Peter Wayne Moe | Longreads | February 2022 | 22 minutes (5,932 words)
I’m walking with my dog and the phone rings. It’s Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for Cascadia Research Collective. “A whale washed ashore an hour south of Seattle,” she says. “Do you want it?”
I’ve been waiting two years for her call. Alongside Rus Higley, a marine biologist and director of Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center, I’m leading an effort to hang a whale skeleton in the science building at Seattle Pacific University, where I teach writing classes.
Higley has built two other whales. He has the experience I, an English professor, lack. I came to this project out of a childhood love of whales and a scholarly interest in Moby-Dick. These animals we rarely see in full — a fluke here, a rostrum there — animals whose lives are lived out of view. They are the largest creatures to have ever lived on Earth, and we don’t even know how many species of them there are.
Higley and I had made a plan to retrieve, clean, and then build the skeleton, but the one missing piece was the whale itself. The state called me each time one washed ashore. I had to say no to the 52-foot fin whale (our building isn’t big enough), no to a gray out on the peninsula; I didn’t think I could get volunteers to drive nine hours to flense it. There was a humpback a year earlier — too long; its 15-foot pectoral fins wouldn’t fit in our lobby — and another gray up north, also too long.
While Huggins and I talk, Higley calls. I switch lines, confer with him. Before we can say yes to this one we need to see if the whale will fit in Eaton Hall. As Higley says, “We need to lay eyes on it.”
The whale is on Longbranch Beach at the southern end of the Kitsap Peninsula, a Republican stronghold in left-leaning Washington. (Faded election signs tacked on evergreens plea, “Save the KP. Stop HRC.”) A crowd has gathered. Three girls — one in a sparkled cone hat with tassels — and their parents, the five of them on a birthday beach walk, had found the whale. A dog runs the shore, but mine stays in the car. I don’t want to wash whale from her fur; it smells of brine, fish, digestion, rancid oil, and Death. Some neighbors come down; whales are an attraction, dead or alive. The girls collect driftwood to build a memorial.
The whale’s ribs jut out, skin over them as a blanket over knees. Part of its fluke has torn away, and there are orca teeth marks along its flanks and under its jaw. Blood streams from the blowhole. I’m surprised — though I shouldn’t be; whales are mammals — to see hair. 1.5 inches long, blonde, stiff like a broom. Whale lice swarm the body. They range in size from a dime to a silver dollar, pink crustaceans, their mandibles latching into the corpse. I pry one off with my pocket knife. The skin tears. The whale doesn’t yet smell. That will come later, once the necropsy opens its flesh.
Higley’s red-brown beard shows some gray. He wears a skull cap and a black denim jacket, jeans, hiking boots. He lays the rope he’d told me to bring on top of the whale from tail to snout. He then lays that same rope on the beach and measures it. “907 cm,” he says. “Almost 30 feet. It’ll fit.”
“How long do they get?” one of the girls asks.
Higley steps into a role he knows well. “48, 50 feet.”
“How much do they weigh?”
“How do they eat?”
Higley reaches into the whale’s mouth and tugs on the lower lip. It’s stiff. “Peter, give me a hand here,” he says, and together we pull down. “This is how,” Higley says, running his fingers along the baleen. The parents come closer, looking over their kids’ shoulders.
While my wife and I inspect the whale’s mottled flanks, our 2-year-old sits near the trees, dropping pebbles into his lap one at a time. Higley walks toward and then past him to a stump. I follow. “Dead whales sometimes fill with gas,” he tells me. “Then they float away. We don’t want to lose your whale.” Higley’s friend (a geologist who knows his knots) lashes the rope around the tree, then we walk back to the whale. “Lift the tail,” Higley says. I can’t. Dead weight. We stand in ankle-deep water and lift together while the geologist ties more knots. We let the tail fall back to the shallows. I doubt a tree and a rope can hold a leviathan, but Higley assures me: “That whale’s not going anywhere.”
We return to the girls. One is crying. “Don’t,” Higley tells her. “It’s sad for this one whale, but the species is doing great. They’ve recovered to their historic levels. 27,000 of ’em. And this is how nature works, right? Survival of the fittest. The weak ones die.”
I know, as I hear Higley say this, that he is right. Gray whales are no longer endangered. And this is how nature works. Even so, later that night, as my wife and I lay in bed and recount the day, what strikes us most about this animal born in Baja and who had migrated to Alaska once, maybe twice, this animal whose flukes with just a few thrusts could throw its heavy body from the water, this animal expected to live 70 years, this gray whale — Eschrichtius robustus — laying on its belly, facing the shore, head on the sand and tail in the water, as if it had swum up on the beach and, out of exhaustion, gave up — its eyes are closed.
As a writing teacher, I’m struck by the language for building a whale. People talk of the articulated skeleton, of articulating a skeleton. My students and I will articulate the whale — we will build the whale as we write the whale. We will try to find the words to describe what we are doing. One of the students who built the whale, Riley Peters, wrote of this work as “re-forming” the skeleton. I think of bringing order to chaos, of forming something by pulling together disparate parts. And because I teach writing classes, what people in the field call composition, Peters’ re-forming teaches me that this whale skeleton is a composition of an entirely other sort, composition, from the Latin com– meaning “together” and the verb ponere, “to place,” these bones placed together by 158 volunteers retrieving, burying, cleaning, arranging, drilling, and finally hoisting into place this body of work.
The next day, at a farm outside Tacoma, my dad and I join the team from Cascadia Research Collective. Four boats sit on the property. Dyanna Lambourn will be leading the necropsy. She’s on a ladder pulling orange buoys from the barn attic. Her crew gathers knives and buckets. “Don’t forget the sharpening stones,” she calls from above.
Doug Sandilands is here too. He’s a whale disentangler. This year he’s already freed four from fishing lines. Two lived. He doesn’t often get opportunities to practice; tangled whales are hard to come by. Today he’s hoping to test some equipment on this dead one, hoping it might teach him something about how to save a whale. From the bed of his Chevy he pulls out the Gobbler Guillotine, an arrow that will decapitate a turkey. The tip is surrounded by razor blades. “If a whale’s wrapped in a line, and I can hit the line just right with this,” Sandilands says, holding up the arrow, “I might be able to snap it.” The Gobbler Guillotine will leave a wound, but that’s better than the whale dying.
We collect our gear and drive to the beach. The tide is out. We carry picnic tables, garbage bags, coolers, and cardboard boxes full of tools across a neighbor’s yard, down an overgrown path, through trees, and onto the shore. The necropsy team setting up, Sandilands unties the whale from the tree and wraps the rope around its head multiple times. He then opens a black suitcase and assembles a crossbow. As he does, Huggins slices into the whale. On the beach are sheets of what looks like a tarp. I pick one up — black, translucent. Whale skin. I tear some off and slip it into my notebook, dampening the pages.
On the beach are sheets of what looks like a tarp. I pick one up — black, translucent. Whale skin. I tear some off and slip it into my notebook, dampening the pages.
Sandilands paces 30 feet from the whale and hollers, “Everyone step away.” We do. He raises the crossbow. His first arrow skips off the whale’s back. Huggins, wearing brown hip waders, dashes into the water to get it. Sandilands nocks another arrow. This Gobbler Guillotine hits its mark, snapping the rope. “It works!” he screams, and everyone cheers at what this means for entangled whales. I ask Sandilands where he learned to shoot a crossbow. Was he in the army? Was he a sniper? “Of course not,” he says. “I’m Canadian.”
Lambourn removes an eyeball the size of a grapefruit. Huggins takes skin samples from where the killer whale teeth marks are. A biologist at my university recommended I bring vodka. “A cheap, all-purpose preservative ’til you can get back to the lab,” he said. I fill a Mason jar with it and two barnacles. One of the whale lice attaches to my finger. I watch for a moment — curious even as I am repulsed — before pulling it off and adding it to the jar.
This whale is skinny, its skull, spine, and even the phalanges in its flippers visible. The crew opens the belly and Huggins wedges her hands past blubber and ribs to sample liver and kidneys. The intestines are bright pink, coiled tight. Excreting from the gash on the whale’s side, they relax into the water, tension leaving them, organs spilling. Insides become outsides. There are many shades of red here, like those cards from the paint store, each darkened a bit more than the one next to it on the rack. And as the intestines seep out, and as the necropsy team opens them, and then opens the stomach, this is when the whale begins to smell. It’s that mixture of brine, fish, digestion, rancid oil, and Death — an aggressive smell that will clothe me for weeks after.
A biologist burrows in looking for earwax. It contains isotopes, as does the baleen, which the Makah Tribe has also taken samples of. Earwax and baleen both accumulate in layers, and by comparing isotopes layer to layer scientists can learn where the whale has swam. The isotopes can also tell us what the whale ate last month and last year. The feces can tell us what the whale ate yesterday. The National Marine Fisheries Services takes those, along with the contents of the stomach. Northwest ZooPath, also interested in diet reconstruction, takes the stomach itself. The spleen too — useful for determining overall health.
I am here for the skeleton. This whale is giving itself to us, its body with so much to teach us. Huggins keeps referring to it as “Peter’s whale.” I suppose, in a way, it is — the whale will hang in my university — but I do not think a person can (or should ever) own a whale, even though the federal permit in my pocket does put this whale’s body under my care.
Cutting in is too much for me so I am given a clipboard. The scientists report their findings; I document them. “There’s a cyst on the ventral side near the fluke,” Huggins says. I make note, then follow Lambourn to the other side of the whale. “The dorsal blubber is 6.4 cm, the lateral blubber 7.1. It should be four times that,” she tells me, squeezing the fat between her fingers. “It’s dry. Write that down.”
Huggins walks over, holding a basketball of flesh, pleased with her find. “It’s a girl.”
“Write that down too,” Lambourn says. “These are her ovaries.”
“Is that a dinosaur?” This is the most common question Higley receives from visitors to Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center. They ask it upon seeing the 38-foot gray whale skeleton hanging above them. Higley built it. The question is an effort to read the bones. It’s not unlike reading any other text, the initial sense of confusion, the subsequent effort to work through it, whale bones a particular kind of figurative language.
On Friday at 5:30 a.m., videographer Joel Wiebe and I drive to a Tacoma dock and meet Captain Vernon Moore. Higley is there, coffee in hand, with Joanne Park, her third day working for him. “Don’t worry,” he tells her, “We don’t tow whales every week.”
Moore’s wearing jeans and a blue sweatshirt, white beard trimmed short. His boat, the Sea 3, at 39 feet, is the smallest surface vessel to reach 90 degrees north. She’s made 37 voyages to the Arctic. I ask if he’s ever thought about renaming her. “Definitely not.” He explains there are rituals for renaming a ship. “The Norwegians only do it on a blood moon,” he says, “and they have a virgin pee off the bow.” Moore then teaches me to walk off distance with a divider on the map. Twenty-four miles to the whale, 17 from there to the ship crane.
A few years ago, Higley tried working with the Port of Tacoma to develop a plan should a whale wash up on the waterfront. “Of course it will show up right in front of the park on Friday of Memorial Day weekend,” Higley jokes. “Then they’ll give me a call.” From the engine room below deck, Moore chimes in: “It’s easier to be reactive than proactive.”
Moore climbs back into the captain’s chair. “You know, I’ve got my grandfather’s old pump-action Winchester 1890 back home. It uses whale oil for lubricant. Nyoil.”
“We decimated the whale populations back then,” Higley responds. “But now that they’re recovering, we find them dead on beaches.” The humpbacks that washed ashore around Seattle in recent years are the first in modern history.
“It’s counterintuitive, but these strandings are a good sign,” Higley says. “They can’t die here unless they’re here.”
We find her at 47’ 11.2342 N and 122’ 47.3707 W. A sea lion circles. Some of Captain Moore’s friends arrive in a skiff — Nate, Kent, and Chewy the dog. Camera in hand, Wiebe hops into their boat to get closer to the whale. Higley puts on his scuba gear, and I throw him buoys — each holds 500 pounds, the big ones 1,500 pounds — and our tow line, rated for 42,000 pounds. The necropsy took any natural buoyancy she might have had. We’re hoping the buoys can keep the whale above water. Fat floats, but there’s hardly any on her.
After an hour-and-a-half, Higley climbs aboard the Sea 3, his wetsuit covered in whale lice. “We’re all set,” he says. His tank had enough air to last him two hours; he blew through it in 10 minutes fighting buoyancy and the whale. He held his breath to get the last buoys tied on.
The return takes four hours. Knowing we’d never make it home towing a whale against the current, Moore planned our journey so that we’d ride the outgoing tide through the Narrows. His calculations work. When we come around Fox Island, the ebbing waters pull us from four knots to six. Wiebe flies a drone for aerial footage but lands when an eagle shows too much interest. Seagulls follow us, diving into the water to pick out pieces of whale flesh, and Moore tells of another time he towed a whale for Higley. Currents took the whale and the Sea 3, turning both perpendicular to Moore’s intended course. He lost control of his ship, couldn’t bring it back to the line he wanted. “If your whale misbehaves,” he tells me, looking over his shoulder from the helm, “I’ll cut her free. Better to lose the whale than ship and crew.”
A catalog of Washington’s whale skeletons — just the assembled ones, not counting the boxes of bones stowed away in museums, schools, and federal facilities: grays at the University of Puget Sound, Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center, the Whale Museum, and the Coupeville Wharf; a Baird’s beaked whale at the Burke Museum; orcas at the Whale Museum (they have a minke calf, too) and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center; a humpback at the Foss Waterway Seaport.
To see the entire collection, you’d drive all day. A few years ago, Higley took me to a handful, pointing out what each build got right and what we’ve since learned is incorrect. It’s a literature review of sorts, this one not from books but bodies. “The trouble with building a whale,” Higley told me that afternoon, “is that no one really knows what the inside looks like.” It’s not feasible to X-ray a whale. And a necropsy doesn’t — can’t — reveal everything about how a whale’s insides look. Laying on a beach, contorted, gravity pulling tons of weight down into the sand, a whale’s body is disfigured, organs pushed this way and that, bones in positions they’d never be were the whale afloat in the ocean.
And so, on one, the vertebrae are spaced incorrectly; on another the scapulae are too high; on a third, the hyoids are upside down. Each becomes a snapshot of what we thought, at the time of its construction, a whale looked like. My whale is now part of this collection. Someday people will visit her, they will find mistakes, and her body will testify to the advancement of science.
Our whale re-formed and hanging from the ceiling, I recall something one of my students wrote while building the whale. Ellie Loran says this:
After this class I know just a little bit more about whales because I have experienced the feeling of her bones in my hands. I have sat inside her rib cage and held her flipper. I have looked into her empty eye sockets where she could once see out of. I know this whale because I have been close to her, closer than anyone will ever get to her. And yet I know nothing about her. I will never know what her last thoughts were before she passed. I will never know what she saw under the water or what she heard.
Despite her immersive work, Loran knows she knows nothing of the whale. She knows the anatomy, yes, knows facts about a gray whale’s life too. She’s carried this whale’s 518.3 pounds of bones across the room, hoisted them above her head. But Loran — and I, and anyone really — can never truly know the whale, know it in that deep, internalized sense of knowing, this a knowledge of the body, an epistemology rooted in the lived experience of another. Teacher that I am, I must concede — though I hate to — there are limits to what we can know, what we can learn.
“I spent the night with her,” Moore tells us the next morning. He had moored the whale in Gig Harbor. At 9:30 p.m., he fielded questions from the Coast Guard; two hours later he fended off kayakers threatening to cut the lines and sink the whale; at 3:00 a.m., he turned on the generator — it was cold out there on the water — and at 7:00, with Nate and Chewy, he towed the whale under the ship hoist.
With two scuba divers, multiple buoys, a lift sack, and a boom truck, we loop two straps under her. The ship crane creaks under her load. According to its scales, this emaciated whale weighs 16,000 pounds — five times my Prius. What little blubber she has folds over the straps like a belly over a pair of tight jeans. The coils of her intestines dangle from her body. A crowd, phones up, cheers when she surfaces.
The crane nestles the whale in the back of a rendering truck. We follow truck and whale to a nearby farm, where the truck raises its bed and she slithers, tail first, down the cool metal, sliding across earth as the truck pulls away, the whale settling in a slight curve, resting on her belly, flippers out. Her mouth is open.
And now the work begins. For the next six hours, some 30 volunteers — colleagues from the biology department, two theology professors, and a whole lot of science majors — will flense the whale, cutting away blubber, muscle, fat, tissue, ligaments, tendons, and cartilage until we reach bone. This is the second whale I’ve worked on. The first was three-quarters buried in a beach. The sand hid the carnage. This whale, however, displays her full body, inside and out. The dirt reddens. A particular scent fills the air. Scent is too weak a word. Odor? That, too, seems too weak. The whale is here, and so is her smell. It’s as much of a being here as the body itself, that familiar mixture of brine, fish, digestion, rancid oil, and Death only heightened in the week of decay since the necropsy.
As he’s cutting in, a volunteer announces that whenever he flenses a whale, he wants a steak. “The marbling in the muscle is so appetizing,” he says. Even though I’m a vegetarian, I do admit that it’s beautiful in a strange way, the interplay of colors, this dark red swirling around strands of white. “It’s the myoglobin,” KC tells us, “that makes muscle so pretty.” Katy says she likes to have sushi after working on a whale. Higley joins in: “I ate sushi after we towed the whale. Sushi and Pringles and berries.”
A cop stops by (a neighbor had complained about the smell) and as he’s looking on, after 40 minutes of cutting, the first bone comes out. A hip. Huggins finds it. Ribs are next, then some vertebrae. Soon a shoulder blade. The parts of the whale we don’t want — muscle, large blocks of blubber, intestines — are loaded into the dump truck to be rendered. Stan, the owner of the farm, prepares a bed of manure where we lay the bones to rest. Full of enzymes and bacteria and critters, the manure will clean the residual gore from the bones and leach out any remaining oil. The manure was donated. “I got 20 horses,” the donor said, “and they shit a lot.” My hands are in it now, shifting bones around, and compared to the whale and her smell I find the steaming manure inviting, pleasant even. It’s warm compared to this ocean-refrigerated whale’s flesh.
Elbow deep in whale guts, a colleague from my university, Eric, tells me he can remove a deer’s jaw in 20 seconds. The whale’s took him and a crew of six an hour. His enthusiasm is not unlike that of the other volunteers talking about lunch plans. These biologists are in their element. They’re pulling out body parts, naming them, counting bones, comparing samples, telling adventures from other fieldwork. This is what they’re all trained to do. Bloody as it is, I find I enjoy working among experts doing what they are experts at doing.
Bloody as it is, I find I enjoy working among experts doing what they are experts at doing.
The whale is disappearing, chunk by chunk, muscle by muscle, bone by bone, blood oozing into the dirt, other bodily fluids ground by our heels into the land. What was once 29 feet and eight tons is now six feet of spinal column volunteers work to pry apart, the rest of her buried, sunken, eaten, rendered, evaporated.
Two dozen students flense the whale today; in a year-and-a-half, another group will articulate her. It seems fitting that building a whale requires tearing it apart first. The word analysis, a word writers know well, means just that: It comes from ancient Greek — ἀναλύειν or “to loosen up” — a pulling apart, an undoing, an unloosing. Before students can compose her, this whale must first decompose.
She’d been dead 24-72 hours and was “negatively buoyant” when discovered. I know this from the Stranding and Necropsy Report. Body condition: “poor.” There is necrosis in the middle fluke notch, and a “Necrotic wound — section from linear impression distal third of maxilla, skin, and underlying tissue.” I read of an “externally visible vertebral column and rib cage,” and that the tips of her flukes and flippers are missing, torn away by orcas. The emaciation could be from “maladaptation / starvation,” though “a primary lesion in the viscera or central nervous system should also be considered possible. The viscera were in an advanced state of autolysis, and it is possible that lesions could have been masked by the autolytic event.” The report also notes a “Strange smell — not typical whale smell.” Her forestomach holds her last meal, which isn’t much; aside from a crab, wood, and a lot of what looks like green lentils, it’s empty. There is fluid inside both lungs, hemorrhaging in the blubber, edema on the kidneys. The brain, recovered during the necropsy: “mush — frozen in form.” This is the story of a malnourished calf, likely recently weaned, her mother leaving her to feed herself, the whale too weak to carry on, her death one of 216 gray whales that washed ashore along the West Coast in 2019 in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called an Unusual Mortality Event.
Three months after the flensing, Higley and I go to the farm to check on the whale. Something has disturbed her grave. One of the jawbones — six feet long, 50 pounds — has been drug into the nearby trees, some 20 feet from the rest of the whale. A bear, perhaps? The flippers have been dug up too, phalanges spread about. Stan later tells me a pack of coyotes have been in the area. I’m worried about lost bones, worried about losing the materials students will soon compose. Higley’s not. “It’s part of the story,” he says. We scour the field — a humerus is in the blackberries — and rebury the bones. As we work, a gray field mouse sticks its head out from under a vertebra.
“It’s been a rough few weeks,” I say to Higley between shovelfuls. “We had to say goodbye to my dog. Had her six years. She was my best friend.”
Higley looks down at the bones, resting his chin atop his gloved hands on the end of his shovel, and sighs. “Yeah. I know how that is.”
Just as a necropsy tells a story, skeletons do too. The vestigial hips on my whale point back to her evolutionary ancestors. Her broken and since healed vertebral processes suggest a ship strike or confrontation with another whale early in her one- to two-year life. Not fatal — the bone wouldn’t have healed if it were — but enough damage to mark the body, the body now telling the story. Our knives slashed her bones as we cut away her flesh; each bone is labeled in black Sharpie — L8 (the eighth lumbar vertebra), L9, L10, and on; our drills left holes for 3/8-inch metal rod and epoxy. The bones testify to how her skeleton arrived where it now hangs. Vertebrae on Higley’s whale have fused together, and there are bone spurs in multiple places: evidence of arthritis. How does it feel to migrate 10,000 miles round trip, up and down the West Coast, every year, with an arthritic backbone?
When Higley built that whale, his crew weighed its bones. The bones from the right side are 8% heavier than those on the left. This could suggest something about how that whale lived its life, that it was possibly right-handed — rather, right-flippered. So too, its jaw is not symmetrical. Gray whales learn to feed by imitating their mother. The mother rolls to one side (always the same side), opens wide, and takes a mouthful of sand from the ocean floor. Over decades of strain, this repeated action enlarges and bends the jawbone of that side. The calf, then, imitates the mom, its own jaw forming as hers has, the very bones of this animal speaking of its relationship to its mother.
The calf, then, imitates the mom, its own jaw forming as hers has, the very bones of this animal speaking of its relationship to its mother.
A crew of 30 arrives in December to exhume the whale, and we find on the bones what Higley calls “legacy flesh.” We set up cleaning stations. A grad student in museology keeps tally as we pull bones from the manure. A month later, students in Vertebrate Biology arrange the 250 bones. Six lay out the spinal column along the hallway floor. In another room, a student holds a rib up to her own body, imagining how this bone sat within the whale. Across the way, three students look over a mess of carpals. Another swaps radius and ulna, trying to figure out their orientation. The bones cataloged, we move them to a roof to bleach in the sun. How surreal this is, I think, to be carrying (with help) a whale skull — 200 pounds, I’d guess, longer than my dining room table — up a staircase. This project has me doing things I never imagined a writing teacher would do.
Back in the building I notice, on the floor where the students were working, bits of bone splintered off, a light dusting. Here, too, the strangeness of this moment strikes me: The person who laid this carpet decades ago likely never thought there would be whale now ground deep into its fibers.
I remember my visit, months before, to St. Anthony Chapel, the largest reliquary outside the Vatican. It sits on Pittsburgh’s Troy Hill and houses some 5,000 relics — a barb from the Crown of Thorns, teeth and hair from the saints, bone too, particles of the True Cross. As he closes the car door, my friend says, “I’ve been praying the rosary so much that the Hail Mary is in my bones.” I wonder what it means to inhabit a text such that it inhabits you.
I wonder what it means to inhabit a text such that it inhabits you.
During the tour, his son whispers to us, “Why do they save all this stuff?” The docent intervenes, asking who in the room are parents. “How many of you saved hair from your child’s first haircut? Or saved their lost teeth?” Every parent in the room nods.
“We save things to remind us of the people we love,” the docent says. “And so does the Church.”
I return to the hallway with a bowl and pick up what small pieces remain of her.
Upon seeing a skeleton, Scottish poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie writes that it was “as though the bones recalled their flesh.” That is what bones do; they are citational, their final gesture to point. Were I to come upon the bones of a whale — say, a fin whale’s remains in the dunes, its jawbone 18 feet, its skull 2,000 pounds, the bones heaped on the sand, some ribs scattered across the beach — the remains would do the same as those composed in the lobby: They’d evoke the living whale.
There are 20 in the class, students from across campus: as expected a handful of biology majors, some ecologists and physiologists too, but also an English major and two psychology majors. There’s a student from Communications, Journalism, and Film. “I just like building things,” another from Art History told me. She was one of the first to try her hand at the drill press. It runs six hours a day. In this first week of construction, we core a two-inch hole through 39 vertebrae.
As we work, the students decide not to name her. We name children and pets, they reason, and a whale is neither. They do not want the whale to be domesticated but to remain wild. A title, though, seems fitting, necessary even, and they settle on the name of the beach where she washed ashore: The Longbranch Whale.
Because he broke his arm as a child, Alex Pedersen works on the flippers. It takes him and four other students three days to build both. He’s unnerved by the experience: “I leave my marks on the bones with tools as alien to her as her world is to me, and I feel guilty.” He wrote that in an essay for the class. English professor that I am, I couldn’t resist asking these students to articulate, in writing, what it is like to articulate a whale.
Throughout the day, I notice Pedersen pulling away to write longhand, with a Blackwing, in a notebook. “I don’t want to forget what we’re doing here,” he later tells me. “Each night I let my girlfriend read my diary. There’s just too much to remember, too much to tell her. I have to write the stories.” And the stories, as Riley Peters explains in her essay, are in the bones, “the whale’s life written across her skeleton.” For Peters, the body is a book, one we read as we tend these bones.
The whale’s skull is in seven pieces, her juvenile head yet to fuse. Our six-foot drill bit barely reaches the base of the nasal cavities. “As I worked on the skull,” Olivia Winter writes, “I found a chunk of legacy flesh that had fallen from it: a weird, hard black thing that looked like the remains of something burnt in an oven.” She immediately knows what it must be: “The remnants of her brain. As I held the dime-sized chunk in my hand, I realized I was holding a memory. A part of her story.”
On Monday of the second week, we begin stringing vertebrae onto the pipe. We attach the ribs next, then the flippers, then the skull and jaw, followed by the chevrons, hips, and (finally) hyoids. These students hold body parts few people have held. There’s a sacredness in the work. In her essay, Claire Geiman tries to describe “the intimacy in holding her bones, the very bones that powered her great tail and sent her deep beneath the surface of the sea,” but she finds herself stymied: “I can’t fully explain the feel of her porous bones under my fingers, the squeaking as her vertebrae are coaxed onto the pipe, the way it feels to sit inside her sprung rib cage, knowing that I’m sitting in the location where her massive heart once beat.” It’s rare to be this close to a body. Rarer still to be inside one. And in Geiman’s efforts to find the words, I see a labor of love, a care for this body that began when I tethered it to that tree on the beach and now finds completion as the whale is composed.
But in all this, we know to raise the dead is unnatural. I share the following with my students, from Anne Carson: “A human is born by falling, as Homer says, from between the knees of its mother. To the ground. We fall again at the end; what starts on the ground will end up soaking into the ground forever.” So too whales: When a whale is born it sinks until another — called an auntie — brings it to the surface for its first breath; when a whale dies, it descends into rest as a whalefall. We have taken the role of post-mortem auntie here, catching this whale in her death, a life marked by rising to the surface rising one final time.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact checker: Julie Schwietert Collazo