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In ‘Fathoms,’ an investigation into whales reveals much about the world

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: February 6
  • Published February 6

Fathoms: The World in the Whale

By Rebecca Giggs. Simon and Schuster, 2020. 340 pages. $27.

’Fathoms: The World in the Whale, ’ by Rebecca Giggs

Giggs begins, “A few years ago, I helped push a beached humpback whale out into the sea only to witness it return and expire under its own weight on the shoreline.” This event, near her home in Australia, sent the author on a deep dive to learn all she could about whales, their place in both history and today’s troubled ocean, and what we humans might learn from them about the complexity and fragility of life.

After the whale stranding, Giggs found herself researching why and how whales die. She was shocked to learn that a sperm whale that washed up dead on the Spanish coastline had an entire hydroponic greenhouse — complete with tarps, hoses, pots, and sprayers — in its stomach, along with parts of a mattress, a coat hanger, and plastic dishwashing and ice cream tubs. This seemed to her a perfect metaphor for understanding that the comforts of human civilization — from nineteenth-century lights lit by whale oil to all the plastics and poisonous chemicals we daily dump into the ocean — end up endangering the entire planet.

As she puts it in her prologue, “...there it is, within one cavernous stomach: pollution, climate, animal welfare, wildness, commerce, the future, and the past. Inside the whale, the world.”

Giggs goes on to explore the role of the great whales in the ocean ecosystem and the many threats to them. She places them within the legacies of cultures and industries by taking readers back to their earliest reverence and exploitation by humans. She asks why commercial whaling actually accelerated in the 20th century, even as whales were nearly driven to extinction. (Between 1900-1999 more whales were killed than in all previous centuries.) The answers she finds are technological and geopolitical. She mentions, without going into detail, that today’s subsistence whaling rights were earned by Alaska’s Inupiaq people.

In one chapter, Giggs joins a whale-watching boat departing from Australia’s southeast coast. The tour eventually encounters several humpbacks including a mother and calf that closely approach the boat. Aside from describing the day’s experience — the only time she meets live whales in the wild and can look one in the eye — Giggs discusses the whale-watching industry in general and humpback ecology in particular. She also makes side trips into such areas as Sigmund Freud’s concept of an “oceanic feeling,” the anti-whaling movement, the art critic John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals,” and the decline in krill populations.

In another chapter, Giggs traces her first experiences with whales to the “cardinal whale” of her childhood — a blue whale skeleton on display at the Western Australian Museum. For her and her sister, “Like a dinosaur, for us the blue whale belonged to a category of fossils that relied on our capacity for imagination to be real at all.” She goes on to discuss the evolution of whales in general and the place blue whales — the largest animals to have ever lived on earth — hold in the ocean as well as in our imaginations. (Blue whales are thought to have once numbered more than two hundred thousand, were reduced to fewer than four hundred, and today may have grown to number two thousand.)

Another chapter, “Charisma,” explores the reasons that people are drawn to whales and other attractions of the natural world even as we alienate ourselves from actual nature and, indeed, fail to understand how our actions harm what we profess to cherish. Yet another, “Sounding,” focuses its attention on whale vocalizations and the effects of noise pollution.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter involves the author’s journey to Japan to learn about that country’s whaling traditions and its modern attitudes towards whales. A committed vegetarian, Giggs wanted “to think about that most literal internalization of whales into culinary culture and into human bodies — ingestion.” She points out that whale meat was not a mainstay of Japanese cuisine until after World War II, when America encouraged Japan to develop its whaling industry, both because its people were short on nutrition and to repurpose its naval vessels. Although the Japanese gradually turned away from eating whales — per capita annual whale meat consumption in Japan today is equivalent to a single slice of ham — the ability and right to hunt whales is still connected to ideals of self-reliance and national pride.

At the time of Gigg’s visit to Japan, the country was still conducting “scientific whaling” in Antarctica, a practice ultimately abandoned in 2019 when Japan switched its efforts to territorial waters. Giggs was able to visit the port where the just-returned Antarctica harpoon vessels and their immense factory ship were open to the public for a single day. There, she managed to board one of the ships to look around and then to attend a ceremony where she, politely, shared in some minke whale soup.

Even for readers who think they may know plenty about whales and whaling, “Fathoms” is chock full of fascinatingly fresh information and intellectual inquiry. The research is extensive and solid, with references to scientific and literary sources and a lengthy “further reading” list. The writing itself is exact and simply beautiful, as in the description of shearwaters flashing around a boat “like knife-thrower tricks in a circus” and diving into the water, each “crowned in a diadem of bubbles.”

“Fathoms,” in the end, is an urgent call to engage with the natural world and protect that which supports life in all its realms.