Fathoms: The World in the Whale was a recent binge read.
The weather had turned suddenly cold and it was bleak outside. Curling up on the lounge with a throw rug and a good book was the only logical response. Rebecca Giggs was the perfect companion for such a session – engaging, personable and extremely thorough. Her writing was a bright spark, a little bit of magic and poetry on a dull day. Full of the wonder and majesty of the natural world, and the world of the whale in particular. Sadly, it was also a tale of destruction, as her research led her down a rabbit hole of death, illness, pollution and environmental degradation.
Told as narrative non-fiction, Giggs was on a personal mission to understand why whales beach themselves. She shares her journey – all the discoveries, the joys and the heartaches – to show us and to remind us how interconnected every living thing is on this planet we all inhabit.
This is the kind of non-fiction I love. It’s intimate, yet scientific; it’s lyrical and philosophical; it’s passionate and reasonable. I learnt a lot and have been left with a lot to ponder. Giggs is not able to answer all the questions she poses. This is not a flaw in the book, it’s simply a sign that we lack sufficient evidence and knowledge to fully understand another organism.
Below are my notes for future reference. I urge you to read it for yourself though. You can thank me later.
- Why do whales beach themselves?
- Natural phenomena
- the weakest in the pod? Natural selection?
- Conspiracy theories
- shooting stars, comets & meterorites?
- Naval operations & military sonar that frightens the whales
- “the assumption that deeper streams of logic undercut the frail authority of science.”
- Natural phenomena
- Why have whales started eating the wrong things?
- plastic, debris
- heavy metals, pesticides, fertilisers, PCB’s
- “Estuarine beluga in Canada had been discovered to be so noxious that their carcasses were classed as toxic waste for disposal.“
- when a whale expires mid-ocean and eventually sinks & decomposes on the descent, eaten & nibbled on by birds, fish, crabs & sharks (consuming the toxic chemicals in the whales blubber and body).
- “it is as though the whale were a pinata cracked open, flinging bright treasures“
- “over 200 different species can occupy the frame of one whale carcass.“
- “the death of a whale proves meaningful to a vibrant host of dependent creatures, even as it may look senseless from the shore”
- what happens when we “pollute not just places, but organisms“?
- petroglyphs “capturing the likeness of another creature implies an imaginative or emotional relationship that exceeds the exigencies of survival“
|Helen McGrath | Whale petroglyph Yerroulbine/Balls Head, Sydney|
- “a petroglyph denoted an intention to generate, or invite change. A petroglyph spoke to the future.“
- “Shallow, and growing ever shallower as a result of erosion, a time will come when the whale will lift out of the rock completely. Lichens stipple its head.“
- defaunation “the loss of a place’s absolute animalness…a depletion of abundance”
- what are the effects of “reducing animal populations – for those animals, their ecosystems, and the cultures that are nourished by them.”
- “One underrepresented truth of the world: things that have been removed from the past exert the pressure on the present moment, just as much as the things that persist.”
- whale ecotourism industry “we’ve come to see what we’ve saved.”
- “to contemplate our own species’ capacity for temperance. Each cetacean is an evidentiary exhibit of both human care and the resilience of wilderness.”
- John Berger (1977) Why Look at Animals?
- “People, confronted by other species, typically reactivate their self-awareness and superiority. They remember that they are, on a fundamental level, a different kind of animal from the animal they are looking at.”
- Augenblick “the feeling of a second as measured by a slow eye-blink“
- Cute aggression “a violent impulse towards pictures of adorable animals.“
- Chapter: Kitsch Interior – interspersed with examples of specific whales and what was discovered in their stomachs after they died (tracksuit pants, golf balls, surgical gloves, a plastic bucket, a car engine cover, synthetic netting, shredded balloons, dvd case, disposable cigarette lighters, rice sacks).
- “The existence of parasites makes evident the porousness, the uncontained qualities, of life; these things that move under the traction of their own will, into and out of, and across all animals.”
- “These creatures are not knowable…the parasite also inched me towards thinking of animals themselves as environments, and nature as a process….They are the shapeshifters of our Earth, blurring the edges, kicking the insides out.” Something we’ve all been reminded of this year as a virus, another unknowable creature, shapeshifted from one animal to another and kicked us from the inside out.