This story first appeared in Rainshadow Journal.
In early December, Jim and I booked a cabin at the beach on Washington’s west coast. No internet, no interruptions, just a quiet getaway with a panoramic view of crashing surf and a series of winter storms pouring in from an atmospheric river stretching all the way across the Pacific. We would cocoon, beach walk, do our traditional jigsaw puzzle, cook, storm watch, and read.
I checked local news a few days before and found that in November, a 60-foot fin whale had washed up on the beach, dead. Uh-oh. Would it be right in front of our cabin? Would there be predators like black bears and coyotes feeding on it? In Barrow, Alaska I once saw three polar bears on a dead bowhead whale, and the entire town was warned to stay away. Not that we have polar bears here, but a black bear can certainly get defensive around food.
Would the rental agreement cover the stench of a ripening pile of blubber parked in front of our cabin? Would we have to make offerings to propitiate the gods of wind for offshore breezes? I remembered the famous footage from 1970, when Oregon officials tried dynamiting a 45-foot dead gray whale. It didn’t go well, unless you consider the beneficial fertilizing effects of eight tons of pulverized blubber raining from the sky. Initially I regarded this dead fin whale as a smelly inconvenience and joked with friends about a potential wildlife extravaganza.
When we arrived at this cabin on the edge of the continent, the air smelled ocean-washed and fresh. We went down to the beach and didn’t see the whale, but it was late afternoon, foggy and getting dark. That night, raindrops splatted on the metal roof, triggering a deep relaxation. Next morning, we saw the whale about a half-mile up the beach, lying on its back, its pale belly reflecting the sky’s light back into the fog, like a beacon. It was covered with large fat gulls and an eagle, feasting. No bears or coyotes. The surf roared from 100 yards out, promising to return, to continue its tumbling and devouring.
At about a quarter mile from the whale our dog grew very excited, sniffing the sand as if the whole beach was scented, and darting around frantically. I leashed her so she couldn’t chase the birds. Now the smell drifted downwind to our noses. It wasn’t so much putrid as it was a slightly musty version of fishy, not as strong as I’d imagined it would be (though in summer, all bets are off.) It reminded me of being at sea, when there’d be a sudden fishy whiff, possibly a large fish surfacing or the exhalation from a whale upwind at a distance. Although I didn’t often see whales in big seas, I could sometimes smell them.
We went upwind and approached near its head. Even in death, a whale is considerably more than a curiosity. It’s an extraordinary presence, a creature with a 50-million-year history, far longer than ours. In death a whale is still a leviathan asking us to approach with respect. When I saw it up close, my mind went toward humility, not comedy. Its emaciated body was an indictment.
In awe of it, we took some photos. The whale’s mouth had fallen open, and a symmetrical row of baleen stood straight up from the inverted upper jaw. We ran our fingers across its coarse golden threads atop layered black blades that once filtered everything this whale ate. A huge tongue, slack, grey, and smooth except for a lumpy tip, rested on the sand. Were these lumps whale taste buds?
I ran my hand across the pleats on its upturned lower jaw that once expanded when it encountered a school of krill, and opened its mouth to capture tons and tons of water and food. The pleats would balloon into an immense pouch, but they were now stiffly nestled in flowing folds, their elegant lines running toward the tail. I felt their muscular mass, imagined them warm and ready to accept the next immense mouthful, which will not come.
A small outside section of the lower jaw that was once so sensitive to vibrations but now rested heavily on the sand, was tinted red, probably from blood pooling in the bottom few pleats. Still red after more than two weeks.
I wondered if the brownish sediment laying in the low troughs of current ripples in the surrounding sand was blood. Every current ripple on the beach had it, and the sand for hundreds of feet all around smelled like whale—our dog picked up the scent. A whale has to have a lot of blood.
Further back in its open mouth and behind the baleen was an ivory row of bony projections that looked like the inside of a piano. I touched them, imagining I might hear music, but they were silent.
A row of small round bites in the tough black dorsal skin, going through to the pale blubber beneath, appeared about a foot from the ground. Raccoon bites? The whale’s body was becoming a map of its predators.
I walked back to the tail, a sculpture at the end of a curving spine, magnificent even in repose. The epitome of form following function. What did it feel like to have a tail like this, to propel oneself through miles of water with such ease?
I came up the other side of its body, to its midsection, and saw two large gashes in its side, which could have been propeller injuries. A third, larger and neater, cut with square edges, could have come from a necropsy team—it’s important to know what was in the stomach, which can give other clues about its condition before death. But what surprised us was how sparse those insides were. The soft parts had no doubt been picked clean by scavengers.
All that remained from the gut was a great mass of long thin, tough, straw-like strands, the largest ones feeling softer, like hollow tubes. It was not what we expected to see. A two-foot dark grey meaty mass was the one thing spilling out that looked like an organ. The cuts made by the necropsy team revealed the condition of this whale’s blubber, which seemed shockingly thin. It was only about two inches thick when it should have been closer to—what, a foot? It looked like this fin, like other whales, may have been starving.
How, as Terry Tempest-Williams wrote, do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?
Unable to process the magnitude of its death, its presence, we walked north on the beach until we came to a river. Then we turned around. As we walked back, Jim received a text from a friend in Colorado whose wife had just entered hospice. We knew it was coming, but had hoped it wouldn’t be so soon. He stopped to text our reply. I approached the whale alone, and spoke softly to it.
“I’m sorry you died,” I said. “I hope you lived a good long life. You have been on many migrations whose routes are a mystery to us. You have swum thousands of miles. You have listened to the ocean, sounded its depths, felt its seasons, its joys, its terrors. You have spoken and heard a language we can never know, not even with our fancy artificial intelligence. Like us, AI cannot understand what it must feel like to be a whale.
“You had a distinct personality. I believe you must have loved and been loved. Sang and been sung to. With a brain like yours, why would you not have been glad to be alive? No one can prove you weren’t. You probably have family who miss you, who might be grieving your loss. You have had a lifetime of memories we can never fathom, about things we do not know even exist. You knew the ocean in ways I will never know it, cannot know it, wish I could know it. You deserve respect, and you have mine, for what that’s worth, now and always. I am sorry you died.”
I gently touched the roof ridge in its mouth, and it was soft, pink and grey. It was then that I saw the eye, nearly hidden in folds, and closed except for a tiny sliver of eyeball, squinting and turned brown in death. I put my hand on its eyelid, caressing it, but did not touch the eyeball. I wondered what this eye had seen. This whale’s scent in the cool December air was supposedly unpleasant, but not really. Fishy in a whale way, that scent lingered on my hands, hours later after two washings, and into the next day, like a relative who wants to be carried through the world. I breathed it in.
This graph shows the locations of dead gray, not fin, humpback, or other whales, from 2019 through November 30, 2023. Since 2019, NOAA has declared an ongoing “Unusual Mortality Event” for gray whales. Their population has declined from 27,000 in 2016 to approximately 14,526 as of last winter. According to NOAA, fin whales are particularly vulnerable to ship strikes because they swim near the continental shelf break, which coincides with shipping and coastal patrol routes. They are also susceptible to climate change.