Originally published in Below the Surface 9, May 1996

Mercy Mission


Late February, 1981

Doctor Lynn Murtagh swam lazily in the huge tank which dominated the dolphin lab at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. Ostensibly working with her five bottlenose dolphins, socializing Polly’s newborn infant Lexie, she was, in reality, killing time, waiting for Seaview to return from her latest mission, bringing with her Lynn’s husband of six weeks, the sub’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton. It was the first time they’d been separated for any length of time since they’d become a couple in October, and she couldn’t wait for Chip to get home.

It was mid-morning, and Lynn was floating on her back, just hanging out, letting the dolphins swim about her, and having a hell of a good time fantasizing about her upcoming reunion with Chip when the anxious voice of her secretary rudely jerked her back to the present. "Lynn! Lynn, are you here?" Maureen Garrity sounded frantic, which, in and of itself, was worrying.

Lynn wiped the sappy smile that her fantasies had produced off her face and swam over to the edge of the tank to look over the glass side. "Up here, Mo."

Maureen ran over to the foot of the stairway that led to the platform surrounding the dolphin tank. She was out of breath from her mad dash from Lynn’s office at the other end of the Marine Mammal building. "Lynnie, bad news. Kelly Aronson over at the Palmer Institute just called. There ‘s a pilot whale beaching out at Grover’s Beach."

"How bad?" Lynn asked, hauling herself out of the tank and onto the decking which led to the stairs.

"Real bad—at least fifty beached overnight, more offshore."

"Damn!" Lynn exclaimed, and ran down the stairs. "Has Palmer sent a team out?"

"They’re on their way, but it’s only a handful -- most of their people are out on projects. They could only round up a dozen or so."

"Okay. I’ll call Lucius. Do me a favor -- call Jack and Kevin. Tell Jack to bring Sean and Catie, and ask him if he can bring some of his ranch hands. Ask Kevin if he can bring some of his veterinary techs and first-aid supplies--there’ll be a lot of injured animals, and we’ll need them badly."


"And hit the alarm before you start calling."

The newly installed beaching alarm, Lynn’s brainchild, brought the Institute’s marine mammal researchers and assistants running from all over the building before Lynn was off the phone with Commander Lucius Emery, head of the Department of Marine Biology. Lynn gave the assembled researchers hurried instructions, then sent them on their way. Then, still in her wetsuit, she prepared to leave herself.

"Maureen, I need somebody to stay here and coordinate things."

"You mean me," Maureen said, evidently disappointed.

"Maureen, I need you here. You’re the only one I’d trust," Lynn assured her.

"I hope that’s a compliment," Maureen said, disgruntled.

"It is. Oh, one more thing. Call Mark Tomlinson and see if he can contact Seaview. She should be arriving in about," Lynn looked at her black dive watch, "an hour or so. Ask him to ask Chip if he can scrounge me up some volunteers when they dock."

Maureen nodded. "Sure. If anybody else turns up, I’ll send ’em on out."

"Thanks, Mo."

"Luck, Lynnie."

"We’ll need it." And Lynn dashed for the door.

** *** **

Chip was at the plot table in Seaview’s nose, plotting the final leg of their return course home, when the message from the Institute came through.

Sparks’ voice came over the intercom. "Mr. Morton!"

"Yes, Sparks."

"It’s Commander Tomlinson with a message from Doctor Murtagh. He says it’s urgent."

Chip broke all records getting back to the radio shack. He took the headset Sparks handed him. "Mark? What happened? Is Lynn all right?"

"She’s fine," Lieutenant Commander Mark Tomlinson, NIMR’s Operations Officer assured him. "She asked me to get in touch with you. There’s a bad beaching up at Grover’s Beach—at least fifty whales are out of the water. She asked if you could scrounge up some volunteers from the crew and take them up there when Seaview docks."

"Where’s Lynn now?"

"She’s on her way up there. Maureen said she didn’t even change out of her wetsuit."

"All right, Mark. I’ll do what I can."

Admiral Harriman Nelson and Commander Lee Crane gave Chip worried glances as he walked back to the plot table.

"Is Lynn all right?" Lee asked.

Frowning, Chip rejoined them. "She’s fine, but there’s a bad whale beaching up at Grover’s Beach, and she’s on her way up there. She wants me to see if any of the crew will volunteer to help get them back in the water."

"They could be pilot whales," Nelson said. "They’re notorious for beaching themselves. The storm last night probably disoriented the leaders. This will be a bad one."

"It is," Chip said. "Mark said there are at least fifty whales on the beach."

"And probably three times that many offshore," Nelson remarked.

Lee listened to their exchange in silence, then turned to Chip. "Chip, plot a course for Grover’s Beach. Lynn wants volunteers? She’ll get more than she ever dreamed of."

"Aye, aye, Skipper," Chip said, and grinned, then picked up his protractor and slide rule.

"Took the bit in her teeth again, did she?" Nelson remarked to Crane in a low voice, but one intended to reach Chip.

"Off and running, it seems," Lee replied in a similar tone. "Still, knowing Lynn as we do, would you expect her to do anything else?"

Nelson shook his head, eyes twinkling. "No, I wouldn’t. It must be interesting, being married to her."

Chip looked back at them, trying to keep a serious expression in his face, and not quite succeeding. "Never a dull moment, Sir."

** *** **

Once at the site, Lynn organized the volunteers and began to coordinate the rescue effort. She’d had painful experience in rescuing beached whales while working at Mystic Marinelife Aquarium in Connecticut, driving or flying to beaching sites up and down the coasts of New England and Long Island, where whales beached themselves with alarming regularity.

Once volunteers had been assigned to teams and assigned tasks commensurate with their abilities, she took a short break to survey the situation on the beach. Seventeen people had come from the Nelson Institute, and Palmer had sent fourteen. Since it was a school holiday, Lynn’s older brother Jack had brought his three oldest children as well as four of his ranch staff; her brother Kevin had enlisted the aid of one of his interns and three of his veterinary technicians. Then there were the usual assorted onlookers and volunteers, plus the expected news crews and reporters. All in all, about sixty people, nowhere near the number needed to rescue fifty pilot whales. Their long black bodies littered the beach for at least a quarter of a mile.

The bucket brigades, comprised mostly of older children and teenagers, were wetting each whale in turn, paying the most attention to the whales farthest up the beach, those that had been out of the water the longest. A raiding party had been sent out to buy up every tube of zinc oxide they could find--it wouldn’t be much, but at least it would help to protect the ultra-sensitive skin around the whales’ eyes, lips, and blowholes.

Kevin and his technicians were doing all they could to treat the injured animals. Some were too far gone and would have to be put out of their misery. Others had minor abrasions from being tumbled over the sand by the rough surf of the previous evening. Still others had been attacked by marauding seagulls. But most of the whales were uninjured, and that lifted Lynn’s spirits. If they could throw off the stress caused by the beaching, they’d have a good chance to survive once they were returned to the sea.

Lynn looked back to the Cetacean Department’s big pickup, parked on a bluff overlooking the beach. Pete Holmfeld, one of her research assistants, sat in it, monitoring the CB. At her wave, he shook his head. Still no word from Seaview.

Lynn’s shoulders sagged and she sighed heavily. She’d hoped to have heard at least something from Seaview by now. Maybe Mark hadn’t been able to make contact with the sub.

Lynn looked at her watch. The tide would be turning in a few minutes, and they’d attempt to return the whales closest to the waterline back into the water. Manhandling the fifteen-foot-long whales back into the surf would be the easy part, she reflected. Then they’d have to keep them from re-beaching.

If only they could get the leaders back in, get them safely out to sea, the rest might follow once they were in the water. But since the leaders had been the first ones to beach themselves, they were the ones farthest from the water, and they’d be the last off the beach. Lynn knew from past experience that even if they did get the lead whales back in the water somehow, the leaders might decide to keep re-beaching themselves until they were dead.

Lynn sighed and walked back down to the waterline.

** *** **

Seaview cruised on the surface, running a gauntlet of pleasure boats ranging in size from Boston Whalers to eighty-foot yachts, which had gathered to witness the spectacle of the rescue.

Riley and Chip, up in the sail, observed the scene through binoculars.

"Buncha vultures, that’s what they are, Sir," Riley groused. "Why aren’t they on the beach helping, instead of partying out here?"

"I’ve been asking myself the same question, Riley," Chip replied. He scanned the beach, looking for Lynn. She shouldn’t be too hard to find, not with her bright hair and the outrageous wetsuits she wore. He knew the emotional pain this beaching would be causing her, and the quicker they could get there with help, the better he’d feel.

Riley nudged him. "Mister Morton?" he said, pointing toward shore. "Over there."

Chip looked in the direction Riley indicated. There she was, waist-deep in the surf, her bright purple and light blue wetsuit clashing with her strawberry blonde hair.

As they watched, Lynn was knocked from her feet by the frantic thrashing of a large black whale, and disappeared beneath the water.

Get up, damn it, Chip urged silently. Come on! And she did, tossing her wet hair out of her eyes with a defiant shake of her head, moving right back into position beside the struggling whale, working to push the animal back into the water.

"That lady doesn’t have an ounce of quit in her body," Riley said, then apologized hurriedly. "Sorry, Sir."

Chip allowed a smile to tug at the corners of his mouth. Lynn had a big soft spot for Riley, and the sonar tech apparently possessed a matching one with her name on it. "That’s okay, Riley. She doesn’t. What do you say we go give her some help before she tries to push every whale off that beach herself?"

"Aye, Sir!"

** *** **

Lynn had just surfaced after being knocked down for what felt like the thousandth time when she heard a huge cheer go up from the beach. Her older brother Jack grabbed her by the waist, pulled her to her feet, and turned her to face the horizon. Then he pointed. "Looks like the cavalry’s arrived."

There floated Seaview, a small flotilla of Zodiac rubber boats leaving her side, heading for the beach. Lynn could only stare open-mouthed at the sight.

"Geez, Lynnie," Jack said, "when you ask for help, you really get it!"

"Yeah, I guess so," Lynn muttered, staring at the incoming Zodiacs. She could see Chip in the lead boat, wearing that hideous yellow wetsuit she hated so much. She dropped her hands to her sides, searching yet again for non-existent pockets, and stood staring at the approaching boats, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

Of all the times not to have a camera, Chip thought, seeing the dumbfounded expression on Lynn’s face as she stared at him.

Riley beached the Zodiac a few feet from where Lynn stood. As Chip stepped to the sand, Lynn seemed to break from her trance and ran to him, hugging him fiercely, vaguely registering Riley’s greeting as he secured the inflatable. Then she leaned her forehead against Chip’s chest.

"You’re not in uniform, so it’s not a PDA. But it’s still a damned stupid yellow wetsuit," he heard her mumble. "Makes you look like Big Bird. I’m gonna get you a blue one to match your eyes, then shoot this stupid thing out a torpedo tube."

Her voice was muffled, and Chip realized she was crying. "Hey – are you okay?" he asked.

"I am now. At least with you guys here, we have a fighting chance." She dashed away a few errant tears, and sniffled, then smiled up at him in gratitude. "When I asked for volunteers, I didn’t expect you to bring me an entire submarine!" She looked around at the wetsuit-clad crewmen and officers debarking from the arriving Zodiacs. "All these guys volunteered?"

Chip shook his head. "I didn’t even get the chance to ask. Lee just ordered us here as soon as he heard you needed help."

Lynn’s eyes widened in surprise. "Then I owe him one. Did you bring a radio?"

All traces of self-pity were gone from her voice, Chip noted, and she was ready to go back to work. This is more like it, he thought. "We brought a radio," he confirmed. "What do you need?"

"Zinc oxide, and a lot of it – and something we can rig as shelters. The whales are sunburning." Chip raised one eyebrow. "I’m serious!" Lynn protested. "The sun’s too strong for them."

Chip shook his head, then relayed her message to Patterson, who didn’t seem to find anything unusual in it, just called in the order to Sparks.

Lynn looked past Chip to see the Zodiacs returning to Seaview. "Will they be back?"

Chip nodded. "They’re going back for more help. There’ll only be a skeleton crew on board."

"Great. Can I keep some of the Zodiacs here when all the volunteers are off the boat?"

"You can keep all of them," Chip assured her. "What do you need them for?"

"Escort duty. Once we get a whale off the beach, the Zodiacs can chase them back to the open water."

"You want to play cowboy with a bunch of whales, huh?" He laughed softly. "Why doesn’t this surprise me?"

"It’s worked before. Not often, though. I’ve seen too many of these beachings, and too many end up the same way."

"Not this time. I don’t suppose you’ve eaten lately?"

"Who has time to eat?"

"You do. Cookie started making sandwiches, soup and coffee as soon as we got Mark’s message. It’s coming in on the next batch of boats. And as soon as it gets here, you eat. Got that?"

Lynn looked up at the bright blue eyes that she knew would brook no argument. "Got it. But until then, I have work to do."

"Uh-uh," Chip shook his head. "We have work to do."

Lynn looked up at him. "Then let’s get this big girl back into the water."

** *** **

With so many of Seaview’s crew on the beach, Lynn could reprioritize, and moved from one group to another, seeming to know exactly where she was needed most. As soon as one whale was pushed back into the surf, being herded out to sea by an escorting Zodiac, she was somewhere else, sluicing a whale with cooling seawater, applying zinc oxide around the pain-filled eyes of another. Chip just followed, giving her whatever assistance and emotional support she needed.

A few of the largest whales had already died, suffocated by their own weight. Lynn turned away from the sight of the Palmer Institute’s payloader taking the pathetic black bodies away. She looked out toward the water, and stood watching a team that included Riley and Kowalski struggling with an especially large whale, but her thoughts remained with the dead whales behind her.

She felt Chip come up behind her. "They’ll do necropsies on them, but they probably won’t find anything," she said, not turning.

"The Admiral said last night’s storm may have disoriented them," he said, crossing his arms in front of Lynn, and pulling her back against his chest.

Lynn sighed heavily, grateful for Chip’s presence and the comfort he afforded. "That’s as good a reason as any, I guess. Or maybe the pod master was a little senile, or sick, or injured, or just tired, or any of a million other reasons." She leaned her head back against his shoulder. "There’s so much we just don’t know."

"Give it time, Lynn," Chip said softly. "You can’t unravel all of nature’s secrets in one day. And maybe some things just aren’t for us to know."

Lynn twisted to look up at him. "I didn’t realize you were such a philosopher."

Chip gave her a gentle smile. "I wasn’t -- not until I met you."

"And you’ll rue that day the rest of your life," Lynn said dryly.

"I don’t think so," Chip told her, shaking his head. "It hasn’t even been a year since we met, but I wouldn’t trade a second of it."

"Even our encounter with Jaws Junior?"

Chip thought for a second. "Maybe that." He put his arm around Lynn’s shoulders and guided her to the surf. "Let’s get back to work."

** *** **

By three in the afternoon, they had successfully returned over twenty of the stranded whales to the sea. The influx of help from Seaview had helped immeasurably. The crew, both officers and men, were scattered among groups of volunteers, each group working ceaselessly to return a pilot whale to the sea. The loud motors of the Zodiacs rose over the babble of voices and the crash of the waves as the little rubber boats chased whales back to the open water.

With so much extra help, Lynn was able to give her volunteers well-deserved breaks from their labors. She, however, entertained no thought of taking a break until Chip steered her bodily towards the area Cookie had set up as his canteen.

"Sit," he said. She sat. "Eat."

She took a bite of the sandwich he handed her, then started to get up, but Chip glared at her. She sat back down. "I’m not hungry," she complained.

"Five minutes. Just five minutes, okay? This is the first rest you’ve had since you got here, right?"

Lynn nodded sheepishly. "I guess."

"So take a break before you drop," Chip said, waving a hand to cut off her protests. "I know, you’re as strong as a horse," he said dryly. "But you feed them twice a day, don’t you?"

Lynn nodded, then looked past him as she bit into her sandwich. "We have company," she said, around a mouthful of Cookie’s ham salad on rye.

"Who’s minding the store?" Chip asked as Lee Crane walked up to them, dressed like an ordinary seaman in jeans and a worn chambray shirt.

"O’Brien," Lee responded.

"I hope there’s a Seaview left for us to go back to," Chip commented.

"Had to get in on the action, didn’t you," Lynn asked, smiling as she stood to give Lee a hug.

"Can’t let this guy get all the glory," Lee said, hooking a thumb in Chip’s direction.

"Glory, huh?," Chip challenged. "I’m gonna sleep for a week after this one. Maybe for two weeks."

"Wearing him out?" Lee asked Lynn.

"She always wears me out," Chip put in before Lynn could answer. "What’s with the getup?" he asked, indicating Lee’s unusual clothing.

"All the wetsuits were in use by the time I got to the dive locker," Lee replied. "I raided Stores for these."

"Where’s the Admiral?" Lynn asked. "I would have thought he’d be one of the first ones here."

"He had to make a meeting back at the Institute, so he took the Flying Sub there," Lee said. "He said it was just as well--you’d only have him running around like a maniac, and he’s getting too old for that sort of stuff."

Lynn laughed at the thought of ordering the Admiral around. "Somehow, Lee, I don’t think that would work."

"I think you’re right. He did say, however, that anyone from NIMR who was here today is to take tomorrow as comp time."

"The way they’ve all been working, they’ll appreciate that."

Lee inclined his head towards the waterline, where Riley and Kowalski were jubilantly congratulating each other as the whale they’d been shepherding through the breaking surf swam off under its own power. "Those two look like they’re getting into this."

"They’re all really getting into this," Lynn said. "Thank you for the help. I never expected this."

"We know," Lee replied. "I would have loved to have seen the look on your face."

"It was priceless," Chip said. "I wish I’d thought to bring a camera."

"I bet," Lee said, and stood up. "Well, I’m ready for work."

"Okay." Lynn shoved the remainder of her sandwich into her mouth. "Let’s go unbeach us a whale."

** *** **

All through the latter part of the afternoon and early evening the rescue continued. Some civilian volunteers left, to be replaced by others who had seen the coverage of the rescue on TV and wanted to help. As the sun set, trucks arrived from both the Nelson and Palmer Institutes bringing huge diesel-powered generators and spotlights, and work continued far into the night. Cookie and his assistants kept food and drink coming, ferrying soup and sandwiches from Seaview to the canteen set up on the beach well past the wee hours of the morning.

One whale after another was pushed off into the ocean, swimming out to sea to escape the insistent little Zodiacs. Finally, the last whale was pushed off the shore at five in the morning, swimming away in the first rays of dawn.

Lynn and Chip wearily sat down on the now-deserted beach near the high tide mark. The volunteers had left, along with the reporters. The only people left were Seaview’s crew, now returning themselves and their equipment to the sub.

The operation was, by and large, a success. They’d been able to return forty-two whales to the sea. Nine had died--seven from suffocation, while two had been euthanized due to the substantial injuries they’d sustained in the rough surf--and two young calves would find new homes at Palmer, where they would be raised, then released in a few years.

Chip looked over at Lynn. "I guess you could call this a hard day’s night, huh?"

"Ouch." Lynn winced. "That was terrible."

"Thank you," Chip responded pleasantly.

"You’re welcome."

"Don’t mention it."

"Don’t worry, I won’t. Think you’ll get home sometime today?" she asked.

"Oh, you can count on that – I just don’t know when. Think you’ll be awake when I get there?"

"Oh, I can almost guarantee I won’t," Lynn said. "I think I’ll be asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. Think you’ll wanna wake me up?"

"I think I can arrange that," Chip grinned, then turned serious. "Will you be all right to drive home alone?"

Lynn nodded. "It’s a five-minute drive, and I’ll keep the radio on loud."

"So what else is new?" Chip asked dryly.

"Nothing," Lynn conceded. "Will you be all right driving home?"

"I’ll get a ride," Chip assured her.

"Thank you. I don’t want you falling asleep at the wheel."

Chip turned as Riley considerately cleared his throat as he walked to them. "Zodiac’s ready to shove off, sir."

"Thanks, Riley. I’ll be right there." He stood up, then helped Lynn rise.

She reached up, kissed him once. "I’ll see you later."

"Yeah. Be careful going home."

"Okay. Don’t forget about that ride."

"Right," Chip said. "One for the road." He leaned down to kiss her again, then trotted down to the waiting boat, where Riley waited.

Lynn stood at the water’s edge, watching the Zodiac head back to Seaview. She imagined that she could see a yellow wetsuit-clad arm wave twice from the sail, so she waved back vigorously. Then she ran to her Jeep and drove to their townhouse to wait for Chip to come home.


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