Whale Fall

Rebecca Giggs

A few years ago I helped push a beached humpback whale back out into the sea, only to witness it return and expire under its own weight on the sand. For the three days that it died the whale was a public attraction. People brought their children down to see it. They would stand in the surf and wave babies in pastel rompers over the whale, as if to catch the drift of an evaporating myth. The whale was black like piano wood and because it was still young, it was pink in the joints under its fins. Every few minutes it exhaled loudly and slammed its fluke against the sand – a tantrum or leverage. Its soft chest turned slack, concertinaed, when it rolled.

At first the mood was festive. People cheered every time the whale wrestled in the breakers. Efforts made to free it from a sandbar in the morning had been aided by the tide. That the whale had re-stranded, this time higher up the beach, did not portend well for its survival but so astonished were the crowd and such a marvel was the animal that immoderate hope proved difficult to quash. What the whale inspired was wonderment, a dilation of the ordinary. Everyone was talking about it, on the buses and in the delis. There were dogs on the beach held back by their owners, sweeping flat quarter-circles in the sand with their tails. How they imagined the whale – predator, prey or distant relation – was anyone’s guess, but the dogs seemed keen to get a closer look. At sunset armfuls of grease-blotted butchers’ paper, chips and battered hake were passed around. The local lifesavers distributed zip-up hoodies. Wildlife officers, who had been stand-offish with the gathering crowd, relaxed and taught some lessons on whale physiology.

‘Whales are mammals,’ they began, ‘as we are too.’ This surprised those who were accustomed to thinking of all marine animals as species of fish. They raised their eyebrows and nodded along. Cetacean – from the ancient Greek kētos, made Latinate as cetus: an order of mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. ‘Under its skin the whale is wrapped in a subcutaneous envelope of fat called blubber.’ Trying to imagine the properties of blubber I could only conjure those agar desserts sold in Asian supermarkets: opaque, calorie-rich and more rigid than their wobble suggests. While in the ocean its blubber fat insulates the whale and allows the animal to maintain a constant inner temperature. Out of the ocean, the blubber smothers it.

‘That whale has the opposite problem to hypothermia,’ the wildlife officers explained. Though we were now shivering, the whale – only metres away – was boiling alive in the kettle of itself.

A group of us slept lightly in the dunes, arrayed like question marks and commas on the white sand. Our minds cast to the cetacean huffing beyond the swale, then swooped into softer visions. I woke to the sounds of surfers arriving in the dark. Were those sharks raiding a lux channel tipped up by the moon? Hard to tell. We resolved that the whale had been washed too high on the beach for any shark to reach it. Every detail, peculiar and particular, rinsed by pewter light. Ridges in the sand. Plants like handfuls of knives. It felt cold to us.

In the morning a part of the whale that ought not to be outside of it was outside of it. A digestive organ, frilled and pale in the foam. The whale’s billiard-ball eyes tumbled in its head and its breathing sounded laboured. The sharks slid into vapour, a squinting rumour. No blood on the tideline. People stayed back from the water nonetheless. Swept slantwise, shallow waves smoothed, over-smoothed, smoothed. I palmed an ordinary shell which still sits on my window ledge. A cordon was set up. Seagulls flew down to peck avian hieroglyphs in the whale’s back. At every nip it flinched, still intensely alive and tormented.

Walking off some agitation I’d accrued watching the birds, I found one of the wildlife officers crouched a way down the beach. A blocky guy wearing wrap-around sunglasses, his jaw was set tight. The whale’s central nervous system was so large and complex, he explained, that euthanising it in the manner that one might kill a cow or an old horse was impossible. A bolt through the brain would take too long for the heart to register it; a shock to the heart wouldn’t transmit to the brain instant death. Suffering was inevitable and visible.

There came a point when strapping the whale with dynamite was the most humane option, but the clean-up afterwards – particularly when the whale had run aground on a popular public beach – was expensive. (How expensive? In time I’d look it up. Another whale, found dead nearby a few seasons hence, cost AUS$188,000 to remove. The council and the State Fisheries Department disputed who should foot the bill. ‘Because it’s a mammal, not a fish, they believe it’s not in their jurisdiction,’ said the mayor.)

The wildlife officer and I stared to the horizon. The sea mouthed our shoes. Then we walked up to his van so he could show me the shot.

‘It’s called the Green Dream,’ he said.

The needle was at least a foot long and as thick as a car aerial. A rubber tube ran to a pump container. The whole apparatus was reminiscent of something you might use to administer herbicide in the garden; so much so that the sight of it brought on a blast of greenhouse smells (mint-ammonia-smoke, trapped heat). The liquid was a fluorescent, acid green. It might work, he speculated, because the whale was only a yearling. But you wouldn’t want to get the dosage wrong. Whose was the dream, I wondered? The officer let me hold it for a minute, this ghastly prop, heavier than it looked. I pictured the whale’s many netted veins and arteries which, if you could unpick them, would extend a hundred metres down the beach like the delicate red thread from a smashed thermometer.

Later I asked, ‘Is it you who makes the decision?’ I knew he could get a legal gun instead, and use it. He held his hand crab-like on the wet sand and said nothing.

People were still eating from lunch boxes, taking phone calls and posing for photographs in front of the whale. Then someone came down from the dunes with a wreath of plaited seagrasses and pigface flowers and proposed laying it over the whale’s forehead. The surfers took a knee in prayer or shame, their wetsuits half peeled to expose tattoos of constellations and regional creeds. A toddler started to cry and the whale made a cracked, tubular noise. Everyone tightened in the chest and ribs. A few families turned away. Stillness stepped through the crowd: desperation; vigil.

I asked the wildlife officer what would happen afterwards and he told me that they’d arranged for two mechanical bobcats to come and collect the carcass. ‘Beach and bundle,’ he called it, the policy. The whale would be chainsawed in half and transported to the Tamala Park tip in Mindarie to decay amid the household waste and disused white goods. After death its putrefaction would generate yet more heat, scorching its bones and burning its organs black: if they didn’t cut it up, it would explode. Was the council concerned a dead whale would attract malingering hammerheads and thresher sharks were they to tow it back out? I was confused about why the animal was destined for the junkyard.

‘This whale is malnourished,’ he offered. ‘We don’t know why. Maybe he’s sick, maybe the mother didn’t feed it right as a calf. Maybe the whale’s consumed plastic or it’s poisoned somehow, with parasites, or too tired to eat. Looks like it’s been attacked before it beached.’ He cleaned salt spots off his sunglasses. I saw his eyes were tired. ‘Killer whales pick off the weak ones,’ he said.

A swathe of silence passed between us, gulls like asterisks overhead. ‘There’s an argument, a conservation argument, not to put a whale that’s been weeded out back in again.’

That year forty-six whales ran aground along the Western Australian coastline. The year before there had been just thirteen, and in the years that followed the number returned to the mid-teens. Spectators on the beach that day had their suspicions. A comet had flared icily over Rottnest Island the previous week. The much-adored Antarctic Blue whale skeleton in the Western Australian Museum in Perth was set to be lifted out of the roof on a crane and dismantled. (At long last, would it be returned to the sea?) Someone’s sister talked of significant and recent naval operations. And wasn’t the weather undeniably weird all the time now? An El Niño year. Bitter mention was made by many of ‘The Japanese’; of the trauma and exhaustion of whales chased by harpoons. Almost certainly, it was said by one man, the Nyungar elders predicted the humpback – that’s why they weren’t there. What was happening was sour, something dark. A bad business for the land.

I distrusted the inflection in their voices even as I too brimmed with guesswork, troubled by the whale from afar. Offered in candour these theories were conspiratorial; premised on the assumption of unspoken consensus struck on the existence of deeper streams of logic running behind the frail authority of science, biology and the wildlife officers’ superintendence of the whale. Narratives in those tones could prove no whale-beaching hypothesis to the crowd’s satisfaction. Their loyalty was to the unverifiable hunch, to intuited patterns of allegory, augury or plot. As if the whale itself, in its fleshly presence, testified to hitherto unfathomed dimensions of reality. Or so it seemed then, as the sun found its zenith and the temperature climbed.

One woman broke free from the crowd and strode into the water with the wreath in her fists overhead. She sang clearly. It took three wildlife officers to pull her off the side of the whale, kicking. She had spiritual reasons, she said. She had spiritual skills. Her fury wasn’t dignified. It was incandescent. But the whale never wore the sodden wreath.

When I searched later for reasons why humpbacks founder, I learned that in the coastal currents some whales become entangled in abandoned fishing kit or ingest trash – bags, wrappers and mesh. Because they are so well insulated by that thick layer of blubber they attract fat-soluble toxins as well, absorbing heavy metals and inorganic compounds found in pesticides, fertilizers and the other pollutants that powder the modern sea. The body of a whale is a magnifier for these insidious agrochemicals because cetaceans live a long time and accrue a toxic load from their prey. Levels build up over many seasons, making some animals far more polluted than their surrounding environment.

I read that estuarine beluga in Canada had been found to be so noxious that their carcasses were classified as toxic waste for disposal. Tissue sampling of sperm whales around the world revealed quantities of cadmium that would kill living cells in a lab. (Cadmium, a compound found in paint and industrial manufacturing, and a by-product of burning fossil fuels, causes metal fume fever, fluid in the lungs, kidney disease and cancer in humans.) The most polluted animals on the face of the earth were thought to be American killer whales in Puget Sound, a place where the starfish had been observed actually melting. The data supported a highly improbable hypothesis, even given the levels of contaminants in the area: that the whales had been chewing batteries or drinking flame retardant to supplement their marine dinners.

I thought of the humpback in the dump. The whale as landfill. It was a metaphor, and then it wasn’t.

Swirled through blubber, scientists believed these stored chemicals remained ‘metabolically inert’, which is to say they didn’t harm otherwise healthy whales because they weren’t metabolized and recirculated through the animal’s organs. The effects on humans who ate whales, however, were reportedly much more pernicious.

I read that Greenland’s Inuit women, who seasonally consume whale meat, whale skin and fat as part of a traditional diet, had been warned off beluga during pregnancy and advised to stop breastfeeding their babies altogether. These women may occupy some of the most isolated and deindustrialized regions in the world, but sustaining themselves on whales had made their bodies into sites of concentrated contamination. Nearly all the Inuit people who had been tested had levels of mercury and organochlorides that exceeded World Health Organization Standards. When a whale begins to starve, as when it is stranded, its body reverts to ketosis – breaking down blubber for energy in the absence of food. Stored toxins then cease to be dormant and are released back into the bloodstream. This can poison the whale from within, just as it harms those people who eat blighted whale meat. The humpbacks that stream along the Australian coast on their annual migrations are less likely to be afflicted with a chemical ballast as cetacean species elsewhere – these animals spend much of their life cycle in the comparatively benign Southern Ocean (though these waters are also now changing). But the fact that whales were turning up in many other places around the globe full of industrial by-products, plastic and pesticide seemed to me to cast gloom over the intangible symbolism of whales everywhere, and here.

In the weeks that followed the beaching I found myself preoccupied with an unhappy idea. Our feelings about the dying whale, what it signified and how to save it, might have been misplaced. Chiefly what we talked about, when we talked about whales, was how we’d learned to leave them in the sea, to stop taking them from the wild. This was a self-satisfied story to tell in Australia, a story that was as much about our human capacity for benevolence and awe as it was about the resilience of other species. But what if we were now taking the wildness out of the whale? If deep inside whales the indelible imprint of humans could be found, could we go on recounting the myth of their remarkable otherness, their strange, wondrous and vast animalian world? It struck me that the green dream, lethal and serene, might have been ours after all.

Here is a story I heard on the beach, about whales that die very far out to sea, perhaps of old age or ship strike. If they are not washed into shallower water by the wind and tides, their massive bodies eventually sink, and simultaneously decay as they sink; they are continuously pecked at by fish, swimming crabs, amphipods and sharks attracted to the carcass. It takes a long time. Weeks, months. Later the whale will slip below the depth where epipelagic foragers can feed off it. As the pressure compounds, the whale’s body decelerates in its fall, and putrefying gases build up in its softening tissues. It drifts past fish that no longer look like anything we might call fish, but 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. Purblind hagfish creep, jawless, pale as the liberated internal organs of other sea animals. The only sound is the tickly scrunch of brittle stars, splitting themselves in half and eating one another alive. Slowly. It is very cold. Hell’s analogue on earth. Hagfish rise to meet the carcass and tunnel in, lathering their burrows with mucus. They absorb whalish nutrients through their skin.

The whale body reaches a point where the buoyancy of its meat and organs is only tethered down by the force of its falling bones. Methane is released in minuscule bubbles. It scatters skin and sodden flesh below it, upon which grows a carpet of white worms waving upwards (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 jerkily at the spine to its parachute of muscle; a macabre marionette dangling in the slight currents. Then it drops, falls 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 a salt in the lighter layers of the sea) beats down ceaselessly. Rat-tails, devouring snails and more polychaetes appear. The bones are stripped and then fluff up with silver-white bacteria, so that it appears as if the skeleton is draped in metres of downy towelling. Years may pass, decades even, before there is nothing left except a dent that holds the dark darker.

Whales are conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to do it. Towards the end, low tide and a small group persisting, I shuffled in close to hear its irregular gasps. The whale’s eye – 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 sea?). I hovered as near as I was able to, speaking sometimes to the whale’s blowhole. What felt important in that moment was the act of seeing this through to the end, of agreeing not to leave the whale alone. Kinship, I guess, was what we proffered. Who could say if it was more or less welcome than the barbiturate injection still packed up in the van? No one clicked a cartridge into a rifle or brandished the merciful stick of explosive. Nature, as they say, would run its course. That was a phrase we trusted. We repeated it.

Inside the whale it grew hotter and hotter, though that proved difficult to imagine. We humans, I think, devise death as a gradual loss of fire; the gleam retracted from every corner, pulled to a wick within, guttering out. The whale’s descent was different. I had an idea of each sentence as I spoke it, cool and round as a stone, dropping for five minutes or longer down into the whale’s head. But what did the whale understand by my speech? A germane sound, inlaid with information, or just noise, background babble as the wind speaks in the trees, as dogs bark, being dragged off 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 whale and felt its distant heartbeat, an electrical throbbing like a refrigerator. Life on that scale – mammalian life on that scale – so unfamiliar and familiar simultaneously. Oh, the alien whale. The world-bound whale. A net of shadows spread out across the ribby sand. All of us swayed slightly on the spot. By-catch. The occasional plosive rush of air, less frequent. The mumbling of the tide in the tiny bays of the sea.


Photograph © Bryant Austin, A Mother Listens, 2006


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