The huge body of the dead humpback whale lay silently on the beach at White Rock, BC, as if it had chosen this spacious stretch of sand as a conspicuous and welcoming place to die. Its death on June 12, 2012, seemed important, perhaps because of the great size of its corpse, perhaps because of the incongruity of such a massive shape on a flat and vacant beach.
The whale looked serene in death, like a dark grey boulder that was reverently placed there by some mysterious force from the deep ocean. As if to confirm this, its body was ringed at a respectful distance with yellow police tape. And beyond this hallowed zone stood hundreds of people who had come to witness such an enormous dying. Everyone looked solemn and thoughtful. A few talked quietly in small groups. But most simply gazed at the dead humpback, trying to comprehend the significance of this death.
Some people had placed flowers on the whale’s forehead, near its twin blowholes. The stem of three red peonies, the bouquet of mauve gentian and a single white lily turned the body of the dead whale into an honoured shrine.
This humpback, perhaps 16 metres long, weighed about 40 tonnes. It was once weightless in the gentle buoyancy of the ocean. Now the unkind pull of gravity dragged down its flesh, accentuating the bones of its skull, the curve of its ribs and the long ridge of its spine — the graceful span of its great tail fluke forever immobilized. Its two enormous pectoral flippers — always too big to be credible — were now still, one folded close to its left side and the other splayed flat on the sand. The only part of its body that looked comfortable was the forward part of the head, the rostrum. It had sunk into the huge soft pillow of its lower jaw, the elastic pouch with baleen that once filtered tonnes of water in a single minute. The long line of its closed mouth, arcing from eye to eye, formed the contented curve of resolution. Death, it seems, must even come to whales.
What does it mean for a huge thing to die? Does its heart, weighing nearly 200 kilograms and having the volume of three adult humans, shudder to a sudden stop? Whalers say that such animals can take 30 minutes to die, even with explosive harpoons. Does all the life needed to power such an animal surrender with a slow reluctance, with a special hesitancy? Is death bigger for creatures that are so big?
Perhaps this explains why hundreds of people came to witness the whale’s death. They were not being macabre or ghoulish. The whale’s dying was a rare opportunity to confront the most the persistent secret to haunt their own consciousness. Death has always escaped any description of human experience. It is the black void from which no words or answers ever return. And this was a death “writ large”, a statement too obvious and clear to be avoided. Attending the whale’s dying was an invitation to come closer to death; it was an act of communion, and thus an opportunity to confirm their kinship with another living being.
But would they notice the death of a gnat, a grasshopper, a caterpillar or a spider? How many anonymous moths flutter to exhaustion around the hot light of a night bulb? How many summer bugs spatter on the windshield of a speeding car without a moment’s concern from the driver? Industrial fishing of the oceans drags millions of tonnes of individual fish to the decks of trawlers where they each flap frantically and drown slowly in the terrible air. When a forest is cut down and bulldozed for a road, a building or a parking lot, a complex and living civilization of plants, animals, insects and fungi dies. Thousands of whales, as large and noble as the one on White Rock’s beach, are hunted and killed yearly. So much dying dissolves into a turmoil of death so large that human concern is easily numbed by its enormity. Of all the species that ever existed on Earth, 99.9 percent are now extinct. For the 7 billion people who are presently alive on our planet, an estimated 100 billion of their forebears have died.
Death is so common that we can easily become inured to it. So we learn to avoid it with a dismissive indifference. Or we deliberately separate ourselves from it — abattoirs do not have glass walls. The ethical implications of killing, cutting and mincing flesh are avoided by silence and sanitized with styrofoam trays, plastic wrap and the hygienics of cheerful merchandising. Feigned ignorance is supposed to absolve us of discomfort. Selective innocence is supposed to lighten the burden of caring. Meanwhile, the impersonality we give to our technology is supposed to cast a spell of forgiveness that absolves it and ourselves of all the death it causes.
Death, of course, is natural. But the seven billion of us crowded onto this rare planet wreak havoc on the living ecologies that vitalize it with diversity and mystery. We terrorize life with our energized machines and their incessant hyperactivity. We would prefer not to notice this affront to nature so we dismiss their sinister work as normal, as necessary growth, as important development. And we diminish the opportunity to notice by continuing to bulldoze, build, industrialize and urbanize — more than half of humanity now lives in cities, increasingly isolated from the destructive consequences of our actions.
This is why hundreds of people came to witness the death of the humpback whale on White Rock’s sandy beach. As a symbol of their caring, concern and vulnerability, they placed flowers on its great corpse. They gathered to meet and confront such an enormous dying because it was too large and conspicuous to avoid. The whale’s death forcibly reminded them of the spreading shadow of a civilization so large and consuming that it often seems unstoppable and overwhelming. The crowds were not only somber and thoughtful for the whale but for themselves, for the future of their children, and for the future of all the other living things that will make the same haunting journey.