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Every year, Chukchi hunters in eastern Russia harvest around 120 gray whales, and every year, several turn out to be stinky. The phrase “stinky whale” is not a euphemism, but a quasi-technical term that appears in scientific reports. Stinky whales have a pharmaceutical taint so unnatural that even dogs avoid their meat. No one knows what makes stinky whales stink; hypotheses include biotoxins and oil spills. Whatever the cause, writes Rebecca Giggs in Fathoms: The World in the Whale, her new meditation on cetaceans, stinky whales invert our understanding of pollution. Environmental contamination is not merely a medium that whales swim through, but something that, given enough exposure, they become. “To view animals as pollution,” Giggs writes, “is both worrisome and novel.”
Giggs has been puzzling over whales for years, ever since she encountered a humpback stranded on an Australian beach; wrapped in layers of insulating blubber, she realized, the creature “was boiling alive in the kettle of itself.” She was fascinated by both the people who orbited the whale—the teenagers who wanted to wreathe it in flowers, the exhausted official burdened with possibly euthanizing it—and the creature itself. Did the whale comprehend its fate? Did it feel fear? “I wanted to tap on the outside of the animal and whisper to it: ‘Are you in there, whale?’” she recalls. “Neighbor, is that you?”
Fathoms, Giggs’s lyrical and wide-ranging debut, plumbs the relationship between humans and whales, possessors of two of Earth’s most sophisticated consciousnesses. Our connection is an ancient one. Coastal Indigenous peoples around the world ate—and still eat—whale flesh, performed whale ceremonies, engraved whale petroglyphs. As commercial whaling replaced subsistence harvest, though, whales ceased to be part of a “totemic exchange,” and became a commodity of almost infinite utility in industrializing societies. Manufacturers rendered whale oil to light lamps, lubricate machinery, and spread on toast. Baleen became hairbrushes and hat brims; bones were ground into fertilizer and livestock feed. Spermaceti, a natural wax produced in the head of a sperm whale, found its way into car transmissions, missiles, even satellites.
Our forebears, Giggs notes, used “whale-gleaned products” as though they were plastics; today, our plastics are consumed by whales. The stomach of a single dead sperm whale was recently found to contain a mattress, a coat hanger, an ice-cream tub, and the trappings of a greenhouse. “The banality of household items belied their potential for a gruesome afterlife,” Giggs writes. There’s a tragic irony to this story: we no longer exploit cetaceans for corsets or soap, yet our daily lives are as inextricable from whales as ever.
There are few live whales in Fathoms. Instead, Giggs is obsessed with cetaceans as symbols. Their polluted bodies testify to our malign influence on nature; the worms that infest their guts bespeak the teeming ecosystems that “push and pulse within each creature.” Even more significant, the 20th-century campaign to save them from hunting represents our own evolution into a truly global civilization capable, at desperate moments, of multinational cooperation. “To be anti-whaling was not simply to be pro-nature, pro-wilderness: it was to be pro-worldliness,” Giggs claims. “[Whales] both revealed the extent of our power to change, and put us in touch with some loftier part of ourselves.”
Although Giggs doesn’t make the link explicit, the fight against whaling thus prefigured a later, even more challenging struggle: the one against global warming. Climate change, of course, is inflicting chaos on our coasts. Oceanfront villages have slumped into the waves; tropical newcomers have invaded cold-water fisheries. On North America’s Eastern Seaboard, warmer ocean temperatures have pumped up hurricanes like steroids injected in a bodybuilder, while higher sea levels have worsened storm surges. “Hurricanes of the future,” cautions Eric Jay Dolin in A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes, his engaging chronicle of hurricane history, “will most likely be worse than those of the past.”
That’s an ominous forecast when you consider the devastation hurricanes have already wreaked. Humanity’s entanglement with tempests is at least as deep and complex as its relationship to whales. The word hurricane comes from Caribbean languages, observes Dolin, “where native cultures attributed the region’s wild weather to the work of gods.” For the Arawak, the deities governing storms and destruction were hurakan; for the Taíno, it was juracán. European explorers quickly learned from Indigenous people that “large swells, high wispy clouds, and an ominous red sky in the morning” portended trouble. When Christopher Columbus escaped a storm by laying up his ships in a safe Hispaniola harbor, his enemies accused him of sorcery.
As colonial North America took shape, hurricanes guided its trajectory. Storms thwarted France’s attempts to claim Florida, contributed to the infamous ruin of the Jamestown colony, and even influenced the American Revolution by driving the French navy northward from the storm-tossed Caribbean to help fight the British. Like all natural disasters, hurricanes amplified racial and economic disparities. When the Lake Okeechobee hurricane drowned thousands in 1928, the 674 Black victims were dumped, unidentified, in a mass grave, “maintaining, in death, the segregation and injustice that these men and women had suffered in life.”
A Furious Sky is itself a whirlwind, leaping from Katrina to Sandy to Harvey like a roof shingle caught in a gale-force wind. Yet one theme repeatedly emerges, a persistent human failing that has cost untold lives: the inability to comprehend risk. We expect the house to withstand the winds, the storm to swerve out to sea, the levees to hold, for no other reason than that they have in the past. One paradigmatic story of hubris occurred in 1891, the year a hurricane obliterated Galveston, Texas. As the storm bore down, Isaac Cline, a foolhardy meteorologist, reassured the city that, “according to the general laws of the motions of the atmosphere,” no harm would come. The atmosphere did not oblige, and thousands died; even so, Cline later recast himself as a hero, claiming that he’d saved “some 6,000 lives” on the day of the storm. When, in 2005, President George W. Bush absurdly claimed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was doing a “heck of a job” in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he was merely continuing a timeless tradition of post-hurricane dissembling.
Stylistically, A Furious Sky and Fathoms have little in common. Dolin’s book proceeds chronologically, its unadorned prose as blunt as its powerful subject. Fathoms, by contrast, cavorts like a porpoise in a boat’s wake, darting wherever Giggs’s curiosity takes her, from the transoceanic transmission of humpback songs to the Shinto Buddhist mores that permit whale consumption in Japan. She’s most preoccupied by the odd charisma of cetaceans, and how our adoration for them can lead us to perverse places. Take the case of the La Plata dolphin calf that was effectively cuddled to death by tourists in Buenos Aires, Argentina—the tragic result of “a need to connect, so dire, that it smothers their beloved.”
Their artistic differences notwithstanding, though, Giggs and Dolin have similar concerns: namely, the oceanic forces that structure the lives of coastal humans. Once, hurricanes and whales governed our species. Whales bestowed their flesh on Indigenous hunters like beneficent deities; storms swept in to destroy our fleets with utter caprice. As Homo sapiens’ power has grown, though, the polarity of our relationship with the ocean has reversed; we have become masters as well as supplicants. Today, our plastics fill whales’ guts; our greenhouse gases fuel the hurricanes that batter us. As the La Plata dolphin would attest, nothing escapes our influence. It’s we who are the gods of the storm.
Fathoms: The World in the Whale
By Rebecca Giggs
352 pp. Simon & Schuster
A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes
By Eric Jay Dolin
432 pp. W. W. Norton & Company