Search of the Elusive Is a Human Thing

To go searching is to look for something that doesn't exist now. But when we go searching for something elusive, in attempting to define the elusive, we indulge in the present intensely.

A Baby Humpback Whale Plays Near the Surface in Blue Water © Craig Lambert Photography /

October 20, 2023 03:53 EDT

Eight people set off from the small town of Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in search of whales. We were led by the fearless Willow, a lovely and enthusiastic young lady who had grown up in an even more remote seaside community of “40 people” and “started driving boats at the age of three”. After more than two hours of keenly scouring the horizon, we finally spotted 2 whales – actually, several spouts of water and mild crestings of their backs breaking the water surface. We were exhilarated. Willow assured us that we were very lucky; “some tours don’t see a whale at all”. And yet many people pay good money and go on these whale-watching tours in the hopes that they may see something. But even when they don’t see anything, they return happy for the chance to have been part of the search.

The intrinsic value of searching

This is not searching motivated by fortune or fame. This is searching for the sake of searching: to possibly see something few have seen and therefore achieve a sense of accomplishment and differentiate ourselves from the rest of humanity; to hopefully see something supposedly meaningful and thereby validate our existence; to participate, together with others, in an enjoyable process where the outcome is unpredictable; to be – if found – part of something bigger (physically, ecologically, philosophically) than ourselves; to feel alive.

Playwright Eugene O’Neill said “Obsessed by a fairy tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace”. David Bowie said “Searching for music is like searching for God”; both are “an effort to reclaim the unmentionable, the unsayable, the unseeable, the unspeakable”. Vincent van Gogh said “If I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost”. 

Paulo Coelho said “The search for something can prove as interesting as finding it”; I propose that the search may be more interesting and more essential. Dostoyevsky said “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for”; I think it lies in the searching for something to live for. Perhaps that’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey”. 

To look for the elusive vicariously through books and movies

For those of us who don’t have the time or energy to make the searching journey – or don’t know what to search for – we could try to do it vicariously through books and movies. 

There are several renowned novels on the search for the more elusive but important things in life. In Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, aging nobleman Alonso Quixano rides off from his Spanish village in search of adventure and glory. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Captain Ahab takes to the high seas in search of revenge and the whale that took his leg. And one among many spiritual non-fictions is Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage, based on his own walk across northern Spain along the Camino de Santiago in search of the simplicity of life.

There are also many movies about ‘the search’: from that famous quartet searching for home, heart, brains, and courage in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz; to Victor Laslo searching for an exit visa in the 1942 Casablanca; to veteran Ethan Edwards searching for his nieces in the 1956 western The Searchers; to Michael Corleone searching for respectability and forgiveness in the 1990 Godfather III; to clownfish Marlin searching for his son in the 2003 Finding Nemo; to Professor Gregorius searching for an alluring author in the 2013 Night Train to Lisbon; to most recently Barbie searching for the meaning of life in the real world in the 2023 Barbie. However, the quintessential searching show has to be the iconic, original Star Trek, where Captain Kirk and his crew simply travel for years and millions of miles – boldly going where no one has gone before – searching for the new and the different.

To search in the age of information

In some sense, we are now living in the age of ‘the search’. We’re constantly googling something or other. And the fact that we so often go from search to search to search indicates that it’s not the finding that satisfies us, rather the searching that addicts us. However, searching for something on the internet is a bit different in that there is an immediate and often a plethora of results. Here, we’re referring to a search where the target is elusive.

We whale watchers – and yes, birdwatchers too – are just some of a long line of such searchers. Over the millennia and around the world, people have been searching for and continue to search for the elusive. Some ancient Greeks started us off by inscribing “Gnothi seauton” or “Know Thyself” over the doorway to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Many of us are looking for what Plato referred to as our missing half – whether that be found in another or within ourselves. Philosophers in general are said to be searching for ‘the truth’ – which, in today’s world of fake news and AI – is becoming increasingly elusive. 

From elusive to extraterrestrials

And then there are those who search for the Loch Ness Monster. This August saw the biggest hunt for the Loch Ness Monster in more than five decades. Nothing conclusive was found but the organizers and hundreds of volunteers seem to have had a wonderful time. It would not be surprising if this became an annual event.

There are those searching for extraterrestrials – even though physicist Stephen Hawkins has warned us of dangerous consequences once we find them and worse, if they find us. But that has not stopped us. In 1974, the Arecibo Radio Telescope broadcast an interstellar radio message into space. Now, scientists are planning to send an updated message

And going one step further, there is the search for God, which will hopefully end on a much happier note

The tradition of searching is not lonely

Searching for the elusive is so widespread that entire institutions have been set up to monitor and guide the process. There are numerous national and international organizations related to whale watching (e.g., Pacific Whale Watch Association, Animal Welfare Institute, International Whaling Commission) and birdwatching (e.g., Birds Canada, American Birding Association, BirdLife International). The Loch Ness Project has been gathering data for over 30 years and the Loch Ness Centre organized this year’s gathering. The SETI (Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute describes itself as “America’s only organization wholly dedicated to searching for life in the universe”. One of its most recent projects in collaboration with Cornell University and Breakthrough Initiatives is called the Breakthrough Listen Investigation for Periodic Spectral Signals; it is searching for signals coming from a star-dense area near the core of our galaxy. And of course, there are a plethora of temples, synagogues, churches, mosques, and their myriad associations helping us in our search for God. We searchers of the elusive are not alone, nor are we unsupported.

In some way, perhaps all elusive searches are similar: they occupy us for a long time; they take us out of ourselves and yet put us in the moment; and they give us a sense of purpose. As autumn changes to winter, we walk along the seashore of Vancouver Island – searching for any manner of treasure or sight or insight or peace of mind or just closure – which we may or may not find.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


Only Fair Observer members can comment. Please login to comment.

Leave a comment

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member