowly surfaces near Theroux's boat. Emitting a loud, raspy breath, the glistening black humpback turns its huge knobby head and eyeballs the humans. Then it dives, briefly exposing a long, white pectoral fin. The water eddies, becoming smooth and calm—a phenomenon called the whale's footprint.

The day before, Theroux had slipped into the water with a mask and snorkel, hoping to hear the songs of a passing pod of humpbacks. "All I could hear were a few whoops," he says. This time, he contemplates popping into the water again, but decides to listen to the silence instead.

For a time, as the kayakers return to their launch site, they hear only the rhythmic dipping of their paddles and feel only the warmth of the sun. "We saw them," says Theroux, satisfied to have tracked down his humpbacks. "And they saw us and moved on. We didn't disturb them. We were quiet. We didn't leave an oil slick."

Later, Theroux rides in Rick Haviland's pickup on the way to the airport to catch a plane back to Oahu. The mood is still blissful—until Haviland stops to pick up a middle-aged hitchhiker who climbs in the cab and mentions he has just beaten up his best friend. Suddenly alert, Theroux immediately begins a swift and precise interrogation. Taken aback, the man says, "Whoa! What, are you doing—writing a book or something?"

"Well, yeah," says Theroux with a chuckle. "Sort of."

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