The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mysterious lives and enduring allure of whales

Scientists say whales play a key role in the health of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press via AP)

Rebecca Giggs’s lyrical new book, “Fathoms,” begins and ends with dead whales. The first, a beached humpback juvenile, was pushed back to the sea by concerned onlookers, only to swim again to shore, where it died, Giggs writes, crushed on land by the weight of its own bones. The second, a humpback already days dead, was washed into a tidal pool outside Sydney, where it was, by turns, gawked at and grieved by a crowd of the curious.

Whales — whether dead or alive — are a spectacle. We are drawn not just by their size but by an almost spiritual allure. The gigantic creatures are stand-ins for the sea, Giggs tells us, poster children of boundlessness itself. But that boundlessness is under siege as we humans increasingly use the world’s oceans as slaughterhouses and dumping grounds.

The good news is that in an age when ocean garbage gyres are visible from space and fisheries everywhere are crashing, whales endure. Centuries of whaling — the most intensive commercial exploitation of any wild animal on Earth — decimated some populations. Yet remarkably, no commercial species of whale went extinct. The global anti-whaling movement of the 1970s led to a ban in 1982. Japan and a few other countries still retain small quotas, but the centuries-long killing spree is over.

The ban bought whales time, Giggs says, but no assured future. Sperm whales and humpback numbers have bounced back. However, new threats abound. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has acidified the oceans, killing off many krill, the shrimplike crustacean that some whale species eat. The charismatic animals are increasingly struck by ships, entangled in abandoned fishing nets and deafened by the booms of the seismic cannons used during underwater oil prospecting. They are also being poisoned by a witches brew of industrial chemicals that concentrate in their oily blubber. The two dead humpbacks that Giggs writes about needed to be treated as toxic waste, so fouled was their flesh by pollutants.

Cetaceans are an older — perhaps wiser — lineage than our own. Their very presence on Earth can seem redemptive, Giggs writes, in an age when the living world is rapidly being decimated. Moreover, whales challenge our smug anthropocentrism and belief that we have the world figured out. They have big brains, but scientists can’t say what exactly they use that prodigious brain power for. Whales are master communicators, forming “linguistic” communities whose vocalizations, in the case of humpbacks and related species, can resemble songs in their intricacy and aesthetic appeal. Still, nobody is sure what the songs mean or why whales sing them.

Other common behaviors are equally enigmatic. In one of the most ecstatic passages in the book, Giggs describes seeing a pod breaching during a whale-watching cruise. “Are the whales leaping? Leaping! How many? Three, four whales. We are gaining on them. . . . We can see the humpbacks sending up great crescents of salt water, slamming their bulk, over and over, against the sea’s surface.”

She confesses to being rattled by the sheer destructive power of these truck-size mammals crashing back to the waves — “like witnessing a demolition from afar.” Why do they do it? One biologist speculates that these leaps dislodge barnacles and other freeloaders from whales’ skins. Another suggests that the thunderous slapping is a way one pod communicates with others nearby. But Giggs wonders if the whales are simply being playful, reveling in their implausible — if momentary — mastery of gravity.

Who are these animals that appear so unlike us, yet are as playful and communicative as we are? Whale mothers breastfeed their young with milk dyed pink by their diet of krill. They are demonstrably affectionate with their babies and typically gentle with humans who cross their paths. They appraise us with basketball-size, unblinking eyes, seeming to peer into our depths and read us, Giggs reports of her own encounter with the dying humpback.

Ecologists are discovering the critical role that whales play in the life of the oceans and even, surprisingly, in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, Giggs reports. Their manure fertilizes plankton, and the turbulence of their passage pushes these tiny plants closer to the sunlit surface where they thrive. Plankton absorb carbon dioxide, sequestering carbon at the bottom of the sea when they die, and they emit more than twice as much oxygen as all the rainforests on the planet. “Each whale has been calculated to be worth more than a thousand trees in terms of carbon absorption,” Giggs writes. Protecting whales may be one of the best things that we can do to put the brake on climate change.

Facts like these are eye-opening. But the book shines most brightly in its poetry. A whale sneezing sounds like “a roll-up door slamming,” descending krill are “jerky as little cocktail umbrellas.” Giggs’s writing has an old-fashioned lushness and elaborateness of thought. Still, all that rich language and the author’s meandering philosophical reflections on subjects from parasites to the history of taxonomy can make for slow reading and seem at times to be diversions from the main subject. Also, Giggs focuses too much, for my tastes, on the dying and decomposition of whales and not enough on describing living animals. I wanted more stories about how whales interact with one another and with us.

This is not the book for those kinds of anecdotes. But its finest passages — and they are many — awaken a sense of wonder. That other lives as marvelous and mysterious as these still exist is, for the moment at least, a reason to celebrate.


The World in the Whale

By Rebecca Giggs

Simon & Schuster.
340 pp. $27