Register Wednesday | June 12 | 2024
The Sum Of Its Parts A beached whale off the coast of France, circa 1900. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Sum Of Its Parts

When a blue whale dies, asks Allison LaSorda, are we grieving for the animal or ourselves?

An aerial image of a blue whale carcass that washed up on Crystal Crescent Beach arrived on my phone with a text from Noel: You could go see this. It’s near you. The photo, embedded in a news story, looked like a painting: an unmistakable whale shape, languid and whole and wrong against dark waters and pebbled shoreline

I found myself hurriedly changing into pants and arriving at the beach within minutes. The parking lot was empty and appeared as an entrance to the abyss. In central Nova Scotia, Hurricane Larry had brought in fog with its storm, and little was discernible beyond the edges of the path. A few others arrived around the same time; when we made our way onto the beach, scanning the area, an older, grey-haired man holding hands with his wife asked if I knew where the whale was. I said I didn’t, but had also arrived to see it. The path became clearer once we passed through the clouds.

A few plovers and pipers raced and foraged on the muddy first beach. Though I visited often, I’d never seen the shorebirds here—the sand is typically crowded with people, blankets, umbrellas and noise. The boardwalk and path led to the second beach, also whale-free, and as the path curved, the older man I was trailing at a respectful distance turned around and gave me a thumbs up, pointing to a small worn track, a rocky outcropping.

I could smell it before I saw it; sour and acrid, yet so close to the scent of the ocean itself. Once I climbed over the slippery rocks, I saw the ridges of the whale’s—I want to say chin, but that area extends from its lower jaw to its belly and tail—underside, ventral ridges. Upside down. A massive, U-shaped head. Strange to process. The carcass looked bloated. Pieces of its grey-blue skin seemed to have flaked away, leaving a vulnerable pink layer, like that of a picked scab, exposed on its tail. I climbed onto a rock about twenty feet away from the whale and was quickly flanked by a young couple in sweatpants and slides. The girl caught me glancing at her feet and she laughed. “I thought it was, y’know, on the beach, not on the rocks,” she said. Her boyfriend bunched his hoodie against his face to cloak the smell. 

Storm, still evident in the water. Large waves breaking over the whale’s body, its tail flukes momentarily animated as if alive, the way we’d prefer to witness it. “I’d better get a picture of you to prove we were here,” the older woman said to her husband as she tilted her phone. “I’ll put it on landscape mode.” He crouched down and smiled. “Can you see it?” He asked. He meant the dead whale. 

The blue whale is the largest animal on earth. This particular female was reported to be 25 metres long. The length of two school buses, the CBC bragged. She did not look blue. I wondered if she was young, because I expected a blue whale to be larger, as if my entire visual field wouldn’t be able to capture it. Not that I was let down, but from my distance I couldn’t sense the scale. I moved downhill and toward the water. 

A man and a French bulldog stood on a large rock, the closest dry one near the whale, and stared. The small dog was unsettled; it would look at the thing and turn away, straining against its leash and trying to pull its owner back to the path. Huge waves, a foamy wash of water, nearly crashed onto their spot. Imagine being tossed against the shoreline. Imagine being thrown against the carcass. I wanted to feel it. And what would it feel like? Soft, like the sea cucumbers I’ve held in a touch tank? Leather? Wet rubber? Skin? 

I read that the whale had been adrift for days before the tides brought it here. Wind guiding its body. Tumbling around in the shallows, I noticed a deep grey hunk of baleen, a series of thin, elastic plates in a whale’s mouth. It uses this to strain plankton, its food source, from seawater. I directed much of my young attention to marine anecdotes. Though I grew up far from any coastline, I was enraptured by below-the-surface life forms, and ocean mammals in particular; on nature programs, their characterization as gentle giants hooked into me. Still, the whale facts I can rattle off never really settle into making sense. Why does the largest mammal eat vast amounts of tiny ocean creatures? How is this the calculus of its life? How does it even exist?

In similar non-sense-making: why were we here for this spectacle? This cabinet of curiosities that is the ocean. In this part of the world, for most of us, it’s unlikely to see a whale, dead or alive. Tourists on typical Nova Scotian whale-watching voyages, for instance, might see a distant fin on the ocean horizon, maybe a tail fluke that could’ve been a watery trick of the eye. French Marxist theorist Guy Debord wrote, “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” Developing this analysis, Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle generally suggests that once spectacle is taken out of direct experience, it becomes a commodity, and then, a substitute for experience. 

Planet Earth or Blue Planet, then, might be considered beautiful commodities. In certain ways, they create spectacle from established animal behaviours. Wildlife cinematographers wait decades for the most compelling footage to dramatize certain conventional life cycles: near-death experiences, mating rituals, and death itself. Aside from their stunning visuals, I wonder if such nature documentaries render themselves effective because we find appreciation inside the spectacle. Maybe we’re substituting direct experiences with nature. Maybe it’s our tendency toward anthropomorphism, projecting our own narrative experience, represented through animals. 

I wanted the “directly lived” experience of the blue whale, not its screen representation in the news online. When else would I see one (opportunistic, curious, participatory) even if it were deceased (moralistic, compelled, skeptical of the earth’s future). 

If I’d interrogated my drive to witness, I might not have left the house, but I reasoned that I showed up for more than a confirmation of my own existence. The dead whale on the beach might best be described as a disaster. While this term usually encapsulates a great loss of life, in this case, the cataclysm is contained to one gigantic being. H.L. Mencken said the word rubberneck is “almost a complete treatise on American psychology.” It feels important to us to observe and gawk at situations of interest; and what is more interesting than a disaster? That human tendency to rubberneck at car accidents may be part curiosity—a disaster-tourism-like interest in unpleasant events or things—and part fear response. We might learn something to keep ourselves safe from danger by regarding it, understanding it, and interpreting its preventability and the extent of its damage. But to look at dead animals must mean something different, right?

It’s horrifying to see a dead animal. When I observe one, typically in the form of roadkill, I cringe. I moan in sympathy, and because I’m often alone, I moan to myself: a wish for the animal to be any other way but dead. Still, my fascination compels me not to look away when I see, for example, flattened raccoons with broken jaws, unnaturally cartooned. I paused to regard a bright green snake folded upon itself on the road during a jog. My impulse was to hold it, because it was beautiful, and because I so rarely see, let alone touch, snakes. On a different route, I found a bone on the road’s gravel shoulder, which I assumed came from a local forest animal, but could easily be a dinner turkey pelvis. I pocketed it and took it home, reluctant to uncover its extraction point.

When we see a dead animal, there’s associative logic; the experience of witnessing is overdetermined by previous experiences of animal death, in life or in film. Animal bodies, to us, often exist as both real and symbolic. Wild animals—that is, ones we seldom see, and perhaps because of their rarity, ones we admire—are unencountered fixtures in “nature,” which we separate from our human goings-on. Animal death might be an occasional stand-in for nature itself: a synecdoche. A loss we cannot process. Unlike human deaths, linked to our forged relationships and esteem and memory, nature’s direct impact on us is slippery. We project tragedy when there is little room for it in animal death. But, death happens invariably, away from the spotlight of our spectatorship, where it remains neither tragic nor just: animal death is neutral.

In the days that followed the blue whale’s appearance, access to the beach was restricted, blocked off to onlookers and the whale-curious. A rumour circulated that people had been navigating the beach to touch or even climb on the whale’s carcass, so what else could marine researchers do but forbid interaction? Brought in by the hurricane storm currents, the body arrived damaged and in a state of decomposition. Because of this, researchers at the Marine Animal Response Society were not able to undertake a necropsy and understand why it had died. This why, it seems, bothers us more than being unable to witness the whale’s body for ourselves.

Were we, the dead-whale watchers, voyeurs? Did we care, or were we enacting some neutral observation? Was her death ours to process? Should we have felt responsible for our participation in systems that let this happen? Whatever the answer, what I seemed to be ignoring was that among whoever saw the whale’s corpse, its death, the ethics would metabolize differently. “Witnessing takes us beyond recognition to the affective and imaginative dimensions of experience, which must be added to the politics of recognition,” writes American philosopher Kelly Oliver. “It requires a commitment to what Jacques Derrida calls ‘hyperbolic ethics,’ an ethics of impossible responsibilities for what we do not and cannot recognize.”

There is no lack of photographic or media coverage of endangered whales or beached whales, and there is often public outcry, and yet this is a type of horror that is witnessed passively, continuously, that onlookers feel largely helpless to prevent. Whales are struck by boats and large shipping vessels regularly and are known to beach themselves to escape sonar, used by militaries to detect submarines. This low-frequency active sonar is the loudest sound ever put into the ocean and has caused mass strandings and animal death. Mass strandings, such as that of fourteen beaked whales in the Canary Islands in the early 2000s, coincided with naval exercises with mid-frequency active sonar. These stranding events ceased after a ban on sonar in the region. 

We decide upon disasters. Dead whales, of the sort that are observed by humans, are not unusual—and whale carcasses are that much more fascinating without the panic and potential heroism that coincides with beached, still-suffering whales. The fact of a whale’s body just appears, interrupts, and disrupts. In 2021, two fin whales were struck off the coast of San Diego as the US Navy and the Royal Australian Navy conducted missile exercises in Southern Californian waters. From the Los Angeles Times: “The bodies of both whales then remained wrapped around the ship’s bow, held in place by pressure as the boat moved forward. The carcasses surfaced when the ship finally stopped.”

Slacks Cove, New Brunswick, saw a sei whale stranded and distressed on the beach in 2008. Later, it died. A group of artists who had encountered the whale in its agony created a tribute performance, replicating the whale from found beach materials. “We were the first to witness the whale there in the cove,” artist Helen Pridmore said. “It was very traumatic.” I note her insistence on witnessing. Even from artists, who tend to transmute first-hand experience to be reexperienced by others, there was a claim at stake. A disaster, Elisa Gabbert writes, “must not only blindside us, but be witnessed, and re-witnessed, in public.” Was this particular art project a tribute or an exercise in sharing trauma? 

In June of 2021, a dead grey whale washed up on one of San Francisco’s most popular beaches. A whale’s carcass, bloated as gasses build up inside, can act like a sail as wind hits the whale’s enlarged surface area. This gas that develops during the decomposition process can also cause explosions. In a famous ordeal in 1970, Oregon’s department of transportation (an organization unfamiliar with the biological underpinnings of whales, to be fair) used dynamite in an attempt to dispose of a washed-up sperm whale, but the explosion scattered whale flesh and blubber up to 402 metres away. A car windshield was crushed, spectators were disturbed and disgusted, and the clean-up became much more complex. Clearly, we’re unsure how to handle the putrid spectacle of death, the insistence and materiality of it.

From my rental in Sambro Creek, I read news articles warning of conditions at the nearby beach. The blue whale decomposed in the water for several days before crews of researchers moved it inland. Its blubber had coated the coastal rocks. The word debris comes from the French debriser: to break down. It strikes me that what might be most unsettling about a dead animal is how quickly a magnificent living thing can become debris, rubbish; components and attributes, a hazardous shape on the coast. 

Researchers removed the blue whale’s parts: one of her eyeballs, bones (which might go on display in a museum), blubber, and baleen. These investigations for conservation research, to learn more about the rare whale species itself and to further ascertain what might have led to the whale’s death, are extremely expensive. The carcass was to be tested for hormones—did the whale ever become pregnant or birth a calf? Was she stressed, her body laced with whale cortisol? When I was there, her body looked uncomfortable against the edges of the beach. A scientist described the death of the blue whale as a great loss, this one perhaps more so since she may have been a reproducing female. Think of the other endangered whales she could’ve birthed. Think of the tenuous future of our oceans.

Natural history museums host dead animals, taxidermied and posed in their specimen-specific perfection against a geographically accurate diorama; we see deep jungle and arctic beasts up close, animated by light, glass, and unseen wires and fluids that suspend a carcass to animate-level representation. Most of these displays are attempts to illustrate ecosystems, and perhaps to encourage care for something we’d seldom encounter. Do we care more when confronted?

It feels different when an animal that usually remains hidden and inaccessible suddenly surfaces. John Berger writes that to look at an animal is to look across “an abyss of non-comprehension.” The dead blue whale swayed in the ocean, pummeled by weather. Secrets laid bare. At Crystal Crescent, when the retirees had made their way off the beach, and the couple and the man and dog had retreated toward a different path, I wished I were alone, but more people were arriving to see the whale. I wished for solitude so I could cry, because while we were fortunate to see this creature’s remains, we’d lost something. 

The way fog hovered and settled made each point at the beach feel like a private room—where coastline usually offers wide, contemplative horizons, this day’s felt compacted. 

Partially, my impulse to cry was an excuse. A disaster, an epic loss, engulfs all other losses. I had other losses to pile onto this creature. So it isn’t the whale herself I wanted to mourn, exactly, but the other limitless tragedies climate crisis will lead to, and more discreetly, what the whale figures in one’s imagination: depths, mystery, wildness, derivations of meaning which abruptly or slowly turn from concept to object. 

I didn’t weep. I made room for the wandering groups who’d come for the whale; a woman carrying her baby, teenagers, and single men. Trying to find a new way back, I walked what looked like a worn path through low shrubs, moisture hanging from rosehips and seeping through my sneakers. The day, like many days, promised unseasonable heat. Brush became dense. I thought the way would clear, but I found more, and thornier, bushes. So I backtracked to the viewpoint, the deceased whale, and balanced on rocks to maneuver around gaping strangers. 

In internet searches for blue whales, I found 52 Blue, a whale who sang with distinct vocalizations. As the US Navy and researchers tracked 52 Blue, they never detected other whales around him. He seemed to be alone. Headlines proliferated about this “lonely” whale, and across social media people connected their own suffering to what they perceived as his. I read another article about orcas attacking a blue whale—and not for food. National Geographic said the killer whales may have harassed and startled the larger whale for fun. Orcas apparently enjoy the process of torture for its own sake. This is a quality I’m resistant to assign to whales. They’re supposed to be tender, graceful, perhaps aspirational. But maybe along with great intelligence they acquire a degree of humanlike cruelty.

Soon after I’d returned from the beach,  Noel came over and I showed him the videos on my phone from my own witnessing of the blue whale body. My I was there impulse on display. I warned him that the images were gruesome. “I can’t believe how big it is,” he said. I sent the same photos to my mother, and she’d replied How sad ☹. I thought about sending the evidence of my experience elsewhere, but it felt insensitive both to the creature and to the potential recipients. Who wants to see a dead whale suddenly materialize in their notifications? Wish you were here

Whales are more special than other animals. They exist mostly in our imaginations. That is, few of us have seen a whale in the wild. Some of us have had chance encounters at sea; some others have seen smaller cetacean faces through tinted glass in depressing pens and aquariums. Whales are the stars of our nature documentaries. They sing, they’re brilliant and threatened. They might even grieve. There are fewer and fewer of them. They’re not easy to comprehend. 

Noel told me about a picture book he had as a child, with illustrations of the world’s most incredible animals. The blue whale took up a two-page spread, maybe even required unfolding a page to illustrate its hugeness. As a boy, Noel had been frightened by the creature to the extent that he marked the book’s pages in order to avoid the blue whale while leafing through. The ungraspable size, the ocean obscurity, that something so large existed on this same planet without ever being visible to him, was overwhelming. ⁂

Allison LaSorda's writing appears in Southern Humanities Review, Brick, the Walrus and Literary Hub. She lives in Halifax.