Friday 8 May 2020

Fathoms: The World in the Whale | Rebecca Giggs #AWW

Fathoms: The World in the Whale was a recent binge read. 

The weather had turned suddenly cold and it was bleak outside. Curling up on the lounge with a throw rug and a good book was the only logical response. Rebecca Giggs was the perfect companion for such a session - engaging, personable and extremely thorough. Her writing was a bright spark, a little bit of magic and poetry on a dull day. Full of the wonder and majesty of the natural world, and the world of the whale in particular. Sadly, it was also a tale of destruction, as her research led her down a rabbit hole of death, illness, pollution and environmental degradation. 

Told as narrative non-fiction, Giggs was on a personal mission to understand why whales beach themselves. She shares her journey - all the discoveries, the joys and the heartaches - to show us and to remind us how interconnected every living thing is on this planet we all inhabit. 

This is the kind of non-fiction I love. It's intimate, yet scientific; it's lyrical and philosophical; it's passionate and reasonable. I learnt a lot and have been left with a lot to ponder. Giggs is not able to answer all the questions she poses. This is not a flaw in the book, it's simply a sign that we lack sufficient evidence and knowledge to fully understand another organism. 

Below are my notes for future reference. I urge you to read it for yourself though. You can thank me later.
  • Why do whales beach themselves?
    • Natural phenomena
      • sick?
      • the weakest in the pod? Natural selection?
    • Conspiracy theories
      • shooting stars, comets & meterorites?
      • Naval operations & military sonar that frightens the whales
      • "the assumption that deeper streams of logic undercut the frail authority of science."
  • Why have whales started eating the wrong things?
    • plastic, debris
    • heavy metals, pesticides, fertilisers, PCB's
    • "Estuarine beluga in Canada had been discovered to be so noxious that their carcasses were classed as toxic waste for disposal."
  • whalefall
    • when a whale expires mid-ocean and eventually sinks & decomposes on the descent, eaten & nibbled on by birds, fish, crabs & sharks (consuming the toxic chemicals in the whales blubber and body).
    • "it is as though the whale were a pinata cracked open, flinging bright treasures"
    • "over 200 different species can occupy the frame of one whale carcass."
    • "the death of a whale proves meaningful to a vibrant host of dependent creatures, even as it may look senseless from the shore
  • what happens when we "pollute not just places, but organisms"?
  • petroglyphs "capturing the likeness of another creature implies an imaginative or emotional relationship that exceeds the exigencies of survival"
Helen McGrath | Whale petroglyph Yerroulbine/Balls Head, Sydney
    • "a petroglyph denoted an intention to generate, or invite change. A petroglyph spoke to the future."
    • "Shallow, and growing ever shallower as a result of erosion, a time will come when the whale will lift out of the rock completely. Lichens stipple its head."
  • defaunation "the loss of a place's absolute animalness...a depletion of abundance"
    • what are the effects of "reducing animal populations - for those animals, their ecosystems, and the cultures that are nourished by them."
    • "One underrepresented truth of the world: things that have been removed from the past exert the pressure on the present moment, just as much as the things that persist."
  • whale ecotourism industry "we've come to see what we've saved."
    • "to contemplate our own species' capacity for temperance. Each cetacean is an evidentiary exhibit of both human care and the resilience of wilderness."
  • John Berger (1977) Why Look at Animals?
    • "People, confronted by other species, typically reactivate their self-awareness and superiority. They remember that they are, on a fundamental level, a different kind of animal from the animal they are looking at."
  • Augenblick "the feeling of a second as measured by a slow eye-blink"
  • Cute aggression "a violent impulse towards pictures of adorable animals."
  • Chapter: Kitsch Interior - interspersed with examples of specific whales and what was discovered in their stomachs after they died (tracksuit pants, golf balls, surgical gloves, a plastic bucket, a car engine cover, synthetic netting, shredded balloons, dvd case, disposable cigarette lighters, rice sacks).
  • "The existence of parasites makes evident the porousness, the uncontained qualities, of life; these things that move under the traction of their own will, into and out of, and across all animals."
    • "These creatures are not knowable...the parasite also inched me towards thinking of animals themselves as environments, and nature as a process....They are the shapeshifters of our Earth, blurring the edges, kicking the insides out." Something we've all been reminded of this year as a virus, another unknowable creature, shapeshifted from one animal to another and kicked us from the inside out.

What floats after falling is
flotsam, and what floats when thrown is jetsam.
Whatever sinks is lagan.
Whatever is cast up
is yours.
'Soundings' in Homing (2017) | Shevaun Cooley


  1. This sounds really sad, but I definitely want to read this.

    1. Sad but somehow beautiful too Marian.

  2. Glad to read this post, good notes and nice illustrations you chose, -I've been out of commission somehow, but I'm slowly having a bit more time, so I'm back. I too enjoy some well written non fiction such as this kind.

    1. Seeing your name pop up on my screen this morning made me so happy Silvia. I had been worried about you since the end of the Hundred Years of Solitude readalong when I realised I could no longer comment or see your blog. So glad to hear you are well and yes, this book is very well-written non-fiction full of heart and research.

  3. I'm excited to read this, especially after seeing that it was nominated for the Kirkus prize. However, I was worried it would include some sad details about the way people are impacting whales and from your description, it does seem like that's the case. I'm glad I'm prepared for that, anway!


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