ENCINITAS — "The sea was as calm, as flat as a sheet of glass," Cynthia D'Vincent said. "Suddenly, without warning, nine lunge-feeding whales burst out of the water, with their mouths agape. Each one was about the size of a small locomotive.
"I found myself staring straight into the mouth of the nearest one. At that moment I knew how Jonah must have felt."
A marine biologist and photographer, D'Vincent, 37, works in partnership with her sea captain husband, Russell Nilson. They study the humpback whales at both ends of the whales' annual migration--from Alaska to Hawaii--sailing with their two children, ages 4 and 23 months.
"We started out doing strictly contract research by ourselves--for the government, universities and private organizations," she said.
"But, about six years ago, when the Reagan Administration cut back drastically on funds for marine research, we began taking laymen to sea with us. To support our research."
It has, she said, been wonderful.
"Their enthusiasm is so exhilarating. They're coming from . . . well, suburbia, usually, out into the ultimate wilderness. Many of them want to sleep on deck, just so they won't miss anything."
On this particular morning, a hazy day in late summer, D'Vincent wasn't sailing in the wilderness. She was sitting on a log in Quail Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, half a mile away from the home of her sister, Susan D'Vincent, whom she was visiting.
She continued the story of the humpbacks, who were lunge-feeding:
"For three days, they came up, again and again--130 times. We began recording them and found they were singing songs. Not identical songs--as they do in the breeding grounds--but quite different ones, and their prey, the herring, appeared to be responding by clustering into a ball."
When asked whether she considers her life to be the kind most people only dream about, D'Vincent smiled.
"Well . . . " she said. She linked her fingers around her knees, leaning forward slightly. Behind her a waterfall made a soft, rushing noise. "People do sometimes tell me 'You are living my dream.' But it's a very demanding life."
The earlier years of her life--growing up in La Jolla, being a cheerleader and homecoming princess at La Jolla High School, studying at UC San Diego, working as a field biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service--were, she said, relatively undemanding. One of her tasks as a field biologist was a census of whales passing Point Loma.
After Point Loma, the fisheries service sent her to the Arctic ice floes to study bowhead and beluga whales. It sent her to the Mexican lagoons where the gray whales calve and to the South Seas to study humpbacks.
Seven years ago, the fisheries service sent her to Alaska's Glacier Bay, to study the effect of cruise ships on whales.
The ship the government had contracted as a research vessel was the Varua, a 93-foot brigantine, with eight red "pirate ship" sails. A British naval historian once described it as "the most beautiful ocean-going ship of her size ever built."
D'Vincent was fascinated by both Varua and her captain, a 30-year-old Swedish-Scot named Russell Nilson. ("I'd never met anybody so competent. He seemed completely at one with the sea," she said.) In the long Alaskan twilights, after their day's work, Nilson told her the story of how he came to be sailing a square-rigger in the 20th Century.
"Varua was launched in 1942, the dream ship of shipbuilder and author William A. Robinson," D'Vincent said. "He wrote two books about his voyages on her."
In 1979, Robinson, by then a very elderly man living beside a lagoon in Tahiti, leased Varua to Nilson for $1 a year, after Nilson made a special trip to meet the man he admired.
"With the understanding that he would use her for research and education, and make the necessary repairs she needed," D'Vincent said. "They didn't even have a contract. It was all done with just a handshake."
Life in the tropics can be hard on both ships and human beings. The necessary repairs on Varua turned out to involve rebuilding it.
The work was done on Samoa for $200,000, D'Vincent said, "all of which Russ borrowed! Two years later, when he sailed her back to Tahiti, Robinson was so impressed with the quality of her rebuild, and so astonished that anyone would do all that on the strength of a handshake, that he gave him the boat outright. Of course, Russ still had to pay back the $200,000."
While working together in Glacier Bay, Nilson and D'Vincent fell in love.
"But it had the effect of making us extremely shy with each other," she said. The twilight talks stopped. "For several months we went about doing our work, and barely speaking."
In fact, she said, if it hadn't been for the night she cheerfully describes as "the dumbest in my life--really, really stupid," they might never have gotten together.