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Having a whale of a time

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 13 June 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e4044
  1. Liam Farrell, retired general practitioner, Crossmaglen, County Armagh
  1. drfarrell{at}

Things are not always as they seem. The earth is not flat, the sun does not revolve around the earth, Boy George is actually a boy, Afghanistan is not an easy place to invade, and the United Kingdom’s NHS reforms are in fact castrations. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the NHS is not a good system of healthcare, except when compared with all the others.

I was whale watching in the west of Ireland. It was an almost idyllic day, as we drifted through the early morning sea mist among the shearwaters, watching stormy petrels dancing on the water. The silence was made even sweeter by the soft rumble of the engine, the gentle sussuration of the Atlantic swell, the retching noises coming from the landlubbers in the bow, and the sniggers from the rest of us. We were, as Evelyn Waugh said, full of the comfort that glows in the heart of men as they contemplate the misfortune of their contemporaries.

Except that we had seen no whales, and by this stage even Captain Ahab might have said, “Blow this for a game of soldiers, I’m off to have a keg of rum and violate a few cabin boys.”

Then, a jubilant cry: “There’s something in the water—it’s black and white!”

A killer whale, we all thought, instantly electrified. Even our taciturn skipper was excited, and he wheeled the boat around for a closer look. As we came closer, we caught tantalising glimpses; to quote Joseph Conrad, “Men learn wisdom with extreme slowness and are always ready to believe that which flatters their secret hopes.”

“I can see a fin,” someone shouted, and his anticipation surged in crescendo. “It’s a dorsal fin; looks like an old male; they’re more solitary, you know,” he added, quite the expert. As if on cue, to crank up the tension even further, the shearwaters took off in a whirl of ocean spray, and a flurry of wild wings spiralled towards the dawn.

Then a dead, black and white cow floated serenely by.

The “expert” poked at it hopefully with a stick, but it didn’t respond or try to fight back; it was definitely a dead cow.

“Thanks for nothing, fin boy,” I said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e4044

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