Call her Wally.
Some years ago — about 15, experts say — a humpback whale was born in the Northern Pacific Ocean. In the wild and distant seas she amassed her island bulk out of sight of humans. She was, as Herman Melville once wrote, “a denizen of the deep.”
And then, one evening last summer, the whale suddenly erupted from the ocean off the coast of Newport Beach, Calif. For more than a month, the leviathan — now 45 feet in length — dazzled whale watchers with her powerful tail and playful demeanor.
Mistaking her for a male, an enamored whale watcher named her Wally after his favorite baseball player.
When another whale watcher filmed a rainbow form in her water spout, Wally became an Internet sensation.
Then, she disappeared back into the depths.
When she reemerged earlier this month, it was under much less majestic circumstances.
On June 30, Wally’s body was discovered on Dockweiler State Beach, about 50 miles north of where whale watchers had last seen her nearly a year earlier.
As planes from Los Angeles International Airport passed overhead, beach-goers stopped to gawk at the beached behemoth.
Death was not kind to the cetacean.
Bloating pushed the whale’s vagina outside her body, confusing officials and leading one local television station to refer to “the whale’s jaw-droppingly large penis.”
Her ignominious afterlife didn’t end there, however.
Wally’s roughly 40-ton corpse was towed out to sea by lifeguards only to drift back towards shore. It was towed out again, and again, and again, and again.
Each time, however, Wally returned like an ever more terrifying wraith.
Under the hot summer sun, her once sleek, dark silhouette morphed into a hideous mound of molten orange blubber. Once sought out for her beauty, she was now shunned for her overwhelming smell and appeal to sharks, which tore chunks off her rotting carcass.
On Monday, the whale’s long drawn-out degradation finally came to an unmerciful end. After Wally washed up on shore for a second and final time on Grandview Beach in Leucadia, lifeguards used chainsaws and a specially made, humongous knife to cut her into giant, gelatinous chunks. The pieces were then loaded into construction-sized dumpsters and trucked to a local landfill, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
The saga of the dead whale spanned three of the most dramatic weeks in recent memory. In the time it took for officials to take care of Wally’s body, the country witnessed the fatal police shootings of two black men, nationwide protests and then two separate deadly attacks on police by racially embittered gunmen. There was a coup in Turkey. Donald Trump named his running mate, then instantly seemed to regret it.
All the while, Wally stubbornly refused to sink or float away: a giant, stinking, rotting metaphor.
But for what?
What does a dead whale reveal about us?
The ‘Magical Humpback’
Dale Frink remembers the first time he saw Wally. She made quite the entrance.
It was June 19, 2015, and Frink was manning a whale watching tour off the coast of Newport Beach. Frink and a co-worker had spotted Wally in the distance earlier in the day, but it wasn’t until near sunset when they finally caught up to the whale.
Suddenly, Wally burst out of the water in front of them, splashing everyone on the boat, a full 25 feet away.
She did the same thing the next day, and the day after that. Wally would swim under Frink’s boat, appearing to look up at him as she passed. She slapped the water with her pectoral fins as if performing for her audience. And she played with another humpback whale as the two leviathans chased anchovies.
“After seeing this whale every day for a week we felt a need to have a name for it,” Frink wrote on his blog. “While I generally don’t care much for whale ‘nicknames,’ when you have a whale as personable as this one was … you just have to smile and give in.”
Believing the whale was male, Frink named it after one of his favorite baseball players, former California Angels first baseman Wally Joyner.
Wally the Whale was christened.
She was special, Frink told The Washington Post in an email Monday night.
“We would watch her swim underneath us seemingly engaging in her own curiosity,” he said. “I even witnessed her swim over to the boat while we were hosting a burial at sea as if to comfort the grieving family. As the ashes were spread the whale swam over and for a brief moment erased the grief in this family’s heart.”
Around that same time, another watcher captured Wally in a video that would turn the whale into an Internet sensation.
Mark Girardeau used a drone to film Wally from above. As the whale blew water from its spout, the droplets refracted the sunlight, creating a brief but wondrous rainbow.
“Magical Humpback Whale shoots rainbow,” Girardeau titled his 50-second clip.
The footage quickly gathered more than a million views online.
“That is one fabulous whale,” one viewer wrote.
“Alucinante,” or awesome, another person commented in Spanish.
In another YouTube video filmed last summer, Wally appears to surface when a little girl waves her hand.
Frink last saw Wally on Aug. 1, 2015, not far from where she first splashed him.
It was the last time anyone reported seeing her.
Alive, at least.
‘It keeps coming back’
On June 30, nearly a year after her last sighting, Wally returned to Southern California.
Like a zombie on “The Walking Dead” or the ironborn in “Game of Thrones,” she had come back — and was not going to disappear again without a struggle.
Wally washed up on a popular beach near El Segundo, in the shadow of a trailer park, just as people were preparing for the Fourth of July weekend.
Scientists weren’t sure the cause of death. As they took samples, whale watchers tried to identify the dead humpback.
Some recognized her by her tail, which was scared from a past entanglement in a fisherman’s net.
“It’s like a fingerprint,” Mark Girardeau, the man whose rainbow spout video had made Wally famous, somberly told the Orange County Register.
“I was devastated,” Frink told The Post. “I had formed an affinity for this whale and hoped she would come back for more seasons.”
Authorities, worried that the whale’s increasingly strong stench would bother beach-goers or attract sharks, debated how to dispose of the creature.
Whales die all the time, of course. Most sink to the bottom of the ocean, where their bones are picked clean by scavengers.
From time to time, however, they wash up shore, where their weight and volume pose problems for officials.
Dead whales have been buried whole, chopped up into pieces or towed out to sea.
In 1970, the town of Florence, Ore., famously decided to explode a dead whale with dynamite, setting off a shower of blubber that covered spectators and destroyed a car.
On the evening of July 1, roughly 24 hours after Wally had arrived, lifeguards at Dockweiler Beach towed her rapidly bloating body away from shore in the hope she would be swept out to sea by a current and decompose.
Instead, she came back again.
On July 6, Wally was spotted a half-mile off White Point Beach in San Pedro, according to the Daily Breeze. Lifeguards again towed her farther out to sea.
Although unwelcome on shore, Wally attracted visitors at sea. Seven great white sharks circled her body, taking huge bites out of Wally, according to Keith Poe, a shark tagger who used the dead whale as bait.
Poe got more than he bargained for, however, when his boat was bitten by a shark who apparently mistook it for the whale.
“The boat was full on attacked 7 different times over several days usually at Sunrise or sunset,” he wrote on Facebook. “They were not taste test bites they were full-on attack[s].”
On July 10, Wally floated towards shore for a third time, this time near Newport Beach.
By this time, her body was orange and bursting. Lifeguards again towed her away.
“People love nature until it’s rotting on their doorstep,” Newport Beach lifeguard Battalion Chief Mike Halphide told the Register.
Again, however, lifeguards were only able to tow Wally about 11 miles out to sea.
That wasn’t far enough to prevent it from being pulled towards shore thrice more, forcing lifeguards to tow it away from Dana Point and then San Clemente.
“Wally the whale resists final ocean resting place,” ran one headline.
“Where will Wally the dead whale go next?” asked another article that put the number of tows at six.
“This is kind of a crazy situation in that it keeps coming back,” Justin Greenman, an official from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Daily Breeze.
Greenman said that gases had built up inside Wally, turning the dead whale into something akin to a beach ball, easily pushed by the wind and currents.
“Obviously, it works better when the animal can be opened up and degassed,” he said of efforts to get rid of the unruly corpse.
She touched the lives of ‘thousands’
Like the White Whale in Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Wally’s drifting, defiant corpse became something of a Rorschach test.
Whereas Captain Ahab saw his nemesis as evil incarnate, however, some saw Wally as a hero.
“I want to die like Wally the Whale: loudly, unforgettably, and surrounded by great white sharks,” wrote one Twitter user.
I want to die like Wally the Whale: loudly, unforgettably, and surrounded by great white sharks pic.twitter.com/igo6kSx56D
— Scream Man (@kylecharhar) July 16, 2016
Whale lovers, particularly those who had seen Wally while she was still alive, meanwhile, saw the dead animal as a victim of bumbling authorities and cynical media.
“I was … very upset that media coverage was treating her passing as a sideshow and that the focus of some articles was on the bad smell left by her corpse more than the tragic passing of a beautiful animal,” Frink told The Post.
“What disturbed me was the haphazard way her body was towed back out to sea,” he added. “Our Southern California lifeguards are among the bravest individuals you will ever meet and deserve nothing but respect and admiration. However, whale carcass removal is not one of their traditional duties and should county lifeguards continue to be called upon for this service they deserve training and any additional equipment they may require.”
The tragic-comic tale of Wally the whale ultimately came to an end this weekend.
On Saturday night, an almost unrecognizable mush of skin and blubber appeared on a beach in Encinitas.
“You can smell it up to about a quarter mile away,” Encinitas Marine Safety Capt. Larry Giles told the Union-Tribune, adding that the carcass was so decomposed he was only “pretty sure” it belonged to the now infamous whale.
Wally had landed, one last time.
On Sunday, a team of lifeguards began cutting up Wally using chain saws and a specially made large knife, “like the head spade used by whalers,” the Union-Tribune reported.
Using heavy machinery, workers then loaded the blocks of now gooey blubber into dumpsters and trucked them to a landfill in Miramar.
To some, Wally had been an absurd, even humorous, distraction from a month of bullets and bloodshed. To others, she was a sign of how humans have shaped the natural world, preventing Nature from running her course.
For Frink, the man who mistakenly named her after a male baseball player, Wally was a lesson.
In hindsight, it made sense that she was female given her calm demeanor and size, he told The Post. (Female humpbacks are bigger than males.)
“She is still teaching us, even in death,” he said.
But the humpback also offered something ineffable, something akin to inspiration.
Wally “touch[ed] the lives of thousands of whale watching passengers in Newport Beach,” Frink said.
For that reason, the whale watcher said he preferred to picture her as he had first seen her, swimming free.
“R.I.P Wally the Whale,” he tweeted with a link to a photo of the whale angling out of the water and towards the sky. “I choose to remember you like this instead of lying there on that beach….”