the death of a gray whale -- 12/03/18

Today's selection -- from From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty. When a gray whale dies it is a feast for all:

"The grey whale is an impressive creature-fifty feet long and weighing over thirty-six tons, with formidable likes spanning ten feet. A dozen miles off the coast of California, she emerges into view and exhales with a final, weakened puff. After sixty-five years, death has come for the great beast, and she hangs limp at the surface.

"Some whales begin to sink straightaway, but this par­ticular whale will remain afloat. Inside the carcass, tissues and proteins are breaking down, organs are liquefying, and gases are building up -- they are filling the whale's blubbery outer casing, transforming her into a macabre balloon. If she were to be punctured in a single spot, the force of the pressurized gases would launch her mushy innards several yards from her body. But this whale's skin holds. Gases slip out slowly; our former cetacean deflates and begins her gradual descent to the sea floor below. Down, down she goes, traveling more than a mile, until at last the beast meets soft bottom.

"Down here in the bathyal (or midnight) zone of the ocean, it is cold and completely dark -- sunlight does not reach these depths. Our whale hasn't come down here to 'rest in peace' and lie on the ocean floor in cool, undis­turbed darkness. Her remains are about to become the location of a grand banquet that will last decades. This process, known in the ocean science community as a whale fall, creates an entire ecosystem around the carcass -- like a pop-up restaurant for the alienlike creatures of the pri­mordial depths.

"The mobile scavengers smell the whale and arrive first to feast. They are the quintessential otherworldly denizens of the deep: sleeper sharks, hagfish (an unfair name­ -- they're more like slime-producing eels than fish), crabs, and raftish. They begin tearing into the decomposed flesh, consuming up to 130 pounds a day.

"Once the bulk of the organic material has been picked clean, the area around the carcass becomes a hotspot of life on an otherwise barren seabed. Mollusks and crustaceans set up camp. A thick red fuzz of deep-sea worms grows on the whale's bones, 45,000 of them per square meter. The worms' Latin name, Osedax, means 'bone devourer.' True to that designation, these eyeless, mouthless creatures will burrow into the bones and extract oils and fats from within them. Recently, scientists have discovered that the sulfur-loving bacteria present at a whale fall are similar to those found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

"The site of the whale fall turns into a decades-long version of 'Be Our Guest' from Beauty and the Beast, a debauched, celebratory party where creatures devour the whale 'course by course, one by one.' The whale is the epitome of a postmortem benefactor, part of an arrange­ment as beautiful as it is sensible -- an animal dying and donating its body so that others may thrive. 'Try the grey stuff, it's delicious,' the carcass seems to say. The whale, in short, is a valuable necrocitizen."



Caitlin Doughty


From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death


W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 2017 Caitlin Doughty


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