A Salty Tale From The Sea Captain Who Knows Her 'Flying Pickles' Captain Becca Johnston explains a "flying pickle" — a term that's frequently used on whale-watching trips.

A Salty Tale From The Sea Captain Who Knows Her 'Flying Pickles'

A Salty Tale From The Sea Captain Who Knows Her 'Flying Pickles'

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This summer, All Things Considered is hearing about trade lingo: those words that people use in their professions that outsiders might not know. Captain Becca Johnston explains a "flying pickle" — a term that's frequently used on whale-watching trips.


We've asked you, our listeners, to send us trade lingo from your line of work, some bit of slang or jargon that would be meaningless to people who don't do what you do. And wow, have you responded. We've heard from more than 1,000 of you - lots and lots of waiters and IT professionals - also truckers, a puppeteer, submarine engineer, a bassoonist, hula-hoop dancer, orchid grower, many, many more, including a whale-watch captain out of Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. She is Becca Johnston, and she joins me now. Hi, Becca.


BLOCK: Well, what's the trade lingo that you want to talk about from your world of whale watching?

JOHNSTON: Well, one of the ones that we commonly use on a whale watch is - we talk about flying pickles.

BLOCK: Flying pickles?

JOHNSTON: A flying pickle is a newborn, baby humpback whale, generally less than six weeks old, learning how to breach, or jump out of the water.

BLOCK: And you call it a flying pickle because?

JOHNSTON: Well, it looks pretty much like a giant, flying pickle.

BLOCK: (Laughing) As simple as that?

JOHNSTON: Yeah, they're very uncoordinated when they're first learning to do this. But when we're talking about a baby humpback whale, we're still talking about an animal that's 15 feet long and around 2,000 pounds.

BLOCK: Wow. So a tons worth of pickle there, flying through the air.

JOHNSTON: Exactly. And they tend to be very repetitive about it. Whereas the adult humpback whales are very random with their breaching - they do it once, maybe twice - a flying pickle will jump out of the water 20, 30, sometimes even 40 times in a row.

BLOCK: (Laughing) So if you're on the boat, captaining a whale watch, how would you be using the term flying pickle?

JOHNSTON: Well, it wouldn't be uncommon for, say, another boat to call me and ask what I was watching. And I would say, well, we've got a flying pickle over here. And their response would be, that's great. It would be even better if we were being mugged by the flying pickle.

BLOCK: Mugged by the flying pickle, which means what?

JOHNSTON: Well, when you are mugged - and one of the best things that can happen to me at work is to get mugged...

BLOCK: Not too many people can say that, Becca.

JOHNSTON: (Laughing) That's very true. New Yorkers tend to not like to hear this. Because humpback whales are an endangered species, everyone is required to stay 100 yards away from them. But, should the whale become interested in the boat and approach the boat, you are mugged. It's mugging you. And occasionally they will do this, especially the younger ones, the pickles, because they're curious. And at that point, you pretty much have to shut down, even if you have schedules to keep - it won't matter at all - and just enjoy what the whale is doing.

BLOCK: You know, I'm wondering whether this term, the flying pickle - is it specific to Hawaiian humpback whales, or if you were to be talking to a whale watch captain out on Cape Cod, say, would they know exactly what you're talking about?

JOHNSTON: I would doubt it. But it's very common in Hawaii. And they tend to do more of the aerial displays here, on their breeding grounds, than they would, say, on their feeding grounds, which would be more of Alaska or Cape Cod area.

BLOCK: Well, maybe we'll hear from a captain somewhere else who can either confirm or deny what we're talking about here. They may have their own term - who knows?

JOHNSTON: Yeah, absolutely. I'd love to know.

BLOCK: Well, I hope, Becca, that you may - if you're going out today, maybe you'll see a whole bunch of flying pickles. Sounds like it would be a great way to spend the day.

JOHNSTON: It's a wonderful way to spend the day. But all the whales are up in Alaska right now. We expect them back in the fall.

BLOCK: (Laughing) The pickles have gone.

JOHNSTON: The pickles are gone. They'll be back in a few months.

BLOCK: Becca Johnston, it's great to talk to you. Thanks so much for telling us about the flying pickles in Hawaii.

JOHNSTON: Oh, mahalo. Thank you so much for having me.

BLOCK: And we'd like to hear from you, also. If you've got a term from your trade, you can send it to us on Facebook or Twitter. We are @npratc.


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