Save the Whale, Save Ourselves

Save the Whale, Save Ourselves

Rebecca Giggs’s Fathoms dives into the history of human-whale relations to offer a poetic account of how we might save a species we’ve failed.


In June 27, 2019, the writer Ed Yong published a story in The Atlantic with an anguishing statistic: Five North Atlantic right whales had been found dead in less than a month. Five dead represented more than 1 percent of a quickly vanishing population. Within hours of publication the story was updated to include a sixth dead whale, spotted on a surveillance flight earlier that day. Five days later, too late then to update the story, a seventh whale went missing. By the end of the summer, eight North Atlantic right whales were dead. The tragedy was outpacing the news cycle, our attention, and our appetite for grief.

No creature more perfectly encapsulates the obsessive relationship between humans and cetaceans than the North Atlantic right whale. They were hunted to the brink of extinction by the turn of the 20th century, and what remained of the species has been summarily decimated in macabre fashion—by fishing gear, vessel strikes, and the roar of ships. There are more researchers studying the whales than there are North Atlantic right whales alive today. To write about these whales is less a matter of current events than it is a notch in an archival history that people in some near and possible future—the whales may go extinct as soon as 2040—will consult to understand where it all went wrong.

In Rebecca Giggs’s searching debut, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, she displays a keen awareness of what it means to write about a creature whose future is just as uncertain as our own. After describing a 2019 hearing in which a congressman blasted an air horn to demonstrate how a North Atlantic right whale might perceive seismic testing, Giggs notes in a parenthetical remark that “411 such whales remain alive as of this writing.” The statistic almost apologizes for its inclusion, knowing too well it will soon be rendered moot.

Fathoms is a book concerned less with whales in the wild than it is with our refusal to leave them alone. Our relationship with whales is, and has always been, as Giggs sees it, a “one-sided intimacy.” They do not seek us out, however much we may wish they did. In the book’s opening scene, Giggs finds herself in a crowd, watching a whale die. It is a baby humpback, beached near Perth, Australia, and she and the group have toiled for days to push it back out to sea. As she draws closer to listen to the whale’s shuddering gasps, she stares at the animal’s lashless, midnight-colored eye. She is hoping for some kind of recognition, perhaps of its pain, of its imminent death, or of her own human presence. But the whale refuses. “I could not catch its gaze,” she writes. “It showed no sign of apprehending the presence of people, our effort or our grief.”

Before delving into the series of meditations and rabbit holes that make up Fathoms, Giggs states that her aim was to give whales a “new story,” one “that overrode the narrative of success [she’d] long been told.” The narrative in question is the whale’s comeback in the 1980s, when activists rallied to save the animals from commercial whaling, and, by extension, extinction. “Save the Whales,” the bumper stickers told us, and so we did, or so Giggs thought. Perhaps it is my age—I was born in the 1990s—but this claim about the ubiquity of this victorious narrative did not resonate with me. When I read about whales in the news, it is often because they are in danger, caught in netting, or choking with plastic. When I think of whales, I do not consider them saved.

Fathoms offers a richly sourced, complex evaluation of the modern state of whales in the hopes that we might again be inspired to save them. This project, though certainly deserving, is not groundbreaking. Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale considers our history of exploiting the sperm whale. (Even Hoare’s book, written in 2009, memorializes an extinction that occurred in the time it took to write it: not of a whale but of another cetacean, the Yangtze River dolphin.) Nick Pyenson’s Spying on Whales, though more concerned with natural history and technological monitoring, focuses on the intertwined fates of human and whale. And then there are the suite of books about killer whales—which are technically dolphins but seem to be honorary whales in the ways we have wronged them—including, but not limited to David Neiwert’s Of Orcas and Men, Jason M. Colby’s Orca, and Mark Leiren-Young’s The Killer Who Changed the World.

Although Fathoms devotes a great deal of space to the whale’s history, it is ultimately concerned with its future. Giggs is a luminous nature writer grappling with an increasingly unnatural world, deploying a sense of wonder to great success as she paints the grim present and grimmer future of the world’s whales. But wonder—in its most uncertain, astonished definition—has its limits, and an ode can quickly morph into an obituary.

Fathoms is a book about whales that includes very few of them alive and in the water. The only exceptions are two beached ones and a mother humpback Giggs ogles on a trip off the coast of Eden, Australia. The absence of up-close, wild encounters is not an elision but a conscientious choice in a book that asks us to “remain compassionately engaged with distant, unmet things.” What more would be gained by taking a boat out to trespass into some whale sanctuary in order to look another whale in the eye? Once is enough, Giggs seems to reason, and I agree.

It is in these distant encounters, musings on a stomach’s accretion of pesticides or forays into the back issues of the International Journal for Parasitology, that Giggs breathes new life into the oft-considered beast. Her wide-ranging observations are relentlessly curious and scaffolded in important research: She delves into scientific papers and 19th century newspapers, speaks with countless researchers, traces aboriginal hieroglyphs, even draws on Sianne Ngai’s theory that we may feel moved toward violence regarding things we find cute, as she analyzes a photo of tourists who killed a baby dolphin by taking selfies with it. “This must be the agony of loving the disappearing,” Giggs writes of the incident. But this might be said of Fathoms itself, in which Giggs’s descriptions sway between astonishment and grief.

Fathoms is suffused with this sickly kind of wonder, reckoning with the terrible beauty of the whale taken, used, and disassembled in history. Giggs marvels at how a glossy melon in a Victorian painting may have gained its gleam from an insecticide made with humpback oil. She tracks the sublimation of whale oil into something as mundane as margarine or intangible as a soap bubble. This awe is uncomfortable to sit with, to contemplate how much of our world was once and is still reliant on whale death.

Fathoms’s rigorous confrontation with destruction peaks in her description of a dead sperm whale found on a Spanish coast that had swallowed an entire flattened plastic greenhouse. The dead whale’s stomach contained everything one might need to garden out of season: tarps, burlap, hosepipes, rope, two flowerpots. Considering a greenhouse’s purpose as an unnatural manipulation of climate, the swallowing of one could have been a kind of protest if it hadn’t killed the poor whale.

Throughout Fathoms, Giggs’s line of thought frequently returns to the greenhouse, which functions as a refrain for the worst we could do to the whale (perhaps ironic, considering that the worst may be yet to come, in the gaseous sense of the word). Watching the baby humpback die, Giggs thinks of the greenhouse and wonders what we might owe the whale, “greater distance or more intervention?” She begins to address the humpback as she considers what might become of all this wonder: “The duty of awe was—wasn’t it—care?” she asks herself, shortly before she begins to talk to the whale, offering earnest words of comfort that she knows a whale’s ear will transmute to babble, if it can hear her at all.

Wonder can serve as a useful lens in writing about anything that we do not fully understand, treading the line between a dry, scientific description of whale anatomy and an abstraction of the animal into metaphor. Giggs uses this lens to particular success in her examination of parts of the whale many of us have never seen before, such as the parasitic lice that form in sherbet-colored clusters around the whale’s callosities to feed on flakes of flesh. “There is deathliness and irascible vigor, and plurality and plunder, pushing and pulsing within each creature,” she writes.

But wonder has diminishing returns in a world increasingly devoid of it, where contemplating nature has become a luxury, and more and more people see the environment as something volatile. Mystery holds less excitement when the creatures and places we hope to understand will change irrevocably, if not vanish entirely, before we can study them. In the decades before 1985, industrial whaling stripped so many cetaceans from the sea that scientists speculate this biomass removal must have resulted in the extinctions of the creatures that rely on whale falls, boneless worms and dark clams starving from the scarcity of corpses. “No one saw this happen,” Giggs writes. “Things were lost, that is, before they were ever found.”

It is poetic to wonder at how a sperm whale could have swallowed most of a greenhouse. We might wonder how its jaws could open wide enough to swallow the gridded walls, wonder how the shards of plastic lacerated its body, or wonder which plastic ultimately killed it—the sheeting, the rope, or the flowerpot. But we do not need to wonder how a greenhouse wound up in the ocean, or rather, what conditions the plastics industry created to ensure fresh tomatoes could be grown in a desert and sold year-round at supermarkets. A more rigorous, fulfilling lens here may not be wonder, but blame.

Or perhaps, the wonder 2020 requires is a wonder turned explicitly toward a kind of care that goes beyond wishing the whale well, but that can be acted upon. If we owe, how can we repay? This is not to say that Fathoms should have petered out from poetry into something like solutions journalism, but wonder seems to me a fitting lens to turn toward the people working to save them. Isn’t organizing awe-inspiring, teeming crowds of protests as spectacular as a whale fall?

Near the end of the book, Giggs divulges that as she put final touches on Fathoms, the whale-watching town of Eden evacuated and took shelter on the wharf as eastern Australia experienced its worst-ever bushfire season. She notes her shock at how one billion animals died in the weeks of the bushfire, compared with the hundred years it took to kill 3 million cetaceans in the 20th century—a devastation that likely will become a book of its own.

We should still hold out hope for the whale, Giggs argues, because it “reminds us of our collective ability to control ourselves, and our part in a planetary ecology.”

This reasoning is simplistic. It places undue weight on “ourselves,” recalling marketing campaigns in the early 2000s that blamed each of us for our personal carbon footprint, shifting public blame away from the oil giants. The whale is dying not because we individuals use plastic straws or plastic shopping bags but because the machinations of capital created an unsustainable world that is punishing the whale, and many of us as well.

The organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba has described hope as a discipline, something that does not come easy and must be practiced. Unlike us, whales are conscious breathers. They breathe when they decide to. In this way, each ballooning of colossal lungs that allow them to stay submerged for hours is a sign of intent. Giggs asks us to remember to hope the way whales remember to breathe. If breathing is conscious, so must be the work of unraveling the destruction we have wrought on the world, and on the whale.

There are moments when Giggs comes close to mobilizing the reader toward action, but she favors the generation of knowledge over the prescriptive. “Could you act on behalf of the whale?” she asks, and suggests that “you identify a part of the problem that you might see change in, using the talents and the resources that you possess.” There is no one way to save the whale. But there are many ways to try, and I found myself yearning for more concrete examples of the people who untangle whales or throw them salmon or fight against the pollution that muddies waters that people rely on too. When Giggs describes, in two lines, how the Lummi Nation fed Chinook salmon to an ailing population of orcas, this act of care seemed to me one of the most wondrous parts of the book.

Perhaps there is less poetry in prescription. But it would be a shame for readers who will drink in the beauty of Fathoms to revel in the majesty of the whale, mourn its long suffering, and go on living life as usual, perhaps with a reusable tote.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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