‘Quiet Waters’ and the story of Moby

Moby’s Story

This month, a poem in tribute to a whale called Moby.

It was just an ordinary March day in 1997 as I drove down the motorway towards Rosyth Naval Base with an eight hour shift on the police boat ahead of me. As I sped down the M90 from Perth I was unaware of a drama that was unfolding in the waters of the Forth.

At the handover from the early shift to the back shift, the early crew excitedly related their morning’s experience with a huge sperm whale that seemed to have taken a wrong turning and ended up in the Forth. Fearful that it might head out to sea before we had an opportunity to see it, my crew and I quickly got changed and made our way down to the Police Launch berthed at the Fleet Ferry Pontoon. We slipped the berthing ropes, and set off for an area of the river called Society Bank which was where the last sighting of the whale had been.

Police Launch Integrity

We had been searching for about twenty minutes when a blast of water vapour burst from the water ahead of us. A dark grey mass emerged momentarily under the plume of vapour and then was gone. Our first glimpse of the whale that was to become known as Moby was brief but I was soon to see more of this magnificent animal… much more.

Sperm Whale

The word was out and boats were scouring the river searching for the whale. Speaking to various people throughout that afternoon we discovered that Moby had beached himself at low tide the previous night at Carlingnose near North Queensferry. As the tide had turned he was re-floated and had emerged a mile or so upstream from the Forth Road Bridge.

Carlingnose Jetty, Inverkeithing Bay

We kept an eye on him until darkness fell, passed his last known position over to the night shift, and headed home. By the next afternoon, a Saturday, the news of the stranded whale had been picked up by the media. We took to the water for our shift on the police boat and it soon became clear that it was going to be dominated by Moby.

Marine mammal experts from the nearby Deep Sea World were on board the tourist boat the Maid of the Forth. Pleasure craft from Port Edgar were out in force along with some tugs from the Hound Point oil terminal. The assembled fleet of boats formed a cordon across the river and upstream from Moby. When he surfaced to breath the order was given over VHF radio for everyone to rev their engines and make as much noise as possible. The idea was quite simple. A wall of noise would prevent Moby from moving up stream to the west and encourage him to head eastwards, under the bridges, and out to sea, deep water and safety.

It didn’t work. Time and time again, to our frustration, Moby would surface behind us. We just couldn’t work out why he was so intent on heading west into ever shallower waters.

We were called back to base to pick up TV crews and newspaper reporters and take them out for a close quarters encounter with our confused leviathan. Groups of people were starting to appear along the south shore of the river hoping for a glimpse of Moby. Many gathered on the walkway of the Forth Road Bridge gazing down on the waters below.

Darkness brought all rescue attempts to an end, but plans were made for a concerted effort the following afternoon.

Sunday came and I drove down the M90 after lunch wondering if Moby had come to his senses and returned to the sea. But he was still meandering around in an area just south of Rosyth dockyard. A bigger flotilla of boats than the previous day was assembled and we started the process of trying to shepherd Moby out to sea. By now the Forth Road Bridge and the south shore of the river were lined with huge crowds of whale watchers and well wishers. The plight of poor Moby had won the heart of the nation and everyone was rooting for him.

At one stage, it was thought that Moby was reluctant to pass under the road bridge because of the noise of the traffic. In light of this, the Forth Road Bridge management team took the unprecedented decision to close the bridge to all traffic. Then several jet skiers thought it appropriate to chase each other around between the two bridges. With blue lights on I opened up both engines and headed at full speed down to have a polite chat with them. They were advised of the error of their ways and of what may happen to them if they did not remove themselves and their screaming machines from the area, tout suite.

At last, late on in the evening Moby swam out under the road bridge. The tide was ebbing and the flow of water may well have played a part in carrying him in the direction of the sea. The numbers of boats in the flotilla was reducing rapidly as darkness was slowly creeping in. We followed him out under the south arch of the rail bridge towards Hound Point oil terminal. The tugs who had been helping returned to their moorings. The Maid of the Forth headed back to Port Edgar, but not before transferring a marine mammal expert on board my police launch. We followed Moby’s progress as he passed between the oil terminal and the south shore.

Spirits on board were high. At long last we felt we were succeeding in our quest to return this magnificent beast to its rightful environment, the open sea. However our mood of optimism was soon to change.

As the Forth sweeps around towards Crammond Island there is a large expanse of sand banks called the Drum Sands. At high tide they cannot be seen, but as the tide recedes the whole area dries out. Moby was heading for the Drum Sands.

Where ever possible, I manoeuvred the launch between Moby and the sand banks. My eyes were darting back and forth between the depth gauge readings and trying to spot Moby. I was getting perilously close to running the police launch aground and the rapidly fading light was making it ever more difficult to see him. My shift was due to end shortly but I felt I had to stay on station with the whale to try and prevent him from beaching on the sand banks. I organised a rigid inflatable boat to come out and pick up my two crewmen and I stayed with the marine mammal expert on the launch.

Darkness was with us, almost. There was just enough light to see poor Moby as once again I blocked his way with the police launch. He was right alongside the port side of the launch pushing against me. I cut my port engine for fear of injuring him with the port propeller and tried to push him back using only the starboard engine.

Then there was a gentle crunching sound. The police launch had run aground… and so had Moby.

We were about 30 minutes from low water and then very slowly the tide would turn on the flood. I was going nowhere until the tidal waters rose so I switched off the starboard engine.


Forth Bridges by night

It was then that I became aware of the surreal situation I was in. The weather was being dominated by high pressure. There was not even the slightest hint of a breeze. As a result the waters of the Firth of Forth were like glass. The mighty cantilevers of the Forth Bridge has just been fitted out with floodlights and she was looking spectacular with a perfect reflection in the still waters. As well as a lack of breeze, there was a total absence of cloud cover and high overhead was a huge, silvery, full moon. As if that were not enough, flying above, through a star lit night sky was the Hale-Bopp Comet. Then add to that scenario a fifty foot long male sperm whale was leaning against the side of my grounded vessel. This was a night I would never forget.

Hale Bopp Comet

Suddenly the spell was broken as Moby exhaled. An explosive burst of air and water vapour shattered the silence and refocused our attention. The smell of his breath was foul.

The water was still receding and the top third of Moby’s body was now exposed. We attached ropes to buckets and started to pour sea water over him to prevent his skin from drying out. Every now and then he would flex his thirty eight and a half tonne body. He must have been in so much discomfort under his own weight.

The minutes ticked slowly by and then gradually the tide started to turn. Inch by inch we could detect the water was rising. As it did Moby pushed harder against the side of the launch pushing me further onto the sand bank. About forty five minutes after the turn of the tide I started up the starboard engine and the battle resumed. Moby was exhausted and against the powerful engines of the police launch I eventually succeeded in pushing him away from the Drum Sands into deeper water.

Clear of the sand banks he dived. We cut the engines and stood on the upper deck with night vision goggles waiting for him to surface. At first we only heard him when he surfaced to breathe in the still night airs and then we caught sight of him out in the deep water of the main shipping channel. We gave chase and eventually lost contact with him near Inchcolm Island.

We were absolutely elated. He was now in deep water and heading back out to sea. When we returned to work the next day there had been no sightings of Moby, although further out  in the Forth estuary there were reports that some Minky whales and also a Humpback had been spotted. The days went by with no further sightings which was just what we were all hoping for.

At the wheel

Then, on March 31st we learned the terrible news. Moby had returned under the cover of darkness. He had swam up the Forth, under the rail and road bridge, under the Kincadine Bridge and beached himself on a mud bank at Airth. As the tide turned and dropped, he rolled over. The mud covered his blow hole and he suffocated.

The news came like a hammer blow. After all our efforts to save him and the joy of supposed success, it was heart breaking to discover that something had driven him to end his life in such a tragic way.

Moby’s death affected me deeply. To recover the body of a suicide jumper from the Forth Road Bridge was a regular task for the police launch crews and was always sad. But attending to that job never had the same impact on me as Moby’s demise.

I found myself asking if we had been right to try and stop him doing something that he seemed Hell bent on doing. Nobody seemed to be able to suggest what might have caused his suicidal behaviour. Should we have tormented him in his final days or should we have left him in peaceful quiet waters to let nature take its course? I was still ask myself that question for a long time after his death and one day walking around Largo Bay, looking out to the waters of the Forth, I wrote “Quiet Waters”.

“Quiet Waters”

It’s getting hard to swim now, I’m stiff and wracked with pain

I know deep down inside me, that I won’t go south again

It’s even hard to breathe now, I can’t stay down for long

My lungs are hot and aching, I know there’s something wrong

I just need quiet waters, where I can rest, and close my eyes

To sing a song to distant souls… to say my last goodbyes

The moon is almost full now, and the tide is on the flood

My journey nears its end now… the taste of death is in my blood

For the gannets diving ’round me, the waters here are deep

For me they are so shallow, but it’s a place where I can sleep

It’s a month now since I’ve eaten, and I know I’ll eat no more

My every muscle burns, as I head towards the shore

At Carlingnose I beach myself… a useless dying hulk

The tide is now receding, and I start to feel my bulk

I’ve never felt so heavy, as I lay here on the sand

And now I hear excited sounds of voices from the land

Slack water’s past, and once again, the tide begins to rise

The humans try to move me… Oh just let me close my eyes

They try and force me eastwards, where the waters will be deep

But something drives me westward… to a place where I can sleep

I just want quiet waters, where I can rest and close my eyes

To sing a song to distant souls… to say my last goodbyes

They hound me with their screaming boats, time and time again

A cacophony of engine noise, keeps thumping in my brain

And once again I beach myself, why won’t they let me die

The time is right for me to go, with the full moon in the sky

I rest upon the sandbank, and the engines fade away

But one boat stays beside me in a quiet watchful way

Slack water passes once again, and I feel the rising tide

The watching boat… it holds its ground. I press against its side

I retreat to deeper waters. I can hardly bare this pain

The watchful boat pursues me, time and time again

At last… I think I’ve lost them, but I can’t stay down for long

Oh let me rest, and close my eyes. Let me sing my final song

Some Minky, and a Humpback, they come and share my pain

And in the darkest quiet hours, I slowly try again

This time no screaming engines. No boats to bar my way

But a soft mud bank to be my grave, at the dawning of the day

I have found my quiet waters, and now I close my eyes

I’ll be free from pain and torture… and that will be my prize

The Minky and the Humpback, they’ll soon return to sea

For them the struggle still goes on, but I… at last… am free.


Eighteen years after Moby died, Lizbeth and I were enjoying a day out in Edinburgh doing touristy type things. We commented that we had never visited the National Museum of Scotland in Chamber Street since it had undergone a major upgrading and refurbishment. As we walked into the grand entrance hall the first thing I saw was the giant skull of a sperm whale.

I knew instantly that it was Moby. Its difficult to describe the range of emotions that swept over me at that moment. I had been caught completely off guard and a huge sadness came welling up inside me. The last time I had been this close to him he was alive and leaning against my boat. I felt like I had been reunited with an old friend who meant a great deal to me. But in the same instance I was looking only at his colossal skull. The memories came flooding back and tears stung my eyes. I found a seat where I could see him and sat quietly for a long time.

Lizbeth disappeared and spoke with some members of staff and got the details of the man who carried out the postmortem on Moby. A few days later I wrote to him, explaining my part in the rescue attempt and about the night of the stranding on Drum Sands. I also enclosed a copy of “Quiet Waters”

Moby’s skull being lowered into position. Image: National Museum of Scotland

Moby on display in the Grand Gallery. Image: National Museum of Scotland

I received an extensive and detailed email in return explaining that Moby was destined to die and that all the efforts to rescue him were never going to succeed. Moby was dying from blood poisoning. When they carried out the postmortem examination, the discovered that he had a severe blockage in his penis. The damage may have been done during a failed mating or possibly during a fight with another whale. Whatever the cause, the blockage had caused a major infection from which he would never recover.

Its hard to say if it was a deliberate act of suicide on his behalf, or if the poison in his blood from the infected blockage affected his thinking and behaviour. Either way, poor Moby was doomed well before we spotted him for the first time that day at Society Bank.

There are many things that have happened to me throughout my life that I have forgotten with the passage of time. But my time in the company of the spectacular and wonderful creature that was Moby, is a memory I will never lose.

I am delighted to report that a record of my time spent with Moby, and also a copy of “Quiet Waters”, is now kept on file for posterity, along with all the scientific reports and other information gathered on him, in the museum’s archives.

3 thoughts on “‘Quiet Waters’ and the story of Moby

  1. Fiona Jollie

    What a sad beautiful story Duncan and the poem perfectly told the story from the whales perspective. You are indeed a gifted story teller.

  2. jennifer bell

    So sad. Maybe he took comfort in the time you spent with him alone and in peace when he was undoubtedly in great pain and death was slow, so easing the way for him. I would like to think so. Had he not suffocated his agony might have been much longer. Well done Duncan and never doubt you did the right thing he felt cared for by many at the end and I think whales understand a lot.


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