Not Quite White Whales: the Joy and Whimsy of “White Porpoises”

Childhood memories of Russia peppered with minor mysteries

Whales, dolphins and porpoises (pictured) all belong to the order Cetartiodactyla.

I often wonder, do other people live with minor mysteries that niggle at them, existing only at the very edges of awareness? They’re no big deal, and you’re not actively searching for the answer. They’re not so much white whales as their lesser cousins. White porpoises, if you will.

I’ll give you an example of one of mine.

Throughout my life, I kept returning to a certain childhood memory. It happened at four or five years of age, summering at my family’s dacha — a rustic country homestead in Russia.

This particular dacha was especially rustic. No electricity or indoor plumbing; water had to be collected in a wheelbarrow from a far-off well. There was a strawberry patch and a rabbit hutch; the outhouse was painted forest green. Inexplicably, there were two large, rusted barrels full of swamp water, teeming with tadpoles. I have memories of a piebald cat walking the rafters after it snagged a cut of meat off the chopping block; a saucer of milk was also left out for passing hedgehogs.

Cookies not included.

My most vivid memory — finding a huge slab of gemstone on the firewood pile, purple and streaked with white, beautiful, smooth and cold to the touch — is a tableau. One frozen snapshot. I don’t remember anything apart from that initial discovery.

Whatever happened to it? What was it?

Occasionally the memory would surface, like a porpoise briefly breaching the water, and I would lament the loss of that (doubtlessly priceless) gemstone. I’d be living in the lap of luxury if only I hadn’t misplaced it!

I never actively tried to find out what it was. That’s the charm of white porpoises, you never know when out of the blue the answer will present itself.

At an after-hours Melbourne Museum event, evading hordes of hipsters blocking my view of a live taxidermy demonstration, I sought refuge in the minerals collection. In the section dedicated to minerals from Russia and Siberia, I happened to spot it. Charoite. A semi-precious stone, it comes to a few dollars a carat — so much for living in the lap of luxury!

The thrill of a serendipitous discovery of something you’d long forgot you were ever searching for, the sweet jolt of amusement that follows. I have many* more ‘white porpoises’, I hope you do too.

*If you stumble upon a photo of a little girl in twin braids and pink coke-bottle glasses posing with a bunch of businessmen at the Sydney Aquarium hanging at the headquarters of some Japanese company — that’d be me, please let me know.

Glutting myself on all that life has to offer and writing about it. Art, language, science, humour, and whatever else takes my fancy…

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