Book Review

Fathoms: The Whale in the World by Rebecca Giggs

on ethics and our species' lack of them

Written mid-September 2022

cw: body image, self-harm

I just went for dinner with a billionaire. I’m not bragging, he’s my employer and I’m now far too old and out of shape to be flirted with by heterosexual boomer men, and also there were other people there.

But it was an apt comparable experience to the reading of Rebecca Giggs’ book, Fathoms: The World In The Whale, about how humanity continues to wilfully ignore the results of its actions, and how far too many of us allow the corrupt status quo to continue even though it doesn’t work for us, but we’ve convinced ourselves that the status quo – as it is keeping us, as individuals, alive right now – is the only way we know we can stay alive today, that change is put off and put off and put off.

Toronto spent $30,000 per person this Summer evicting unhoused people – who were not causing any problems – from public parks. Sitting at a table for two hours with someone who probably spends more money on tax avoidance per annum than it would take to house thousands of people doesn’t really sit right, you know… It doesn’t sit right because it is morally bankrupt and ethically inexcusable. After the meal I tried to make myself throw up the food and wine he’d bought (each bottle of wine probably costing more than I earn in a week, maybe even a month) because the inability to have principles and act on them made me feel disgusting. Because I am disgusting.

All that came up after I wiggled my fingers down the back of my throat for the first time in years was just a little bit of bile. The time I’d spent stewing at the restaurant corner seat, counting the minutes, during which time I was expected to wryly chuckle as a person joked about how he forgot the name of one of the companies he owns, as he commented on owning the buildings various local businesses are located in; the time spent in that corner, and then the bike ride through the rain I had to do to get back to my place of work, that was enough time for my body to suck in the gifted consumables. What ethical difference, though, does it make when the food I eat is directly gifted by this person or – as almost all of the food I eat at the moment is – it’s bought with money paid to me by one of the many companies said billionaire owns?

The corruption soaks in: it is inside everything. 

///

The fat on the bodies of whales is full of toxic chemicals that have drained from the land into the sea and from there throughout the marine food chain.

Whales’ stomachs are full of refuse we have thrown away: not just nets and ropes, but CDs (remember those?), branded plastic bags (often bags from multiple continents are found in the same cetacean corpse), and even greenhouses.

Whales’ cries have gotten quieter since we began recording them in the mid 20th century: Giggs optimistically suggests this might be because whale populations have so rebounded since the “global ban on commercial whale hunting” came in, that whales no longer need to speak so loudly to be heard by their nearest peers; but Giggs then counters that idea by offering two bleaker hypotheses: a) that the whales speak (sing?) more quietly because they’re scared, or b) changing levels of acidity in the ocean affect the ability for sound to travel and a quieter, lower, verbalisation may go further than a louder, higher pitched, one.

Giggs’ fascinating book is full of moments like this: exploring the intersections of whales and humanity, from an ecological perspective as much as from a cultural one. She explores the commercial products that were made from whales when first “launched”: corsets, famously, margarine, less so (though I’ve probably mentioned it on this blog before. I love vegan margarine, even though I understand that what I’m enjoying inside my cucumber sandwiches is an artificial product essentially appropriating “whale fat sandwich spread”.)

Giggs writes about seeing beached whales in her native Australia: one, dying, near Perth (at the beginning of the book) and a second, dead a few days and washed into a tidal swimming pool in Sydney, at the book’s close.

Giggs travels to Japan and tries a bite of whale meat (despite being a vegetarian – it reminded me of the time I ate sheep’s brain in Istanbul what feels like a lifetime ago). The book springs from personal encounters with whales (she also takes a trip whale watching towards the centre of the book) to discussions of visible remains of and relics of whales (a prominent piece of ancient artwork by indigenous Australians depicting a whale; model whales in museums; stuffed whales in museums; whale skeletons in museums), to explorations of whales in culture (reaching back through Moby-Dick right through to ol’ Jonah in Bible).

Whales, once mythical monsters, in the second half of the 20th century, became a cause humanity could unite around (or at least feel like it was uniting around), but perhaps the damage was already too much.

Maybe some whales will survive into the future, but lots of the oceanic life that relied on whales secondhand will not; whales’ carcasses on the ocean floor are explosive sites of life and rebirth (not for the whale), and for too long we – us – pulled all their corpses out of the ocean to turn them into lube, candle wax, burlesque costumes, perfume, and even parts of rockets.

A recurring motif is the Jimmy Carter quotation that was included – along with whale song and greetings in many languages – on the gold records strapped to Voyager I (or 2 – I should check – I did, it was both) – “We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” Quite.

And how does this connect back to my dinner with a billionaire? I don’t know.

Are the rest of us – those who have to work in order to live yet have no hope, no assets, no future – are we the metaphorical whale? Are we the parasites that live on or inside the whale? Are we the ocean? Or are we the fish?

I don’t know, but I think we all know that the literal billionaires are a supremely dangerous threat for both the whales and humanity itself.

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PS – I’m pretty certain Giggs must be around my age, though possibly very slightly older. The reasons are twofold: a) making a point of referring to orcas as “killer whales”, which I’m pretty certain has been frowned upon for a decade and b) using “embiggened” twice: the infamous neologism from America’s The Simpsons that I myself included in my (I acknowledge infinitely less successful) book, the pleasure of regret. Or possibly in the new one. I don’t remember.

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PPS – in hindsight, a few hours later, I realise that the attempt to make myself throw up is actually pretty serious as a signifier of being in a bad place, psychologically. I’m taking myself for a solo minibreak this weekend (for the first time since my solo trip to Grenada in the summer of 2018!), so hopefully that will cheer me up. Or it won’t. (note from later: it didn’t)

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