Beached Whales by Michael Nagel

There doesn’t seem to be a standard way to dispose of a dead beached whale. It’s a judgment call. In 1970, in Oregon, a sperm whale died on a beach and, not knowing how else to dispose of the eight-ton carcass, the Oregon Highway Division (responsible for the maintenance of the beaches) stuffed the whale with a half-ton of TNT and blew it up. One chunk of blubber smashed an Oldsmobile 800 feet away. In retrospect, it seemed they’d overdone it.

So that’s one way.

Another: In 2002, in Alaska, fourteen citizens tried to dispose of a beached whale by eating it. The CDC documented the case in a report titled, “Outbreak of Botulism Type E Associated with Eating a Beached Whale.” Botulism: a disease that includes paralysis of motor and automatic nerves.

You could also try burying it. Burning it. Dragging it back to the sea. Or you could just wait to see what happens. Left alone a beached whale will inflate to nearly twice its size before it explodes from a build up of internal gasses. The same thing happens to humans but on a much smaller scale and only sometimes.
 

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I’ve been walking around this old graveyard on my lunch break and looking at all the old graves. Some of them are 200 years old. So old the markings have rubbed off the stones. You know there’s a body underneath you, but you don’t know who it is or anything about them. Many of the headstones are cracked. Even more are missing. (Who’s been stealing them?) 107 billion people have died since the beginning of the world so you start to wonder where all those bodies have gone. There seems to be a stage after death when you disappear entirely.
 

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(I find it hard to do anything lately. A paralysis of the motor and automatic nerves. I have plans to learn Spanish.)
 

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Recently, 198 pilot whales beached themselves in New Zealand and are now collapsing under their own weight. Or drying out. Or drowning in the tide. When you see the pictures, it looks like they were dropped out of the sky, a landscape of them. Volunteers swarmed the beach trying to save the whales with buckets of water and damp bed sheets. They sprinted from whale to whale and stroked the whales where it seemed their foreheads might be. They looked the whales in the eyes and it was obvious that the whales were looking back at them. Whales, we know, have intelligent eyes. Whales, we suspect, can read minds.
 

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Nobody knows why whales beach themselves. Some people think they simply follow a leader into shallower and shallower water. Maybe the leader is dying, unable to keep himself afloat. Whales are committed to their social structure. They will follow their leader until their bodies wedge into the sand. Some people think their sonar has been thrown off by submarines and underwater drilling rigs. Some people think they are just trying to follow our lead: leave the sea for the land, the next step of cetacean evolution. Anyway, it keeps happening.
 

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198 pilot whales tucked in with Scooby-Doo bed sheets, humans shushing them to sleep. Most of them won’t make it.
 

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Walking around an old graveyard might seem like a cliché way of accessing death, accessing the heaviness of death, but it works. The heaviness of death counterbalancing the heaviness of life. Opposite sides of the seesaw. You become weightless. This particular graveyard is in the middle of Downtown Dallas, right next to 49 bronze sculptures of steers, right underneath 30-story buildings. You walk up a little hill. The graveyard hasn’t been maintained. The grass is short, crunchy, brown. The graves are crumbling. It’s not clear where you should or should not walk, so there’s always the possibility of desecration. When I was younger I walked through this graveyard and found a wire headstone shaped like a baby carriage. When I tried to find the baby carriage the other day, it was gone. I was glad not to see it, but still, where are all the dead people going?
 

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If you’re going to eat a whole whale, the CDC recommends boiling the meat for at least ten minutes and then notifying state health officials immediately if anything funny starts happening. If anything fishy starts happening. “How do we eat a whale, father?” “One bite at a time after we’ve boiled each piece for no less than ten minutes.”
 

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On a ferry outside Seattle, I stood at the stern and watched for whales. I’d heard they were common out here, but the fog was so thick I couldn’t see the water. Three times I heard the pneumatic release of a blowhole, but I didn’t see a single whale. Have yet to see a whale in real life. One of the most beautiful ideas in Moby-Dick, I think, is that nobody really knows what a whale looks like. Their shapes are so elastic, so constantly moldable, that they might as well be liquid. We only know our idea of a whale. But isn’t that true of so many things?
 

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I know what you’re thinking, but a beached whale is not the true shape of a whale. A beached whale is a complete missing of the point. You cannot see a beached whale and think you’ve seen a whale. You have seen something but it’s not a whale. It’s something else.
 

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Maybe whales are drawn to the land the same way men are drawn to the sea. Maybe beached whales are the casualties of failed expeditions. Explorers killed in action. They wanted to see how far they could get. Did we think we were the only ones unable to leave well enough alone? Have we considered that whales might just be bored out of their fucking minds? Maybe, like us, whales will never be happy with what they have.
 

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(I live in alternations between whiskey and coffee. At a certain point in the afternoon, around 3pm, the two cross over. That’s when I am at my happiest. Not that I think happiness is the point, or at least if it ever becomes the point, I know it will then become unattainable. I worry about collapsing under my own weight.)
 

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Bear with me: I’ve heard that computers will soon write poetry, will soon be capable of abstract thinking, will soon reproduce. I imagine myself fifty years from now sleeping on a curb when a robot rolls by and covers me with a Scooby-Doo bed sheet. How did you get out here, the robot might wonder, stroking me across the forehead, looking for some sort of intelligence in my eyes. And where were you headed?
 

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I’ve heard that dead bodies aren’t actually buried six feet down but more like three or four feet. Closer than we’d like to think. When they bury a whale it’s under a few inches of sand. You come across a bouncy section of beach—take a few hops.
 

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J and I have been talking about going back to church. “Not because I want to,” I said, “But because I don’t want to only do the things I want to do.” “I can’t keep up with you,” J said, “As soon as you’re one thing, you’re already becoming something else.” “The true shape of a whale has never been seen,” I said. “What?” J said. “Nothing. Just trying to bring things together that probably have nothing to do with each other.”
 

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I wonder if whales like the friction of the beach. Maybe they like having something to thrash against. The ocean had become too easy. What now? They’d asked their leader telepathically. It’s been a million years. After all, what does eight tons matter when it’s suspended in water, weightless? The 198 pilot whales beached themselves on the Farewell Split in the Golden Bay, a section of New Zealand famous for whale beachings. Whales are always getting themselves stuck there. In photographs taken by the New Zealand Department of Conservation the ankle-deep water is reflecting the sky and the dead whales look like they are flying.
 

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Which reminds me. Another idea might be to attach fifty weather balloons to the carcass and carry it into space. Or how about a rocket? Or how about an acid that melts the whale down to a salty liquid? Or how about a particularly vicious colony of African army ants? If we got to the meat fast enough, before the botulism set in, we could fill twenty thousand Tupperware containers and send them to starving people in Thailand. One whale could feed a village. Let’s turn our problems into opportunities, people!
 

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Sometimes, when a large woman is lying on a beach, kids will yell, “Beached whale! Beached whale!” I’ve never seen this happen in real life, never seen it in a movie, never read about it in a book, but I know it happens. Of course it does.
 

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After the volunteers pushed them back out to sea, almost all of the pilot whales came back and beached themselves again. “Kind of seems like they might be doing this on purpose now,” one volunteer said, out of breath, stinking of sweat and ocean.

“Has all your work been for nothing?” a reporter asked.

“Yes,” the volunteer said. “All of our work has been for nothing.”

By the end of the day, 140 pilot whales would be dead and starting to smell. When the temperature dropped their bodies would put off steam like 140 campfires scattered across the beach.

“Maybe our purpose is not to un-beach a beached whale,” one of the volunteers wrote to me in an email, “but to appreciate a beached whale for what it is.”

“What are you even talking about?” I wrote back, but she didn’t reply, or at least she hasn’t yet.

Even Aristotle understood that a beached whale was an essentially meaningless event. To fight against a beached whale is to fight against the meaningless nature of the universe. Aristotle: “It is not known for what reason they run themselves aground on dry land; at all events it is said that they do so at times, and for no obvious reason.” The same could be said for basically everything I’ve ever done in my entire life. For no obvious reason.

The weightlessness of a graveyard only lasts for so long. The effects wear off. I walk back to my office and the weight comes back, something pushing me into the grass. My feet sticking to something sticky on the sidewalk. Spilled soda. Some sort of syrup. Everything takes so much effort it’s ridiculous. At some point, I’d like to have a fluent conversation with a native Mexican, but I’m not holding my breath.
 

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Of course, sometimes the whale that washes up on the beach is already dead. Killed by boats or fights or most commonly starvation. It seems there aren’t plenty of other fish in the sea. When a dead whale washes up on shore in the United Kingdom, the King automatically has claim to its head and the queen automatically has claim to its tail, a right that, as far as we know, has never been exercised. It’s usually the scientists who get first dibs. Even these days, it’s hard for them to study a whale up close. They measure and poke and examine the muscle structure of the jaw. When the stink gets too bad (or the bacteria becomes a threat to public health), the whale is hauled off to the city dump and tossed on top of the broken dishwashers and the translucent black trash bags, a process that costs taxpayers ten thousand pounds.
 

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In 2010, an ancient whale graveyard was discovered in a Chilean desert not far from the Pan American Highway. The whale skeletons were intact and lined up side-by-side like they’d planned it or something. They were on their backs. And when the scientists dug deeper, beneath the first layer of dead whales, they found a second layer of dead whales. And then a third layer. And then a fourth. This had been happening over and over again every few thousand years. Scientists believe the graveyard is somewhere between six and nine million years old.
 

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When I was a kid, my piano teacher died suddenly of a brain tumor and I remember looking at her in her casket. I’d never studied her up close. She was young. Thirty-seven years old. I could see where each hair went into its follicle like a doll’s head. I moved in closer until I was close enough to lick her before my mom pulled me back and asked me what I was doing, what I was thinking, and I wasn’t sure except that I wanted to know what my dead piano teacher tasted like too. According to the report filed by the CDC, the 14 Alaskans had eaten half the whale before they started showing telltale signs of botulism. Weakness, boredom, ennui, naval gazing, lack of expression, an overwhelming sense of torpor, unbearably banal existential questioning, a bad case of the what’s-it-all-abouts.
 

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In his book Monsters of the Sea, Richard Ellis suggests that the reason a whale beaches itself is so that whatever else happens in its life, at least its blowhole is out of the water. At least it’s not going to drown. I understand this motivation so well it’s a little bit scary. A sudden turning of the tables. It is I who can read their minds.
 

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Do my metaphors contradict themselves? Very well, they contradict themselves. A whale is large. It contains multitudes.
 

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I recently came across an academic paper detailing exactly how to blow up a beached whale. Complete with illustrations. Telling excerpt: “It is important to shape the explosive charge into a triangular pyramid (see Fig. 6) to ensure maximum explosive force is directed downward onto the smallest area of the whale’s head, directly above the cranium. For very large whales…it is recommended that two 50g boosters be added on top of the charge…”
 

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How do you deal with your problems?

My dad lost his job recently. His industry dried up around him. Sometimes it’s the ocean that leaves you.
 

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High up the Washington coast, up near Canada, there is a beach called Ruby Beach where the sand and the water are the same color gray. And the sky is that same color gray too. I was there in November when the waves were at my knees. The ocean was a flat, solid thing. Driftwood floated in from who knows where. Other countries maybe? The logs looked like bodies in the water. I was here for some reason, walking around. An old man in a bright red jacket was taking pictures with a professional looking camera. He had long white lenses. His jacket was the only colorful thing on the beach. I’d heard there were whales in the water so I sat on the driftwood for a long time and watched but what I thought were whales were actually just rocks, smooth and oval, getting smoother all the time. Up the beach, I found a dead bird, its chest opened and its red guts spilling out all over the place. Its guts were the second colorful thing on the beach. A smear of red. And beside the bird, there was the body of a crab. Hollow now. Shatterable. I stepped on the crab and it held my weight for a second before it exploded. Look close and you’ll see one thousand crab claws stuck in the sand. Fish bones. Fish heads. Carcasses everywhere you look. The beach stinks of death. Of massacre. (That’s the word I wrote down in the black notebook I was carrying around like some sort of journalist: “Massacre.”) And when I looked out at the water, it seemed like I was standing at the end of the world, both geographically and historically, like this was where it all stopped. An illusion obviously, but sometimes it’s good to pretend that what you’re experiencing, feeling, thinking, that it’s all significant, even if it’s just one fluke after another.
 
 

 
 
 
 

Michael Nagel‘s essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Awl, Salt Hill, apt, Moon City Review, and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Dallas.



2 Responses to “Beached Whales by Michael Nagel”

  1. whale says:

    Loved it.

    Had a few moments where I wasn’t sure if the author was serious or the information was correct. The absurdity catches you off guard. I liked that the text was experimental, empathetic, detached, and informative all at the same time.

  2. Erin says:

    I loved this piece, it pulled me in from the very beginning (I have watched the video of the whale exploding…( I think the website was http://www.explodingwhale.com). Beautifully written, thank you.

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