All at sea with only a sick bag for a friend

I recently heard that, thanks to sustained conservation efforts, whale numbers are increasing off the east coast of Australia. This is wonderful news, and makes me very happy. Except for the fact that whenever I picture them, thriving in their natural habitat, I am filled with the urge to vomit.
I’ve got nothing against our cetacean friends. My problem is one of association; an involuntary Pavlovian response, caused by a bit of reckless touristing.

We were visiting Port Macquarie to attend a wedding, when my kids spotted a sign advertising whale-watching tours. At first I dismissed the idea as an expensive folly, but the children pleaded , and I could see that my husband was also tempted. So I agreed to have a talk with the nice man at the whale-watching office. He assured me that the conditions were perfect for whale spotting, and guaranteed that we’d see loads of the remarkable creatures. A once-in-a-lifetime experience. And so I booked the tour, enjoying the buzz that comes with being the beneficent parent.

We joined the other tourists and holidaymakers, donning our life jackets and running through the safety instructions, as the boat slowly cruised out of the picturesque port. Yet as we moved into deep water, a crew member started doing the rounds, handing out funny white plastic things that looked like some sort of medical equipment. Vomit bags, she explained. Yes, it was a lovely day, but there’s a bit of swell when you get out in the deep, where the whales swim.

‘‘Here you go,’’ she said jovially, handing me my quota of bags. ‘‘When you finish with `em, they go here,’’ she added, pointing to an ominously large bin.

Illustration: Robin Cowcher Credit:

Suddenly, I noticed how clean the deck was. Far too clean. Like it had been freshly washed down. I looked back at the dock, rapidly shrinking in the distance. Thinking of the cheery tour proprietor who had assured us that conditions would be perfect. No mention then of vomit bags, or of the enormous plastic bin that would be required to hold them all. Not until we were far enough out from the dock and there was no prospect of return.

At that moment, I saw my immediate future with absolute clarity. Yes, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But not for the reasons I’d imagined.
Because if there’s vomiting to be done, I’m your girl. When you see a car pulled over by the freeway, a family road-trip interrupted by a carsick child having a barf, I am that child. When you step over a green-faced teenager, sitting on the ground at Luna Park, regurgitating her fairy floss after a roller coaster ride, that’s me too. For I am the universal vomiter, she who can always be relied upon to hurl. Yet I’d just forked out a small fortune for the privilege of sailing out into rough waters, to watch bloody whales.

The whales did appear, dutifully, and they were magnificent, leaving the rest of my family gasping in wonder. But by then I had that sensation in my throat, a fuzziness in the head. And so I withdrew to the back of the boat, where I hoped for some privacy. Instead I found seasickness carnage. One woman was laying prostate on the deck, motionless, dead for all I knew. Many had their heads buried in barf bags, while others were holding full bags, starring vacantly into the distance, their thoughts exactly like mine: please, make this stop.
But it didn’t. It went on, and on, and on.

Eventually my kids came looking for me, but they just laughed when they saw how sick I was, and tried to photograph me in my degradation. And I found myself cursing the whales for luring me into this hell.

I’ve since forgiven the whales. Indeed, I recently heard that whale-spotting tours disrupt their migratory paths, so what I suffered was probably karmic. Yet I also learnt a valuable lesson that day.
My abiding memory is of sitting next to a seasick father who was holding his seasick son, trying to comfort him. The father smiled at me, so I smiled back. Perhaps there is a special kind of camaraderie among the nauseous, I thought. A bonding born of our common vulnerability. A deeper humanity that is revealed. Then the man lifted his bag and vomited again, and I responded by puking fulsomely into mine. And I realised the truth. In the end, we are all on our own. All we have are our sick bags.

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