During the weeks that followed the humpback beaching in Perth, I found myself unhappily preoccupied. There was an emergency out there — in truth, all of us had heard news of it. The superabundant cyclones that barrelled down corridors of unseasonal warmth. Hundred-year storms on annual rotation. Die-offs, dead zones, and reefs rotted to the colour of old money. Who hadn’t yet seen that abysmal picture of the tin can, spotlit by a submersible in the silt of the ocean’s deepest trench, or the other one: the photo of the seahorse latched onto a floating cotton bud? Seascape — the obsession of a Golden Age of painting, and once the saturnine vista with which to dramatise the psyche — had since reverted to kitsch: a mixed-media project, churning found objects. Every thing a foreigner in its own home. What was lost, if you took the time to think about it, was the timelessness the sea had always stood for.
Word had it that the sea water itself had begun to acidify; a change too subtle to taste, smell, or touch, but staged across the breadth of oceans in tandem with rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2). As the oceans took in more CO2 from the air, their baseline chemistry shifted. Marine acidification verified what seemed a very ancient fear: that even as what was coming on promised to assume the dimensions of a vast and totalising phase shift, it unfurled, presently, on a molecular and insensate scale. Would we know it, the moment when it became too late, when the oceans ceased to be infinite?
My mind returned to the stranded whale. All my life, I’d heard the history of whales told as a tale of victory. Notwithstanding the censured Japanese whalers, or those few lawful hunters in first nations’ territories, that these animals had been saved was a celebrated conclusion. Over three decades ago, or longer: ‘Save the Whales’, the faded bumper stickers. See: whaleboats ratcheted into dry dock, harpoons disabled. Whales had since rebounded. Humpbacks and sperm whales were no longer red-listed as endangered animals. In many places (though not for all species) cetacean numbers were on the uptick. Brought back from the brink of vanishing, their populations testified to the denouement of commercial whaling and the stewardship of conservation groups. Whales buoyed hearts. Whales were a wellspring of awe. How hungry we were, now, for awe! Whales elicited our smallness set against the largess of nature: they proved nature’s sovereignty and its resilience. Whales gave people cause to reflect, too, that governments had been known to be benevolent, that industries could be restrained, and that the protection of wonderment was a value shared across the planet. So it was that whale-watching surfaced feelings of humility and mastery both, for though it was humbling to be faced with such astonishing animals, that whales existed at all was due to past endeavours thwarting their extinction.
Whales were how the western environmental movements first learnt to tell a story as big as the world. The anti-whaling campaigns of the early 1980s had been predicated on the idea that whales should be viewed as the universal inheritance of all humankind, and that the people of the future, regardless of nationality, deserved to live on a planet that hadn’t been denuded of its largest animals. But now that the sea had evolved into an amphitheatre of hazards far less demarcated than whaling ships, people could no longer view whales the way they once did — a triumph of activism, a thrilling brush with wildness. This, to me, felt like an urgent subject: beyond the base number of whales in the ocean, how did whales live, and how did they die? How did they encounter us? To learn that even whales — these paragons of green devotion — were turning up containing industrial toxicants, plastic, and pesticides, seemed darkly momentous. Apart from the visceral harm done to the animals themselves, their symbolism lay ransacked. A kind of hope was being polluted. Whales demanded a new story, I thought. A story that overrode the narrative of success I’d long been told, even as it promised to be just as planet-sized.
For as long as there have been humans, the whale has been a portentous animal. A whale warrants pause — be it for amazement, or for mourning. Its appearance and its disappearance are significant. On the beach, an individual whale’s death may not prove ‘global’ in the way of its body powering down abruptly, like a switch being flicked, but, in a different sense, the deaths of whales today are global. The decline of a sperm whale — filled with sheeting and ropes, plant-pots and hosepipes — belongs to a class of environmental threat that, over the past few decades, has become dispersed across entire ocean systems, taking on transhemispheric proportions. This whale’s body serves as an accounting of the legacies of industry and culture that have not only escaped the limits of our control, but now lie outside the range of our sensory perception, and, perhaps even more worryingly, beyond technical quantification. We struggle to understand the sprawl of our impact, but there it is, within one cavernous stomach: pollution, climate, animal welfare, wildness, commerce, the future, and the past. Inside the whale, the world.
There is a different story that I caught on the beach that day — one about whales that expire very far out to sea, perhaps of old age or ship- strike. More than any other explanation of how whales perished, this rendition would stay with me, transfix me, long after I returned from the shorefront, though the reasons why took a long time to clarify.
Here is how that story goes: If whales that expire mid-ocean are not washed into the shallows by the wind and tides, their massive bodies eventually sink, and simultaneously decompose on the descent. This disintegration is called a whalefall. Afloat at the beginning, they are pecked at by seabirds, fish, swimming crabs, and sharks attracted by scent trails to the carcass. Carrion eaters debride the underside of the carcass. In calm weather, ripples divulge the scavengers’ thuggish toil — creating the illusion, perhaps, that the dead whale still trembles. This part takes weeks, a month. Over dusk’s shift-change hours, daylight creatures rotate with night-time meat-eaters. Some species of cetacean turn out to be more buoyant than others. Deceased sperm whales will hang off the oil-filled chambers contained in their huge, blocky heads at the surface longer than most, though they are one of the largest and heaviest types of whales. But, in time, any whale will go down, all the way to the sea floor. A dead whale slips below the depth where epipelagic foragers can feed from it. The whale’s mushy body decelerates as it drops, and, where pressure compounds, putrefying gases build up in its softening tissues. It drifts past fish that no longer look like anything we might call fish, but resemble instead bottled fireworks, reticulated rigging, and musical instruments turned inside out. The whale enters the abyssopelagic zone. No light has ever shone here, for so long as the world has had water. Entering permanent darkness, the whale passes beyond the range of diurnal time. Purblind hagfish slink; jawless, pale as the liberated internal organs of other animals. Jellyfish tie themselves into knots. The only sound is the scrunch of unseen brittle-stars, eating one another alive. Slowly. It is very cold. Hell’s gelid analogue on Earth. The hagfish rise to meet the carcass and tunnel in, lathering the passages they make with mucus. They absorb nutrients right through their skin.
The whale body reaches a point where the buoyancy of its meat and organs is only tethered by the force of its falling bones. Methane is released in minuscule bubbles. The ballooning mass scatters skin and sodden flesh below it, upon which grows a carpet of white worms waving upwards, like grass on its grave. Then, sometimes, the entire whale skeleton will suddenly burst through the cloud of its carcass. For a time, the skeleton might stay hitched to its parachute of muscle; a macabre marionette, jinking at the spine in the slight currents. Later, it drops, falling quickly to the sea floor, into the plush cemetery of the worms. Gusts of billowing silt roll away. The mantle of the whale’s pulpier parts settles over it. Marine snow — anonymous matter, ground to grit in the sun-filtered layers of the sea — sprinkles down ceaselessly. The body is likely to settle far deeper than any living whale will ever descend to see it. Rattails, sea scuds, more polychaetes, and eelpouts appear. No one knows from where. Opportunist octopuses bunt between ribs. Sightless, whiskered troglodytes, like ginger tubers, burrow into the surrounding sediment, which is blackened with fat and whale oil. From the dark come red-streamer creatures that flutter all over. Colourless crabs; their delicate gluttony. Life pops. It is as though the whale were a piñata cracked open, flinging bright treasures. On the body gather coin-sized mussels, lucinid clams, limpets, and crepitating things that live off sulphate. Over 200 different species can occupy the frame of one whale carcass. A pink, plumed tube shrinks back into the gothic column of its name, the Osedax — Latin for ‘bone devourer’. Mouthless and gutless, the Osedax is nonetheless insatiable: it eats through its feet, which extend, like trickling roots, into the marrow.
Some of the organisms that materialise on the whale are called ‘fugitive species’. Some live nowhere else but in dead whales, and a few are so specialised they thrive only within the remains of a single cetacean species. Others are found, very occasionally, at hydrothermal vents or around briny cold seeps on the sea floor — spots where life on Earth is theorised to have first begun, with a plethora of millimetre-high animals inhabiting a thin band of gas-enriched water. After the whale’s soft tissues and cartilage are consumed, these tiny organisms broadcast their larvae into the sea to drift in dormancy; infinitesimal, barely perceptible, and hopeful (if the larval can be said to be hopeful) of finding more dead cetaceans. A whale body is, to this glitter splash of biology, a godsend; and an occasion for gene exchange. To think such extremophiles indestructible — too ancient or too deep to be affected by the impoverishment of the sea above — is to disregard their interaction with the corpse whales, which function as engines of evolution, and stepping stones for their migration between stringent, oxygen-poor habitats. Without whales, many kinds of detritovores fail to colonise new habitat. When their vents and seeps deplete, their kind will decline. These creatures exist, they have evolved, because of the fall of whales. Whales as transient, decomposing ecosystems that amass, pulse, twitch, and dissolve.
No whalefall had ever been seen by a human eye until 1977, when, in the course of submersible training, a US Navy crew discovered a grey- whale skeleton laid out on the stiff clay of an abyss west of Santa Catalina, more than 4,000 feet down. After that, scientists deliberately sank cetacean carcasses to track what creaturely communities transitioned on and around them. One estimate holds that there may be as many as 690,000 whalefalls coming undone at this very moment. Over half a million dead whales lying on the basement floor of the Earth, jiggling with life.
The remaining bones of the dead whale on the sea floor are stripped, hollowed, and then they fluff up with flounces of silver-white bacteria, so that it appears as if the skeleton is draped in metres of downy towelling. There the bones stay, lashed softly by microbes. Decades may pass, a hundred years even, before nothing remains — only a dent that holds the dark darker.
In undersea sites bereft of seasons (as we are wont to understand the seasons), a whalefall is tantamount to springtime — a fountain of life; spectacular, then squalid. A whale in the wild goes on enriching our planet, tick-tocking with animate energy, long after its demise. So the death of a whale proves meaningful to a vibrant host of dependent creatures, even as it may look senseless from the shore. The story of whalefall — I found it emotional. Whalefalls outvied the crowd’s loss, describing instead, a great, pluripotent detonation of life striking from a whale’s demise. In the flatlining of a whale, in the falling apart of its colossal body, this story seeded the rise of organisms more spellbinding and weirder than any I had ever heard of, or dimly pictured before. How little is yet known about the wildness that attends the whale, I realised, and how well the world is built to work without us.
But what message should we, who never venture to these depths, take from the whalefall — what does this story boil down to? What I carry forward is this: Nothing ends without adding vigour to the conditions under which new beginnings are conceived. No state is condemned to be changeless. As would reveal itself to be true of my own contact with the stranded humpback in Perth, the death of a whale can prove not a tragedy, but a turning point.
Low tide arrived towards the close: a small group of people persevering. I shuffled in to hear the humpback’s irregular gasps. Whales are conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to do it. The whale’s eye — the colour of midnight, mid-ocean — had no eyelashes and, according to another wildlife officer, no tear ducts (for what would be the point of crying in the ocean?). I could not catch its gaze. Did the whale see where it was? Could it grasp the destiny being prepared for it: not the plenteous, oceanic dark, but the rubbish heap? Despite the whale’s prodigious size, we understood that it shared certain traits with people: whales being social animals, affectionate with their young. We’d heard whales possessed brains complex enough to imply the capacity for abstract thought, native concepts of time and self. And, maybe, death?
If it was hard to tell all the ways the whale was hurt, it was harder yet to imagine if, and how, the animal characterised its suffering — whether it understood its injuries as a prelude to the end, being capable of anticipating that mortal moment. Was the whale afraid; did it cling to a twist of fate? Did the whale suffer mentally, conceiving the impossibility of a future? No one could know. I still held out for a flash of recognition, some emergency beacon flicked on within the whale’s brain. But it showed no sign of apprehending the presence of people, our effort or our grief.
What felt important, in that moment, was seeing this thing through to its resolution. Agreeing not to leave the whale alone. Fealty. Fellowship. Or more than that: kinship, I guess, was what we tendered. Who could say if it was more or less welcome than the shot of barbiturate still packed up in the van? The wildlife officer had opted not to use it, or any of the grisly methods in his arsenal. No one clicked a cartridge into a rifle or brandished a stick of explosive. I sensed the thin border between hospitality and hostility; how it wavered but held. Nature, as they say, would run its course. That was a phrase we trusted. We passed it back and forth, hand to hand, between each other. We pressed that line close and thought that, because we were humans, it might still be possible to be humane in ways other species couldn’t be.
All throughout those closing hours, I was dogged by the uncertainty of the obligation enlivened there, on the Perth beach, and to whom, exactly, that obligation was addressed — to the whale, its kind, its ecosystem (our ecosystem)? My unease lingered on and later changed shape into a kind of tension snapped taut between the mercy of the Green Dream, toxic as it was, and the unintended cruelty of the greenhouse, swallowed whole by the sperm whale. Did we owe whales greater distance, or more intervention? And who was the ‘we’ in that sentence? At the very least, I reasoned, it included myself, and the crowd drawn down onto the beach by wonder. The duty of awe was — wasn’t it — care?
Inside the whale, it got hotter, though how that was happening proved difficult to envision. People, I think, tend to devise death as a gradual loss of heat; the gleam retracted from every corner, pulled to a wick within, a guttering out. Evicted, the human body turns cold. The whale’s descent was different. The whale was burning up, but we could not see the fire.
I started talking to the whale; saying soothing, hackneyed things.
I had an idea of each sentence as I spoke it, round and cool as a river stone placed onto the whale. But what did the whale understand by my voice? A germane sound, inlaid with comfort, or just noise, background babble: as the wind speaks in the trees; as dogs bark, being tugged away by their owners on leashes. Do human voices sound as ethereal to the whale as whale voices sound to us? Or do we scratch and irritate the whale, a pin in the ear?
I put one hand briefly on the skin of the humpback and felt its distant heartbeat, an electrical throbbing like a refrigerated truck, sealed tight. I wanted to tap on the outside of the animal and whisper to it: Are you in there, whale? Neighbour, is that you? Life on that scale — mammalian life on that scale — so unfamiliar and familiar in turns. Oh, the alien whale. The world-bound whale. A stranger inside. I hated to watch it.
The occasional plosive rush of air, less frequent. Then, the mumbling of the tide in the tiny bays of the sea.
Why we seek contact with animals, and what we believe they give to us: these queries seem, to me, to have gained significance in recent years. Encountering a whale can occasion a rush of awe — suggesting, as it does, novel worlds hidden within our world. Animals have different ways of living with, and within, nature, being equipped with faculties unlike our own and moved by impulses we cannot resolutely apprehend. The limits of human imagination were never more concrete than in the seconds that pass, eye to eye, with another sentient organism. Why does the animal do what the animal does? The animal’s inner life is a closed book. Yet in attempting to map the varieties of intelligence and ingenuity that make a home on this planet, we enchant ourselves to think that there are more dimensions to this world, and wilder ways to experience it, than we have the scope to fully comprehend. After its lifetime, the unravelling of a whale — its enchainment all the way down to blooms of
outlandish life on the sea floor — remains a source of wonder. Animals embiggen our existence; they enliven our sense of mystery.
But awe and wonder are not the only emotions we experience, when we face up to the fauna we expect to share a future with. Something else has arisen between us. There is a kind of hauntedness in wild animals today: a spectre related to environmental change. In antiquity, people corresponded with spirits that took animate form, spirits that came from other realms and dictated moral lessons. But what is most cryptic about animals in this moment, many people suspect, are things we cannot yet gauge about our own impacts on their habitats and their bodies. The ability to identify damage is lapped by the ability to do damage. We stand in the wake of something we cannot yet comprehend. What is at the heart of an animal, governing its behaviour, may reveal itself in time not to be a compelling mystery, but instead, a shameful familiarity: the rubble of the marketplace (still displaying its trademarks), or the polluted air. Our fear is that the unseen spirits that move in them are ours. Once more, animals are a moral force. We look to wild animals to see the history of our material intimacy with remote places, and the outer edge of our compassion. We look to animals, too, to see how we might survive the world to come; and how to cohabit with other creatures there.
This book tackles what it means to pollute not just places, but organisms; and then, not ‘just’ organisms but beings, a category of creatures to which we have granted a central place in our imaginaries— whales, which we have often projected human qualities into, and personified, but which are also responsive, cognitively sophisticated animals, perhaps even capable of configuring our relation to their social worlds. It is thus an exploration of obligations to another animal, beyond attempts to merely preserve their species: what kind of sensory realities do we want to protect animals from, what sort of lives in the wild do we want to insure. This book looks at how contact with whales through tourism, captivity, and the media — has provided a remedy to people’s feelings of malaise about the natural world, and it asks what it means to desire connection, at a time when connection can entail damage to animals, or expose us to grief. The bid this book makes is for the potential of a scientifically literate imagination to allow us to better understand the sensoriums of other species, to gauge the true extent of the changing environment from perspectives other than our own. But it is also a book about where we find hope today, how we control ourselves, where commonalities can be sought with the past, and between cultures, and how to remain compassionately engaged with distant, unmet things.
Across the course of making this book, I ranged between the high art of museums and the low culture of selfies; I looked at whales cut into rock faces, whales rendered in exhaustive detail by cameras built for photographing the planets, and whales that scarcely resemble whales at all, hand-drawn on ancient maps. I encountered real whales, too. I learnt about species abundance, defaunation, endangerment, parasitism, hybridity, and evolution, and about how extinctions can be triggered without us ever meeting the disappeared species. I learnt about the sorts of whales we never see, and why that might be so: I learnt of the whale that has no name, the whale with two voices, whales with two pupils in each eye, and whales puppetted by storms on the sun. I discovered that whales have been the subjects of cuisines and conspiracies, that they have housed monsters, and do still. I learnt that we change the sounds of whales even where we do not make a noise, that humpbacks have pop songs, and that beluga have tried to speak human tongues. I learnt about whale vision, bio-sonar, and memory: human grief, human love, and interspecies recognition. I set out to draw a few lines between myself, the stories I knew about whales, and the science of our changing seas. By the time I came to the end, I understood that these connections were far from esoteric concerns. Whales, I saw, can magnify the better urgings of our nature, and renew those parts of us that are drawn, by wonder, to revise our place and our power in the natural world.
— Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms: the world in the whale (Scribe Publications)