Whaling Off the Coast of California; a chalk drawing


‘Whaling Off the Coast of California’; chalk drawing by a ship’s mate on the Joseph Grinnell, circa 1860

Nine years ago, mid-August, I was riding in a small open boat in the Quirimbas Archipelago, just off the coast of Mozambique. We were looking for whales. After running across the turquoise shoals to a deeper channel, the boat slowed and the pilot idled the motor. I remember thinking how odd it seemed to expect to see a whale in such a vast expanse of water. I felt absurdly like Melville’s Redburn: “A whale! Think of it! whales close to me.” But after a while we saw in the distance a sudden darkness on the surface—a low skerry of whale flesh—and a biological mist above it. Behind me, seated squarely amidships, a young Italian woman began to say to herself—to sing, really—balena, balena, balena, balena, balena

Time passed. Suddenly, off the starboard bow, perhaps a half-dozen whale-lengths away, two humpbacks breached, mother and calf, side by side. There was a long pause, and they breached again—pause—and again. The song—balena, balena, balena, balena—rose to a new pitch, a new intensity, half incantation, half ululation. Then the water effaced itself and went still. Slowly the feeling in the boat tipped toward a sense of inevitability, a reluctant, if joyful, acceptance of blank ocean. The whales had gone. But balena, balena, balena went on, softly, all the way back to the dock. I can hear it now in my mind’s ear, more clearly than I can picture those humpbacks. I think of it as a kind of whalesong, not produced by whales but caused by them: a resonance set up in one organism—Homo sapiens—by the presence of an organism of a different species, Megaptera novaeangliae.

Were those two whales, mother and calf, aware of us? Yes, I’d say, though surely without the elation we humans felt. Just how they might have been aware of us—what awareness might look like in a whale—is an undecided question having to do with cetacean physiology and the complexities of the aquatic environment, including its acoustic properties. (The most discernible thing about us may have been the thrum of our motor.) How human awareness works is also an undecided question, and not only because the price we often pay for consciousness is inattention. Since that encounter in Mozambique, I’ve found myself wondering: What happens when creatures from separate species become aware of each other? Is there something there, something shared or shaped between them? Or do their sensoriums simply overlap—like car alarms setting each other off—in isolation, without reciprocity?

These are puzzling questions, scientifically and philosophically, and I worry whether they collapse into mere metaphor or describe something real, something that helps us understand the intricate biological web we belong to. I take heart in finding them examined seriously by the Australian writer Rebecca Giggs, whose Fathoms: The World in the Whale is perhaps the finest book written about whales since Moby- Dick was published 170 years ago. It’s also one of the best accounts I’ve ever read of the interaction, intended and unintended, between humans and other species—a work of genuinely literary imagination.

The long history of whaling and its eventually devastating global effects are, of course, never far from Giggs’s mind. But her main purpose is trying to comprehend the fact that whales now literally embody their increasingly polluted world. In doing so, she helps close a gap explored by Bathsheba Demuth in Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (2019).1 Analyzing nineteenth-century commercial whaling at the edge of the Arctic ice, Demuth describes the inherently capitalist separation between the flaying of cetacean bodies, the commodities derived from them—corsets, lubricants, lamp oil, etc.—and the customers who bought them. The whaling industry, she writes, “sold light to people who could burn it with no knowledge of pain.”

But coming to terms with pain is the very point of Giggs’s book. Fathoms begins, unforgettably, with a malnourished yearling humpback stranded and dying on a beach near Perth. This rare spectacle is darkly fascinating in itself—to Giggs and to many others who visited the whale—and because it makes Giggs wonder what whale death in the wild usually looks like. Her opening chapter is called “Whalefall,” a term for the long, slow descent of whales that die at sea. “For a time,” Giggs writes, “the skeleton might stay hitched to its parachute of muscle; a macabre marionette, jinking at the spine in the slight currents.” But eventually, dead whales come apart as they drift downward to the ocean floor, a kind of spring rain of cetacean morsels falling into a barely imaginable biological zone, a realm of extremophiles whose existence depends on that intermittent bounty from above.


Giggs reports that globally there may be nearly 700,000 whales “coming undone at this very moment.” In their afterlife, whales become something entirely different from the animals we yearn to know. They turn into “decomposing ecosystems that amass, pulse, twitch, and dissolve.” Depleting the oceans of living whales eventually depletes the oceans of the organisms that feed upon whale remains, which connect the surface to the profoundest depths.

For many abyssopelagic creatures—strange residents of the permanent dark like rattails, sea scuds, and the Osedax, or bone-eater—a whale is a source of transient enrichment. The same was true for humans who butchered stranded whales or hunted them in inshore waters long before global commercial whaling began in the early 1800s. But that whale on the beach near Perth, what was it? It wasn’t an auspiciously bestowed deposit of fat and protein, as it might have been for an aboriginal community in ages past. It didn’t mean the difference between abundance and a terrible, lean season. Nor was it wealth: it had no commercial value, and disposing of its body would incur hefty municipal costs. No human who came to see it would have a use for it when it finally died. Even the whale’s use for itself, so to speak, was expiring, its body crushed by gravity now that the ocean no longer supported its bulk.

Thanks to the conservation movement, which has used the charismatic behavior of whales and their songs to turn public opinion against whaling, that yearling humpback was perceived not as a monster or a commercial quarry to be killed and flensed but as a sentient creature with a unique individuality. The crowds who came to look at it regarded it with amazement and grief, and some perhaps even asked, as Giggs did, “Neighbor, is that you?” or wondered “if, and how, the animal characterized its suffering.” The whale was hyperthermic, “boiling alive in the kettle of itself,” but no one knew what exactly was killing it or why it had beached itself. As the author grimly notes, conspiracy theories abounded on the beach, “on the assumption that deeper streams of logic undercut the frail authority of science.” There is no “‘standard semantics’ of a stranded whale,”2 but if there were, the word “omen” would loom large.

Confronting that dying creature, sleeping in the dunes to watch over it, Giggs tries to open herself to the young humpback and its kind, as if a reciprocal whalesong—a balena, balena of her own—might emerge. It’s a mystical gesture. But to call it mystical hides how much it shares with the act of scientific observation: the witnessing of one’s own attention and a registering of its boundaries. “We ache to meet the limit of the human world, and to look past it,” she writes, a yearning you can feel throughout Fathoms.

Yet as she discovers, for humans there’s really no looking directly past ourselves. The heady rush of recognition fades—the voluminous surprise of seeing a whale—and there comes in its place the transcendence of contemplating your difference from the whale as a being and a species. “It felt cold. It felt cold, to us,” Giggs writes of the Australian night, while the humpback nearby was suffering from hyperthermia. That phrase, “to us,” sounds like a sudden, empathetic recognition of her own strangeness from the whale’s perspective. Sometimes the whale, in its landbound breathing, emitted “a louder rush of air that dried out to a wheeze, rubbly with unseen obstructions.” Some people took that sound as a sigh, a sign of the whale’s stoicism, but to Giggs that theory is a reminder that “we were only familiar with the human cosmology of pain.”

The question is how to escape the self-referentiality, the solipsism, of such discoveries, the tendency to end up looking at yourself when you look at nature. This is where Giggs excels. From every paradox and conundrum, from every theoretical labyrinth, she wriggles free to a new act of witnessing, a new attention, in her urge to be present to the whale expiring on the beach before her, and to whaledom itself.

It’s usual to think of attention as a kind of focus, a temporary precision of gaze. But I think of it too as a transitory porousness. That’s what Giggs seems to aspire to, for porousness—biological and environmental—is really what she’s studying. Whales of every species, like many other creatures (especially in polar regions), absorb pollutants from our highly contaminated world. These include PCBs, organophosphates, and molecular heavy metals lodged in their blubber, as well as ingested microplastics and what Giggs calls “marine impedimenta,” like the flattened plastic greenhouse found in the belly of a dead sperm whale that washed up on the coast of Spain. The world, she explains, has turned inside out—or perhaps outside in. Whales are still “a wellspring of wild wonder to us,” and yet now they “entomb the history of human enterprise within their bodies.”


What does it mean, she asks, “to pollute not just places but organisms; and then not ‘just’ organisms but beings?” As if the history of whaling weren’t enough—Giggs notes that in the twentieth century alone more whales were destroyed than “in all previous centuries”—we’ve now embedded something of human origin in the body of every whale in existence as well as every whale that will come into existence in the foreseeable future. Not a harpoon or the point of a spear but something far more insidious and ineradicable, something that every whale, on its death, will release back into the world, molecule by molecule, whether it dies on a beach, mysteriously stranded, or “naturally” at sea. “A whale in the wild,” Giggs writes, “goes on enriching our planet, ticktocking with animate energy, long after its demise.” But it’s now also true that a whale can go on poisoning our planet long after its demise, thanks to the contaminant load it carries. Pollution is no longer—if it ever was—something extra, something added to the environment. It’s now inherent in the environment and in this planet’s creatures: “To view animals as pollution is both worrisome and novel.”

There have been countless books about whaling and countless books about whales that turn out to be books about whaling. It’s the oldest story, man against nature, tales of courage and boldness and the human ability to inflict and put up with almost any amount of tyranny and suffering and cruelty in hopes of profit. All this, and then there’s the sheer ingenuity involved in turning whales—so immense and singular themselves—into an astounding diversity of products.

In the nineteenth century, Giggs notes, people “were almost constantly in contact with whale-gleaned products, in much the same way as most people today are never far from plastic objects.” We naturally think of that era as having ended long ago. After all, who now has ever smelled the burning of a spermaceti candle or worn a baleen corset? So it may come as a surprise to learn that spermaceti oil has been used in space missions and that General Motors continued to add it to “the transmission fluid of its vehicles up until 1973.”

But the story is told a little differently now than it used to be. It’s become easier to see nineteenth-century whaling as a globalizing enterprise, the working outward of capitalist energies into the Southern Ocean and the Arctic rim. Ahab is no longer quite the solitary sinner he once was, an Old Testament man in search of a private vengeance. He’s also a tool of capital, an agent of the system of global whale-capture, as are Ishmael and Queequeg and the rest of the crew of the Pequod.

And the whale oil—“thinner in viscosity than modern vegetable oil,” thirty-seven gallons of which were extracted from the blubber of an average humpback? (Humpbacks are only one of several species of whales that have been hunted commercially.) By lighting streetlamps, shops, and factory floors in an era before electricity and petroleum, Giggs writes, whale oil extended “trading hours and mercantile business into evening hours,” coaxing “industrial manufacturing and commerce into its modern shape.”

It’s easy to be so captivated by whaling and the profusion of its products that we miss its absurdity. Whales were already global—in movement, in communication, in habitat. And the better we understand them—the more we try to grasp what whales actually do within the world and how they affect it—the more clearly we glimpse their importance in the vast planetary system of biological and chemical exchange, an importance we’ve only begun to imagine and quantify. Because whales are outsized organisms—a mature female humpback might be fifty feet long—their effects on the system are outsized as well. I’ve mentioned the example of whalefall. As Giggs points out, a whale carcass “of forty tonnes carries, on average, two tonnes of carbon to rest beneath the sea. That much carbon would otherwise take two thousand years to accrue on the seafloor.”

In life, whales act as nutrient pumps, “feeding at depth on squid and krill, and then releasing fecal plumes—long, flocculent excretions, typically orange in color—at a shallower level,” thereby moving “great volumes of organic matter from unstirred or slower-moving lower waters up to the more rapidly mixing photic layers.” They’re agents of biological transference horizontally too, “by moving between the polar sea and ecosystems other than where they have fed—there to excrete, to lactate, to die, and otherwise input energies into coastal waters.”

As Giggs reports, Australian scientists have concluded that sperm whales—by fertilizing the ocean stream and causing turbulence as they move—accelerate the growth of plankton, which “absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen on a planetary scale.” Humpbacks have a similar effect. In other words, whales have “significantly and quantifiably affected the composition of atmospheric gases worldwide.” They aren’t merely occupants of this planet. They are shapers of it too, so much so that when it comes to mitigating climate change, “More whales!” is a reasonable rallying cry.

When a whale was killed by the crew of a nineteenth-century whaling ship, the captain usually made a terse log entry recording the weather, the latitude and longitude, and often the species, age, and sex of the whale insofar as they were understood. At least since 1851, when Matthew Maury’s “Whale Chart” was published, researchers have been using data gathered from old whaling logs to analyze cetacean populations and migration routes, as well as the patterns of the whaling voyages themselves.3 (They’re now also being used to study climate change.4) The profusion of data is extraordinary, rooted as it is in a kind of financial accounting—measured in barrels of whale oil—and in the naval tradition of accurate log-keeping.

Like the tale of whaling itself, the data is so captivating that it’s easy to forget that every data point—every record of a whale kill—is also an erasure, an unknotting of the immense but fragile web of cetacean life. Each of those records is a life now vanished, a life once linked to other lives not merely by the familiar bonds of kinship, grouping, and species—by similarities in habitat and anatomy—but also by what Giggs and her sources aren’t reluctant to call cultures and languages, a diversity of calls and customs within subgroups of a single species, as if, Giggs writes, they “belong to long-partitioned and estranged nations.” Yes, we’re looking at a form of knowledge when we examine those old whaling logs. But as always we see the body of the whale—breaching, as it were, out of the unknown past—and not the patterns that whales inscribe upon this planet and this planet inscribes upon them.

Because they speak from the midst of the slaughter, old whaling logs can’t tell us how many whales there were before commercial whaling began. And as the effort to conserve whales increased in the late twentieth century, their numbers became highly politicized—a matter to be negotiated internationally rather than determined scientifically.

But recently scientists using models of genetic diversity and rates of mutation have estimated that, as Giggs writes, “there may have been as many as six times the numbers of humpback whales, worldwide, than had been previously estimated.” What this says about oceanic fertility—the ability to support so many whales and their prey—can only be imagined, because human awareness perceives very few traces of it. As the scientist Nick Pyenson writes, in his estimable Spying on Whales (2018), we suffer from a “collective cultural amnesia about how the world once was.” From generation to generation, our idea of what’s normal in nature steadily shrinks, through population loss to defaunation to extinction. A natural world that seems full to most of us in 2021 would seem empty to our recent ancestors, and impoverished even to those of us who are living on into our late decades.

“The story of whalefall: I found it emotional,” Giggs writes. And from the very first words of Fathoms, you understand that this is a deeply personal book. Giggs, as narrator, is always more interrogative than emotive. But in her marvelous prose we can feel her pulse. As precise and wide-ranging as her research is, her prose bears almost no relation to what we conventionally call science writing or, for that matter, to nature writing. Her task, after all, is trying to open herself to echoes from a vanished and vanishing world, to ponder what happens when the mutual fittedness of adaptation begins to break apart, like a flower whose shape has evolved with a pollinator that’s since gone extinct. “There will be,” she writes, “a kind of ghostly residue: a physical communication with no visible respondent.” That ghostly residue is what you begin to feel when you consider the long-range effects of having removed so many millions of whales from the oceans.

“The world as we once knew it has of course disappeared,” Giggs writes. “Now, too, quietly, the world as we don’t know it yet—a nature we’ve barely met—slinks away.” This is the problem she leaves us with—how to know what we haven’t noticed. Historically, we’ve been so used to nature coming at us—flooding us with discoveries—that we’re having to learn new strategies to notice “when it recedes, shrinking toward extinction.”5 There’s a passage early on when Giggs, aboard a whale-watching vessel off the coast of New South Wales, comes nearly eye to eye with a female humpback. “However alive I am,” she writes, “how much more alive is she!” I know the feeling—when “the human body, that animal you own unpacified, speaks in these flashes.” Giggs feels aliveness not only in the whale that eyes her but in the Aboriginal petroglyphs of whales she describes, one of whose purposes, she suggests, “is to dilate a person’s perspective outward, to consciousness of a bigger landscape and to relatedness between animals.”

Giggs’s task isn’t merely to describe the lives of whales. It’s to notice the ongoing effects of killing so many whales so systematically. In a sense, she imagines two worlds simultaneously—the one we live in and the one where all those dead whales were allowed to go on existing, enriching their habitat in ways that are almost unimaginable now. “Things that have been removed from the past,” she writes, “exert their pressure on the present moment, just as much as the things that persist.” The particularity of what is human—as far as we know—is our ability to remember, if we make the effort: “We alone have concepts of the past occupied by whales and their ancestors. We are the animals able to envision the time to come and the nature that will abide it.” The best paraphrase of this I can offer is a sentence that Jimmy Carter wrote to be carried on the spacecraft Voyager. He believed he was writing to some future intelligence, far beyond the solar system. But I prefer to think he was writing, like Giggs, to the whales: “We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” I’d add only the word again.