Review: Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs

Whales, Rebecca Giggs writes in Fathoms, were the first time the environmental movement learnt to “tell a story as big as the world”. The anti-whaling movement of the 1970s, which successfully placed a moratorium on whaling in 1982, was the first great success of environmentalism. But like many of the triumphs that followed – bans on DDT, on ozone-destroying chemicals, the protection of forests – we have come to realise these are small fry in light of the global ecological catastrophe now unfolding. We need now, Giggs writes, “a new story”.

Fathoms persuasively argues that whales might be key to that story. Are there any other creatures that take such an immediate hold on our imaginations, except perhaps dinosaurs (and don’t whales live in a similar part of our minds)? Fathoms is a book about whales and what they mean to us, but it is ultimately about the far-reaching and these days rather troubling connections we have with the natural world. I came away from it with a renewed sense that even my smallest action might touch a creature in the eternal night of a polar sea. That is certainly a curse – but it also means the reverse is true.

Whales were my earliest fascination with nature. Some of my first books were about whales and dolphins, books that still sit on the shelf in my parents’ place. As I grew older, I passed through other phases – insects, birds, orchids (and yes, dinosaurs), a widening ecosystem that led me ultimately to environmental journalism and writing on climate change. So I am particularly well-primed to agree that whales are somehow fundamental to our connection with wild things.

Take for instance the whale that opens Fathoms, dying on a beach in Western Australia. Giggs describes in excruciating detail the process of a whale’s death by stranding – simultaneously cooking and collapsing under its own weight. The whale could be euthanised, but it’s tricky to get the dose right, and the barbiturate used to kill it might go on to poison scavengers who find the meat anyway. Giggs wonders what it is about the whale and its end that has such a strong hold over the people who have gathered to witness it. Whales, which used to be symbols of “the timelessness of the sea”, now return to us with troubling messages of our impact on the oceans. A sperm whale in Spain strands with an entire greenhouse in its stomach. Grey whales caught in Russia smell chemical and cause numbness when eaten. Clearly something has gone very, very wrong out there.

Fathoms hones in on the various ways we interact with whales. Giggs describes how we came to hunt whales, and found uses for their bodies, a harvest that lasted long after fossil fuels replaced whale blubber as the fuel of the industrial revolution. She considers tourism, and why whales became so charismatic to us. While we may be drawn to whale eyes, they actually have quite poor eyesight. Instead, whales inhabit aural worlds, worlds we are now destroying with oceanic noise.

In one provocative chapter, Giggs wonders if media, which once helped us care for whales, is now helping us to love them to death. She describes how social media like Instagram, “an idyllic supercontinent of pastel vistas, sunset monoliths” etc, drives us to trample the world. “Performing our love for nature can,” she writes, “seem more important than not causing harm”.

In another she addresses Japanese whaling. The Australian government has often celebrated its leading role in taking Japan’s scientific whaling program to court, which saw Japan stop whaling in the Southern Ocean (it resumed whaling in territorial waters in 2019, this time explicitly for whale meat). In reality, this is a smokescreen for Australia’s far more insidious destruction of the environment, whether it is through recalcitrance on climate change or winding back environmental laws. After Giggs tries whale meat in Japan, she suggests that the drive to eat whales and to love them are not so separate after all.

My favourite chapter though is one in which Giggs considers records of mysterious and rotting creatures that wash up on remote beaches, inspiring tales of sea monsters. In fact, there are whales in the deep sea that we know only from strandings, such as the spade-toothed beaked whale, which has never been seen alive.

A concept that comes up throughout the book is “defaunation”. Relatively new in environmental science, defaunation suggests that by the time an organism it is threatened the damage has already been done. Just as important as preventing extinction is maintaining abundance. A whale is “an ecosystem and a home”. When a whale dies and sinks to the sea floor it becomes a “great, pluripotent detonation of life” as scavengers come to feed on its body. Some of these species certainly became extinct when whaling removed whales from the oceans. Living whales are habitats too, for parasites such as the 8-metres worm Placentoma gigantissima which lives only in the wombs of sperm whales. Whales shape ecosystems, and even, by encouraging the growth of phytoplankton, remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Whales, Giggs writes, provoke awe and humility, but increasingly evoke a sense of hauntedness, remind us of our far-reaching and inextricable impact on the world. But perhaps whales can challenge us to “expand the boundaries of our care”.

Fathoms is a work of science, philosophy, and poetry. It is full of startling and mind-altering ideas. For instance, in the book’s opening, Giggs wonders at a whale’s face, and for the first time I realised that whales don’t really have one, or if they do it is incredibly alien to us. A few pages later she mentions starfish wasting disease, a global warming-accelerated virus decimating Pacific starfish that causes them to literally pull themselves apart. Throughout she makes striking connections between science, art, history and words that were invisible to me before.

This is not a book that offers easy, step-by-step instructions for stopping the ecological crisis – there are plenty of other books that do that. Instead, it offers a combination of wonder and horror that might just make the environment strange enough again to shock us out of our lethargy.

Gay rating: not gay.

Fathoms is published by Scribe.

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