Like a Marvel comic, “Fathoms: The World in the Whale,” Rebecca Giggs’ discipline-straddling debut, begins with an origin story. “A few years ago,” she writes, “I helped push a beached humpback whale back out into the sea, only to witness it return and expire under its own weight on the shoreline.”
Watching the poor humpback die sparks both empathy and curiosity in Giggs, an Australian writer and journalist. She starts investigating cetacean mortality, and soon finds that human environmental damage is the single greatest cause of untimely whale death. This discovery gives “Fathoms” its purpose. Guided by her belief in “the potential of a scientifically literate imagination,” Giggs sets out to help “magnify the better urgings of our nature and renew those parts of us that are drawn, by wonder, to revise our place and our power in the natural world.” In other words, by presenting readers with a wide and often wild array of facts about whales, Giggs hopes to inspire us to save them.
This is a significant ethical and environmental project, and a worthy one. But Giggs meets her goal only in part. “Fathoms” flits between genres, mixing science writing, cultural criticism, and personal essay without apparent pattern. Ultimately, the book is unified less by narrative or argumentative structure than by Giggs’ densely poetic style and flights of allusion and imagination.
Giggs is, in fairness, a beautiful writer. Her descriptions are often startling and compelling. In a chapter on whalefalls — the natural process of whales’ ocean-floor decomposition — she describes deep-sea fish resembling “bottled fireworks, reticulated rigging, and musical instruments turned inside out.” The firework fish orbit the whale skeleton, a “macabre marionette, jinking at the spine in the slight currents” before collapsing “to the seafloor, into the plush cemetery of the worms.” When a whale dies at sea, its body becomes host to a “great, pluripotent detonation of life.” Her ebullient descriptions amplify that detonation, inviting readers to marvel at “the wildness that attends the whale.”
But Giggs opts not to linger on the wildness. Instead, she steps back: “What does this story boil down to? What I carry forward is this: Nothing ends without adding vigor to the conditions under which new beginnings are conceived.” In seeking to a find a moral, she distances her narrative from nature in all its “spectacular” and “squalid” glory.
There are other places where the high-gloss beauty of Giggs’ style undermines her message. In a chapter interweaving her impressions of a whale-watching trip with a cultural history of the anti-whaling movement and scientific explorations of humpback migration, the krill life cycle, and the impact of global warming on whales, she writes, “As the season sets to piecing together its all-white jigsaw across the nocturning sea, the humpbacks migrate northward, away from the privations of the Southern Ocean at the end of the globe and across the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.” What is a nocturning sea, exactly? Giggs’ linguistic flourishes, here and elsewhere, often prove distracting.
“Fathoms” is at its most persuasive and moving when she abandons stylistic drama to let her material shine. Her chapter on the industrial history of whaling and whale-derived products is uncluttered and fascinating. Beginning with the “earliest incontrovertible evidence of whaling — dating back possibly 8,000 years, to the late Neolithic,” Giggs neatly tracks whale-hunting’s progression from necessity to religious practice to industry so great that people living in the 19th century were “almost constantly in contact with whale-gleaned products, in much the same way as most people today are never far from plastic objects.”
When a whale dies at sea, its body becomes host to a “great, pluripotent detonation of life,” Giggs writes.
During the Industrial Revolution, humans killed droves of whales in order to extract their oil, which was used in factories and tanneries, added to ink and paint, and much more. Giggs connects the waste inherent in this mass hunt to today’s over-production and casual disposal of synthetics that wind up in the ocean, where whales absorb their leaching chemicals or swallow scraps of plastic whole. Together, whaling and oceanic pollution become examples of the fundamental prioritization of human over cetacean life that she hopes to persuade readers to reject.
In Giggs’ view, it is vain — in both senses of the word — for humans to see ourselves reflected in the whale. Instead, she asks readers to understand that we participate in the same ecological systems whales do, and that often, we protect ourselves when we protect them. Giggs makes this point best in her exploration of whales’ impact on climate change. Each whalefall, she writes, is “worth more than a thousand trees in terms of carbon absorption” and sequestration. By dragging tons of carbon to the seafloor when they die, whales offset pollution substantially enough, according to researchers at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the IMF’s Institute for Capacity Development, to serve as a “means of renaturalizing the air.”
In the end, Giggs argues that we should protect whales out of more than environmental self-interest. She sets great store by the unknown. “Fathoms” presents natural occurrences like the whalefall as so complex, and so beautiful in their complexity, that not even whale biologists can hope to understand or appreciate them in full. Non-experts, then, must take pleasure in the mysteries that attend undersea phenomena. We must “care for unmet things” as well as familiar ones — and, crucially, we must admit that we can never meet the whole natural world. People do not belong in whales’ oceanic kingdoms.
All Giggs’ research brings her, ultimately, to a surprising and impactful moral point: If we live, ecologically speaking, in “the age of unintended consequences,” then it is our first duty to keep those consequences to a minimum. Our attraction to whales is worth less, on all levels but that of scientific research, than the benefits of permitting them to live in peace. Whales deserve privacy, too.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her work has appeared online in The Atlantic, NPR Books, the Poetry Foundation, and Public Books, among other publications.