So I want to tell you about the whale. I’m not going to to talk about the craft of writing or any of my current projects, like I do for most of my posts here. It’s just that I saw a dead whale the other day, and I’d like to tell you about it.
I’ve seen other dead whales, plus a few live ones from a distance, but never before had I seen a so very nearly fresh carcass from up close. And never before had I known the name of the deceased.
Her name was Pivot.
Pivot was a humpback whale of the northwest Atlantic, one of the most closely-studied whale populations on Earth. Scientists catalogue these whales individually, recognizing them by the unique color patterns of their tails, and document their lives as individuals, by name. Pivot was first catalogues thirteen years ago, in the Gulf of Maine. I have not been able to find out how old she was then, but somebody knows. My husband thought he’d heard that she was three to five years old when she died, which she obviously was not, but perhaps that was her age when she was named–if so, then she was a juvenile back then, no longer with her mother but not yet sexually mature. Humpbacks have surprisingly rapid lives, for such large animals, growing up and growing old only a little more slowly than horses.
Pivot was often spotted in the Gulf of Maine. I’ve heard her referred to on the news recently as a “Gulf of Maine whale,” but really humpbacks are migratory. Seen or not, recognized or not, she often swam south, past my home in Maryland, to the Caribbean, to breed in waters warm enough for the comfort of calves. But there is no food for a humpback past weaning age in the Caribbean, so through the long months of her motherhood, Pivot did not eat, returning north to food only when her baby was old enough to stand the cold. After Pivot reached sexual maturity at around age five, she likely had a baby every two or three years–closer to three than to two in more recent years. Everybody knows whales eat plankton, but actually many of them don’t, and Pivot probably mostly ate small fish. Climate change has been making small fish scarce in the Gulf of Maine lately.
She probably spent much of her life hungry.
She died at sea. No one knows why, yet, though scientists have examined her body to try to figure it out. Her remains washed up on Assateague Island about a week ago. That’s where we went to see her.
Walking to See a Whale
When my husband and I decided to go see the whale, her body lay about half a mile from the State Park parking lot. Easy peasy. By the time we actually went, we knew she’d washed north another three miles. Less easy. We set out anyway.
Lest anyone think seven miles round trip shouldn’t be challenging for ostensibly outdoorsy folk such as ourselves, let me remind you that walking in sand is different than walking on a forest trail somewhere. The sand shifts, subsides, eating the energy of impact and bending the foot into unnatural positions. You don’t notice the difficulty covering the two hundred feet or so from your beach blanket to the water on a summer vacation, but do a couple of miles and you’ll find those miles a good deal longer than miles are anywhere else.
Plus there is the monotony. The view, though lovely, does not really ever change, nor are there any landmarks to remind you of your progress. It’s very easy to convince yourself that you’ve been walking forever and will continue forever to walk, when walking on a beach.
The day was lovely, cool and crisp but not cold, sky partly cloudy, sea blue and dotted with occasional whitecaps and mats of floating foam. The waves curled and curled and curled against the sandbar just offshore, then curled and broke again against the beach to run hissing up the sand, sometimes much further than expected, prompting Chris and I to run and jump like sandpipers. The wind pushed at our backs. The sand near the water lay flat and compacted by the earlier high tide, relatively good for walking on. We made good time.
We saw few living beings. A few small birds, sanderlings or dunlins, according to Chris. A few gulls, both adult and juvenile. The beach was nearly flat, punctuated here and there by washed-up tires from the ill-conceived Ocean City fishing reef, shells of whelks and false angel-wings, and pieces of horseshoe crabs. Up there on the North End of Assateague, there is some grass up on the dunes, dead stalks of last year’s goldenrod on the flats between, but few if any bushes. No trees. The salt spray blows across the narrow island and kills almost everything.
We kept thinking we saw the whale in the distance, but it wasn’t. It was always further on.
Sometimes a trunk full of park rangers would drive past, either on patrol or going out to or coming back from the whale. We would wave. They went on without speaking.
The plan was to move the whale corpse up among the dunes where it would be less likely to attract attention from the public. Dead whales harbor bacteria, just like dead anything else, and thus are dangerous to touch. Plus even the dead of endangered species are legally protected from souvenir-collectors . We knew the rangers were attempting the move that day, and we expected to have to follow drag-marks up the sand to find and visit with the body. Instead we saw the excavator and a flock of pick-up trucks coming towards us, leaving. We found the whale still at the water-line. They’d given up. Whales are hard to move.
We saw the whale. I will tell you about that shortly, but for now I am still telling you about walking.
We’d walked three and a half miles. We still had just as far to go to get back. We had no drinking water with us, since we had not known we’d be going so far when we left the house that morning. Now the wind was in our faces and the rising tide had covered most of the compacted sand. I am called Turtle by my friends for a reason, and I get even slower as I tire. I got slower and slower and slower. Chris got farther and farther ahead. Sometimes he stopped and waited for me. Then he got farther and farther ahead again.
It didn’t help that my hips were starting to hurt. I don’t have great hips. Chris told me later that my steps were getting shorter and shorter until by the end I was almost literally just putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe I was unconsciously trying to limit the swing of my hurting hips. No wonder I was slow.
But being slow, I noticed things.
A piece of oyster shell left from hundreds of years ago, when the whole island was farther east and these sands lay in the marsh behind the island. Its inner surface was smooth and black and almost iridescent. I carried it awhile and showed it to Chris next time he waited for me. A chip of quahog clam shell, likewise once living in the marsh, all worn away by time and accident except for an irregular piece the size of a quarter, brilliant purple and yellow. Wet from a tumble in seawater, its colors shone. An object I at first took for some kind of dried-up vegetation, perhaps a yucca leaf (yuccas can grow here, though I am aware of none on the island), long and twisted and fibrous. On closer examination I spotted two bulbous eyes at one end, the sweep of a shriveled tail fin at the other.
It was a skate or a ray, its body dried, its wings ripped away. The shape of the tail, delicate but definitely finned, not whip-like or rat-like, identified it as a skate. The tip of the head, yellowish and translucent, identified it as a clear-noted skate. It was about two feet long. Chris said they’re usually bigger, and that people catch them when surf fishing but leave the bodies on the beach.
“That’s wrong,” I said. “It’s very wrong to kill an animal and not eat it.”
The whale wasn’t very big, for a whale, only about thirty feet long. Humpbacks get to fifty-five feet.
The reason I know how big humpback whales get is that when I was a kid one of my teachers decided we ought to have a life-sized model of a humpback whale hanging from the ceiling. She had a thing for marine biology and a somewhat impulsive nature full of grand and sometimes wonderful plots and ideas. And so we rolled out fifty-five feet of brown paper. I could draw well, and so I was asked to draw the shape of the whale on the paper–the fifteen-foot-long flippers, the broad tail flukes, the body that got wider and wider and wider until we needed three sheets of paper side by side to accommodate it, and still it wasn’t enough. Ann (the teacher) said our whale would have to be thinner than a real one.
We cut out and then stapled together two whale outlines, one for the top, one for the bottom, then stuffed the whale with wadded-up newspaper and painted the top black and the bottom white. Other kids helped, but I did all of the drawing and a lot of the painting. I don’t remember who hung the thing from the ceiling or how, but there it hung for two years until one day Ann decided to have the whole thing taken down and stuffed in the dumpster. Thus I learned both the size of a humpback whale and the dangers of impulsivity.
I wonder what has happened to Ann? I have not heard from her or of her in close to twenty years. She sent a written eulogy to be read at the funeral of my sister’s classmate, Emma, but nothing, all these years later, to my sister’s funeral. I assume she did not know of it. She might have already had her own funeral, for all I know.
If anybody has heard of Ann Brown, formerly of Newark Delaware, give a shout.
So, anyway, about the real whale, Pivot.
She was small, as I said, about thirty feet, and lying belly-down, longways against the incoming surf. Her tail moved freely, shifting when the wavelets came in, almost as if she were still alive. But her massive lower jaw was grounded, stuck immobile in the sand, the upper jaw oddly sunk into her own mouth. I suspect the jaw had become dislocated, possibly by the rangers’ attempt to move the body.
Her blow-holes (two, in baleen whales) were closed. Her eyes were also closed. Did anyone slip a coin under her tongue for the ferryman?
She was almost entirely black, what I could see of her, big around as a bus, mostly rubbery-smooth-looking, though the skin had been damaged in places, and the scientists had cut out a divot of a tissue sample to examine later back at some lab. The hole appeared pale pink, bloodless. She had a few small white patches, including some white circles on her lower face the exact shape and size of barnacles. The reason I know the shape and size of whale barnacles–which are much larger than those I find on rocks and pylons and the backs of horseshoe crabs along the shore–was that several remained on her tail.
I was trying to get a good look at her tail when Chris warned “ocean!” just as a wave sloshed around the whale, over the hump of sand that hand formed in her lee, and down into the low place scoured out around her tail. I leapt out of the way. I couldn’t get a good view after that, because every time I got close another wave would come in. The tide was still rising.
Chris said it was time to go–we had to get back by four, for various reasons.
“I’m not done yet!” I exclaimed, but eventually I bowed to the logic of the situation and compromised with my desire to stay by walking away while whining like a child.
We’d made it perhaps two hundred feet when I realized several things:
1) I had to go back
2) I had to go back with a definite objective so that once I’d accomplished my objective I would be able leave with a quite heart
3) to accomplish my objective (to answer several questions through close observation), I’d have to take my shoes off and stand in the rising seawater.
Yes, the water was cold.
I learned thus that the trailing edge of the tail looked nibbled-upon, rather than merely bumpy, a series of irregular indentations as though somebody had taken a giant hole-punch to the edge there–but that the edges of the nibbles were not open or raw. Either the nibbles were old, or that really was her natural tail-shape.
I learned that the barnacles on her tail flukes were not just much larger than the familiar kind, but that their outer plates were fused into a solid circle like a permanent, white sandcastle, and that two of them had open doors, their filtering organs hanging limply, obviously dead.
I learned that the skin around pivot’s mouth was cracked, perhaps split by sun and wind, and that the wrinkled gray stuff in her mouth and beside her head on the seaward side, stuff that to me looked very much like the scummy foam that forms when boiling a pot of black beans, was almost certainly loose, detached skin. I could see no part of her body that was missing its skin, but perhaps those parts were underneath.
Observing became difficult. The rangers had left an orange float attached to her tail by a yellow strap, and as the waves came in the strap ends looped through the water and threatened to tangle up my feet. Water broke over the huge barrel of the body, streaming down the sides and jumping off otherwise invisible irregularities in the gradually degrading hide, making it look as though the body were spurting through pinhole leaks. Every time a wave struck, the whole whale except the grounded lower jaw would wobble like a waterbed. Was the body liquefied inside? Might it pop? I’ve heard of such things. I grew nervous.
There was almost no scent of rot, even from down wind. It’s February, and the low temperatures have kept bacterial growth slow. Maybe.
The thing I want to get across, aside from, or even in spite of, all these technical details of skin and flesh and damage, was that this body was largely intact when I saw it–it looked like a whale. Not a piece of a whale or a remnant of a whale, as with the skulls I’ve seen or the mass of flesh literally noisy with maggots that so fascinated me for some days years ago, but a whale. A real, recently alive, individual whale, that I saw up close just the other day. I could have touched her face. I saw the wrinkles of her tightly closed eyelids.
This was Pivot, wrecked like a ship upon our shore.