A mile down the shoreline I see what looks like a trawler wrecked on the beach.
But it’s not a boat; it’s a whale.
And up close, its massive contours seem surreal. Under the wide sky and with the backdrop of the sea whence it has come, it is both in and out of its element, natural and unnatural; its black skin is blotched with pink abrasions from getting pushed aground, the huge pleats of its distensible throat looking like the planks of a wooden vessel. Its mouth bites a bulldozer’s wedge of beach sandwich. In life, this Jonah-gulping throat ballooned like a pelican’s pouch, engulfing a swimming pool of ocean and the tiny food therein. Then that balloon would contract while its mother tongue strained water through the mouth-rimming brush of baleen, concentrating entrapped hordes of plankton into a satisfying swallow.
Its blowholes are slammed shut like deck hatches. The sun paints a lifelike highlight onto its open eye. Blood and fluid ooze from a wound near the base of its pectoral fin, as though the percolating corpse is just another leaking tanker. Whales were once civilization’s chief source of oil, the world’s living wells, and we pumped the sea nearly dry of them. We’ve learned little of whales and nothing of oil. The U.S. burns over 20 million barrels of oil a day, about the same as the industrial behemoths Japan, Germany, Russia, China and India – combined. The resulting climate change has consequences for plankton and, therefore, for whales that – unlike this one – must face an uncertain future.