In her debut book of nonfiction, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs is our mystic guide through the intertwining relationship of humans and whales, which is marked by ferocity – of both love and violence – on the human side of the ledger. Giggs shows how our impact on these majestic creatures and their cetacean cousins has been at best detrimental; and at worst, catastrophic. Whales are the animals we have culled in the largest numbers, pursuing and exploiting them across the oceans and almost to extinction.
Opening with “Whalefall”, an edited version of Giggs’s 2015 Granta essay, Fathoms is horrific, poetic and profound; a morbid dirge shot through with celestial light. As well as being an extensively researched and deeply considered study, the book is also a wunderkammer of tales that illustrate the hot mess of human aggression, obliviousness and folly. Take “cute aggression” – a violent impulse towards cute animals – as an example. Giggs describes the “tableaux of devotion” of a young La Plata dolphin surrounded by worshipping tourists at a Buenos Aires beach. In the clamour to hold the creature and to snap selfies, the tourists literally “love” the dolphin to death.
Giggs is haunted by whales and their ghosts. From a childhood rendezvous with a blue whale skeleton in the Western Australian Museum, to witnessing the slow demise of a beached humpback on her local beach boiling to death within its own blubber and crushed by the weight of its skeleton, to making eye contact with a primal-fear-inducing mother whale during a whale-watching trip, these encounters are portals for Giggs to step into the cetacean world, a threshold often marked by death at the hands of humans.
The author traces the ceremonial and traditional history of whaling among people in regions of the Earth, stretching from pole to pole, but it is the industrialised massacres of the 19th and 20th century – even well after the commercial demand for whale products had waned, replaced by synthetic materials such as plastic – that read like military “shock and awe” tactics of human domination over the natural world. The myriad ways that whale bodies were carved up to be used in products for human convenience is a catalogue of grisly wonder. Whales as meat. Whales as oil for streetlamps, printing ink and machinery lubrication. Whalebone as women’s corsets and police nightsticks, as hula hoops and springs in pocket watches. So pervasive was the use of whale products during the 19th century that it literally fuelled the Industrial Revolution.
Faded “Save the Whale” bumper stickers are a 1980s childhood memory for Giggs. The anti-whaling movement inspired the first global environmental citizens, with whales as their charismatic icons. Eventually, campaigning forced large-scale commercial whaling to end. Harpooning, flensing and boiling down whales was a gruesome and messy industry. After the slaughter ceased, whale populations began to rebound but Giggs shows this was ultimately a hollow victory. Subsequent and continuing human impact on whales is less immediately visible but equally, if not more, sinister. She writes: “No whale species was ever driven to extinction by whaling, for all its sweeping violence – but cetaceans have disappeared from the planet, already, as a result of pollution.”
For Giggs, the symbolism of a sperm whale in Spain washing up dead with an entire greenhouse in its belly proves irresistible. This metaphor for climate change leads her to uncover the ways we have disturbed the ocean’s delicate ecological web and, in doing so, altered whales’ environment, changed them at a cellular level, created the conditions for cross-species breeding, pushed them into new habitats and even shifted the pitch of their song. The indigestible and eternal scourge of plastic, the industrial flowoff of pesticides and oceans that continue to warm and acidify are all bringing whales undone. Killer whales in Puget Sound, off the Seattle coast, are Earth’s “most toxified animals”, writes Giggs, while beluga whale carcasses in Canada are “classed as toxic waste”. Inuit women, who live in one of the most isolated parts of Earth, are warned off breastfeeding because the whale meat they consume is so contaminated it poses a risk to their infants.
Fathoms is a vast book, the scale of which brings to mind the blue whale, anatomically mysterious and the largest creature to have lived. Giggs weaves together cosmological phenomena with their deep-sea reverberations to give us a book that feels universal. The chapter headings – inspired by Matthew Fontaine Maury’s 1855 The Physical Geography of the Sea, and Its Meteorology – list curious topics that create a strange poetry: “Mer-Whales Share a Smoke”, “Self-Importance of a Whale Louse”, “Kraken, Owl”, “A Beluga Passes Gravesend” and “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Cooks a Dolphin” all invite further investigation.
While she sets out to tell “a new story” about whales, Giggs wrestles with the much bigger questions of human yearning for wildness and vastness, and our moral obligation to nature in all its forms, not just charismatic megafauna such as whales. The weightiness of Giggs’s research, and her occasional drift of focus, is balanced by her bright and moving prose, which skilfully blends natural history, science, philosophy and memoir, placing her in the ranks of accomplished contemporary nature writers such as Philip Hoare, Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald.
Giggs is not without hope that we can learn from whales and understand our place in and power over the natural world, and that we can use this power to effect positive change. She calls for action: “A whale is a wonder not because it is the world’s biggest animal, but because it augments our moral capacity. A whale shows us it is possible to care for that which lies outside our immediate sphere of action … the future generations, the vulnerable people overseas, the creaturely life.” The challenge Giggs poses is, will we?
Scribe, 352pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms".
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