Elegy for a whale

This article originally appeared in the final issue of Earthlines magazine, which was published in March 2017. I’m including it here with some further photos I took last Autumn, and a postscript about my recent fin whale observations in Greeland during July.

whale-eye_LOFrom way back in the dunes I can make out the pale mound of its outline behind a huddled melee of figures. At this distance it seems much less massive than the leviathan I was expecting: a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the second-largest species known to have ever lived on the planet, smaller only than the blue whale.

It’s an hour since the retreat of the tide. Bare canes form a borderless circle around the body of the whale – I suppose the rising waters washed away previous attempts to cordon people off – conferring an esoteric Seahenge element of ritual upon this usually lonely Norfolk beach. I approach with trepidation, surprised when no one prevents me from walking right up to where she lies.

She. I learn later that the whale is female. An immature animal 13 metres in length. She had come to rest here on the fringe of the North Sea the day before, lying parallel to the waves that are breaking 50-metres distant, her starboard to the sky. Her mouth is half agape, her right eye half closed. The point of her jaw is obscured, pressed into a claret-filled hollow in the sand. It is all quite visceral and overwhelming.

whale-wideLOExcluding skeletons in museums, I have never seen a dead whale before. Earlier in the year several sperm whales were beached a little further west of here, around the coastline of The Wash. I contemplated going to look at them, to appreciate fully the size and grandeur of these animals I had previously observed tail-fluking and spouting off New Zealand, but decided I did not want to risk having those memories replaced with something tawdry. Today though I have given in to my morbid curiosity and am now close enough to touch a species I have witnessed with awe in the Bay of Biscay and, most memorably, beneath a sunlit midnight sky off the coast of arctic Spitsbergen.

When you watch a fin whale at sea so little of it breaks the ocean’s skin: just the top of the head and the shock of the blow – a vertical, pressure-blasted column rising up to eight metres – then a smooth arcing movement that reveals the uppermost part of the spine and the short, rear-pointing dorsal fin before it rolls under the waves; rarely any sign of the tail, and certainly no breaching of the water like you get with extravagant, show-off humpbacks. I think that the fleetingness of the encounter adds to how lucky, how mesmerising, the experience feels. Because it is luck, largely, if you happen to be focusing your binoculars on the exact section of the sea’s vastness just at the moment when a previously concealed sliver of whale happens to pop the surface.

whale-profile_LOHere though it is very different, and those underwater mysteries may be about to find resolution in the flesh. Above, her skin is pencil-grey with a hint of storm-cloud blue. Her belly is pale and etched with dark longitudinal lines. This is her ventral groove blubber, highly elastic tissue that can be expanded accordion-like during a fin whale’s gape-jawed lunge feeding, which draws in up to 70,000 litres of fish- and plankton-filled water in a single mouthful that is then filtered away through the tightly shut baleen plates, leaving behind perhaps as much as 10 kilograms of krill to digest. Up close these pleated throat grooves are beautiful, curving and sweeping along her underbelly like the caressing waves themselves.

throat-groovesLOThe baleen is attached only to the upper jaw. Its ends are feathery and brush-like – it’s hard to imagine that it is made from keratin, the same material that forms human hair and nails, or that it once was prized as ‘whalebone’ to make corsets and the ribs of parasols. The rear two-thirds of this baleen are black, with the front portion coloured cream. Fin whales are unusual among whales (and vertebrates generally) in having consistent asymmetrical colouration: the right side of the immense head before me has an off-white jaw and lower lip, while the hidden left side will match the dark shading of the rest of her back; the baleen shares this odd, two-tone pattern. Scientists are not sure why this lopsided colour scheme exists. Earlier speculation that is was some sort of adaptation to the species’ lunge-feeding technique appears not to be supported by more-recent scientific research, though interestingly, like humans, the large rorqual whales are mainly ‘right-handed’, preferring to lunge with the right sides of their bodies facing downwards. Perhaps then, the fin whale’s asymmetric patterning just is.

The icy wind blows briskly, gaining in strength by the minute. Just offshore a pair of dark-bellied brent geese, winter visitors from Siberia, are labouring westwards. Peering into the whale’s mouth the tremendous tongue is quivering, making me wonder for a moment whether she is still alive, if I should step backwards in case internal vapours are building inside her already decaying body (there have been isolated cases of whale carcasses ‘exploding’ due to an excess of intestinal gases as the process of decomposition progresses). I realise, however, that it’s just the reverberative effect of the gathering breeze. I peer into her half-closed eye: murky, about the width of my fist, it seems to gaze straight into my thoughts.

More people are here now, including two film crews and a photographer from the local media. Staff from the Holkham Estate, which owns the beach, are beginning to unwind a coil of orange binding twine around the bare posts.

A late middle-aged man saunters past, while an acquaintance hollers at him: “Big bones here for your dog!”

The dog-man grins. “It stinks!” he says.

“No, that’s me,” his friend replies.

The sands are dancing, twisting in the wind and I want to shout across to the men, to try and make them appreciate the magnificence of the creature in their midst, to move them beyond the banal. But am I any different? After all, I’m here too for the ghoulish spectacle. I try to shut out the presence of others and study the whale, a final attempt to give my visit meaning because I can see that in a few minutes we will all be asked to move. A Land Rover is now pulling up, containing scientists from London Zoo and CSIP, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigations Programme.

I examine the animal’s topside in detail. Etched onto the skin, which this close is glossy and near-black like the sea in a squall, are markings that resemble spidery runes. The uppermost layer of paper-thin flesh has, in places, peeled away to reveal narrow rows of parallel horizontal lines below.

whaleskin-runes_LOOccasional scattered gouges expose the harsh white of deeper blubber. The blowhole is not a single opening but two thin slits that form an incomplete triangle, sited just behind a ridge that runs forwards down the centre of the head. Most strikingly, about halfway along the back there is a distinct bend, an ugly unnatural angle from which point the whale’s stern, her tail stock, is noticeably wasted. The dorsal fin, often the most-telling tool when trying to identify whales at sea, is just visible through a puddle of seawater, its tip buried beneath the beach. I estimate its height to be only around a foot or so; it seems remarkably small compared to how I remember those of living, swimming animals.

Days later, after CSIP have conducted their autopsy, they post details of their findings online. The kink in the spine – the ‘abnormality’ as they refer to it – now appears to have likely been the result of a past traumatic event such as a collision with a ship. The subsequent damage to the whale’s vertebrae and surrounding tissues would have limited the range of movement in her tail, causing progressive muscle wastage in the area. This would have lessened her ability to dive and feed, leading ultimately to starvation, stranding and death.

I do not know this though as I look down upon her, and as the orange-stringed cordon is reinstated and I am asked to retreat. All I know is that here before me is something beautiful, something poignant. An animal I want to mourn for properly but am not sure how best to. I walk away as the scientists, now wearing disposable plastic overalls, begin to stride with purpose towards her.

Little-Auk_LOAt the strandline along the base of the dunes I spot a starling-sized black-and-white bundle of feathers at my feet: it is a little auk (Alle alle), a rare storm-blown seabird from the High Arctic, another species I watched, years ago, in a northern, Spitsbergen reverie. And I am in that moment once more, with the inverted sun glinting off the blue as the midnight whale’s swept-back dorsal fin slices the water ahead of our ship. In Moby-Dick Herman Melville describes the Fin-Back as “gifted with such wondrous power and velocity in swimming, as to defy all present pursuit from man”. Here, scuttled on the wind-whipped sands, she has not been so fortunate. I will prefer not to think of her this way, but streamlined and magnificent as she cuts and lunges through the food-laden waters of the Greenland Sea, vast flocks of auks whirring above her wake.


fin-iceberg-diskoDuring a three-week trip around Greenland in July of 2017 I spent a lot of time thinking back to the previous October and the Holkham fin whale. Fin whales were the most numerous large whale that I encountered, with numbers in double figures on a couple of days. Memorably, on Disko Island, halfway up Greenland’s west coast, we were treated to a prolonged encounter with what was presumably a family group of fin whales, which fed around the ship and in front of the nearby numerous icebergs; at one point on the other side of the ship a group of humpbacks put on a similar show.

This mysterious communion, as they presented a sleek sliver of themselves to the sky, was altogether a better way to enjoy the beauty of these mesmeric leviathans than that storm-churned Norfolk beach.


(All photos © Edward Parnell)


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