In a searching personal essay recounting a whale watching expedition, Grug Muse recounts humanity’s history with these mysterious creatures and our impact on their lives and habitats.
It’s 2009, a gleaming blue August day. We wake up early to get to Barnstable for the tide. We buy our tickets, pile onto the boat, and sail out of the narrow channel of the marina. We pass the colourful houses and lighthouse of Sandy Neck, leaving the high dunes and long beaches behind us, and sailing out to the wide expanse of Cape Cod Bay.
We are hoping to see Humpback whales – Megaptera novaeangliae – a species of baleen whale that migrates here every summer, spending their winters in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Their arrival supports the Cape whale watching industry, a network of charters operating from almost all the Cape’s small harbour towns, taking camera-laden visitors on trips to view the local fauna.
In his cabin, on a promontory above the deck, the captain and his mate send and receive crackling messages through their radio, consult charts and screens. They are hunting, following the signs and whispers that will lead them to the animals.
Just south of where we are, across the slim arm of Cape Cod, lies the island of Nantucket. Now an exclusive holiday resort, its cobbled streets were once home to one of the biggest whale hunting ports of the nineteenth century. From 1690 to the American Civil War, Right Whales, Humpbacks and Sperm Whales were from the Island. Whalers stayed close to shore initially, but at its apex ships were launched that sailed for years, following the whales across the globe, to West Africa, the Falklands, round the horn to the Pacific and north to the Bering Strait. They were hunted for three main products: whale oil, used for lubrication; Spermaceti oil, used for illumination, and whalebone, or baleen plates, a strong, light and pliable material used in corsets and parasols.
Whaling was an industry that formed extensive, international connections, across vast oceans. In 1790, Aberdaugleddau, where the two Cleddau rivers meet, was founded by William Hamilton as a whaling town, inviting whaling families from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard to settle the port. The town did not flourish as a whaling port and instead became a Navy Dockyard, and eventually developed into a major oil refinery.
Nantucket also eventually fell to its competitors. Nearby New Bedford on the mainland had a deeper harbour, and rail access, sending Nantucket whaling to a decline, and by the civil war, confederate raiders had picked off all that remained of the Nantucket whaling fleet. Yankee whaling on the east coast continued until 1927, and commercial whaling was finally made illegal in the US in 1971.
It was the development of synthetic alternatives to whale oil, spermaceti oil and baleen that partly saved the whales from the Yankee Whalers. The development of petroleum undermined part of the market for the oil, and while Norwegian Whaling modernized and adapted to the changing market, a combination of the Civil War and collapsing whale population led to the decline of New England whaling. Today, the uses of baleen have been replaced with another synthetic alternative: plastics.
The blue whale is the largest animal to have ever inhabited this planet. There are Bowhead sharks swimming in the Arctic whose lifetimes span centuries, for whom the ice sheet must seem to be melting and disappearing with delirious speed. Whales test our capacity to imagine age and size. There are species of Beaked whale that have never been seen, who live so deep in the ocean, and surface so unfrequently that the only clue to their existence is the occasional washed up skull.
Compared to these, the humpback whales we are hoping to see today seem pedestrian. Common, in relation to their more mysterious cousins, but their population is a fraction of what they were pre whaling, when, by 1966 they had been hunted to an estimated 10% of their previous population size. Today, it is estimated that 80,000 animals exist worldwide. Twice the population of Caerphilly.
In the tradition of anthropomorphization, the habit of attributing human characteristics to animals, the 52 hertz whale has been characterized as lonely, Moby Dick as vengeful, Willy the orca as surly but intelligent. The humpback, as a species, is characterized as friendly and playful. They are often curious about passing boats, come close, tease, show off. It is why they are such a boon to the whale watching industry. They seem to enjoy the audience, to seek out the applause.
None of this minimizes the thrill of first seeing their dark outline in the water. There is a magic to that moment when you see something rise through the permeable membrane between water and air. Fin, head, tail. These creatures that live in the gap, that rise to gulp the same air as us before sinking back to the depths below.
A mother and calf swoop underneath the boat. Flight is the closest comparison to how they move. No earth-bound creature has the same fluidity of movement, the same easy grace. A male breaches, water foaming around him, dark blue of the back, pale white of the underside. They stay with the boat a while, lolling, wallowing, they are teenage girls giggling in the back of the bus. Then, their attention is drawn away; their curiosity satisfied. They dive, descend back down, and disappear. The boat turns back, towards land.
It is August 2020, and I come across the desiccated corpse of a porpoise on the tideline of the beach at Aberdesach. One of the smaller cetaceans, an Odontoceti (Welsh speakers will recognize the ‘dant’ hidden in the name), a species of toothed whales, as opposed to the Mysticeti, or baleen whales.
This porpoise has been dead a long time. Its skull is exposed, as well as its beak, and a row of small teeth. Parts of it are still covered in black, dry skin. Further down the beach lie two desiccated dogfish, all of which seem to have been deposited here by a recent storm surge. Between them is a line of debris, flotsam floated up. Dried twigs and reeds, small pieces of plastic and rubber.
More and more dead porpoises are turning up on these shores, not hunted but wrapped in nylon fishing nets, their stomachs filled with multicolour plastics.
The concept of the ‘pristine beach’ is a capitalist product. It refers to a type of beach where those who make money from selling access can pay to keep it clean. Non-monetized, remote, less accessible beaches tend to be the ones where the most waste accumulates. Aberdesach is one of those ‘dirty’ beaches, low footfall and no one to clean up afterwards.
I scan the water of Caernarfon Bay, hoping maybe to glimpse a fin rise above the waves. The horizon is empty.
Grug Muse is a PhD student at the Welsh department in Swansea University. She won the chair at the 2013 Urdd eisteddfod and her work has appeared in publications such as O’r Pedwar Gwynt, Poetry Wales and Wales Arts Review. She is co-founder and co-editor of Y Stamp, a Welsh language Arts magazine; and in 2017 published her first volume of poetry, Ar Ddisberod with Cyhoeddiadau Barddas.