MachinesKeygan S. S. McClellan
I can already smell the misty breath of the Pacific and the twenty or so tons of rotting animal by the time the SUV bounces from pavement to wet sand. Gray sky, gray horizon, gray sea, gray whale. I smear perfume in a scarf and tie it around my face to block out the odor: a small mountain of decaying insides I know will soon be exposed, the pond of thick, dark blood.
I trudge out over damp sand, my rubber boots slapping. The body looms like an obelisk tipped on its side, just as holy and desecrated. She was a juvenile gray whale, Eschrictius robustus, found beached and dead near Grayland, Washington.
In death, she looks deflated. Collapsed. Tipped a little onto her left side, a deep pool of blood building around her head. White scarring dots and scrapes her pliant, thick skin. The team—stranding responders from Cascadia Research Collective, responders from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and representatives from the Westport Aquarium (they want her bones)—circle and flock vulture-like around the body. We set up a barrier of caution tape, unfold a plastic table to stash tissue samples and data sheets, set to work measuring and probing the whale’s exterior.
I touch, with my boot then with gloved fingers, the rubbery, supple skin. The great flukes are like giant paddles, stiff, dotted with whale lice, as big around as my eyes, that the researchers collect during their measurements.
The first thing we notice after this circling is the head. Our main objective is to determine the whale’s cause of death, and it becomes quickly apparent. The response coordinator for Cascadia, my direct supervisor here, stands over the whale’s tilted face, outlining with her gloved hands the concavity above the brow. The whale’s skull has been caved in: she was probably hit and killed by a ship.
The researchers carve into the thick skin and blubber, pulling it open to reveal the mess of organic inflammation above the eye. A sharp probe lets loose a spurt of bright green pus, pungent bacterial odor rising. They collect some, dig further, find the fractures in the skull, the signs of infection and swelling. She didn’t die immediately.
I back away, move upwind, breathe.
During the harbor seal necropsy a few weeks ago, we discovered that the smell of blood (metallic, wet, cloying, heady) makes me feel faint, so after the initial inspection, they set me to record data, mostly tissue samples destined for various researchers and agencies. The others, meanwhile, cut giant slices in her sides, sawing into blubber a handspan thick to begin flensing, exposing her organs for sample collection. They sink meat hooks into the slices and yank, forcing with brute strength the layers to peel back, her insides to be outside.
The researchers warn each other to take care—the rot has likely built up gases inside the carcass, ready to erupt. They probe at the sacs surrounding her organs. Suddenly, a clot of intestine bursts from her belly, pale pink-gray and dewy in the dim, clouded light. Gas escapes her body with wet, rattling hisses. The work to collect tissue samples begins in earnest before the rot can degrade them further.
The smell overwhelms me for a moment; I go stand near the caution tape barrier to breathe again. Onlookers have been filtering in and out of my awareness all morning; this time I engage with them, explaining what’s going on and what we’re trying to do. Explaining it feels better than the actual act of the necropsy. I escape into the insubstantial spark of thoughts and voice, ignore the gory reality of the body.
But I can’t escape the reality of the body.
On a field trip to the Olympic peninsula, a coastline of temperate rainforest and rocky tidepools, my marine science class stops at a tiny convenience store to rest and look for last-minute supplies. As usual, I browse the handful of aisles to examine packages of noodles, granola bars, organic snacks, always looking for something I can’t quite place. My eyes just want to take it all in.
The instructor, Trisha, and some of my classmates start talking with the older couple at the counter. A lot of talking. An inexplicable connection blossoms between our groups, and they usher us into the backroom to share tea, snacks, and stories. Enchanted, I snag a few crackers to dip in hummus and listen.
Trisha tells them about our class: we’re studying marine environments, writing hypothetical research proposals, planning how to communicate science to non-scientists. The couple tells us about their home, and somehow get into a story.
They woke up one night to strange sounds. Songs. Low calls from the bay. They headed to the shoreline, identifying the sounds as whales. Night drowned the air in silence and pale stars, illuminating slanting puffs of vapor as giants breathed just above the glistening water surface.
The two got in their boat, paddled carefully and quietly into deeper water.
The woman tells us how she felt some connection, then. She calls it a religious experience, deeply spiritual. She tells us she’s always been able to feel when whales enter the bay.
They narrate how, that night, one of the gray whales bobbed up to the surface, tilted its face, and examined the couple with one enormous eye. She says she felt the presence of a conscious mind regarding her, interrogating.
Talk shifts to whales in general, how many cultures and individuals, like these small business owners from the rural Washington coast, have regarded them as almost divine beings. Gray whales are known for how they examine humans in particular ways. In the San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, humans and gray whales meet each other yearly. During the calving season, giant mothers bring their newborns to the surface, where visitors wait in inflatable boats to stroke barnacle-crusted skin, hard jaws, rubbery gums. The ritual continues annually with little explanation except connection. Biological bodies meet and commingle; we derive significance from these events, corporeal and organic as we are.
We leave the little store with a fount of well-wishes. I’m thinking about whales.
With a few exceptions, humans don’t hunt whales anymore. But we do kill them. The violence comes from carelessness.
During my summer as an unpaid intern at Cascadia, research bio-logist and founder John Calambokidis and the intern coordinator Kiirsten Flynn taught me much about the organization’s research on large whales in the Pacific. Large whales spend a lot of time near the surface of the water, moving slowly, leaving them vulnerable to getting hit by ships and boats. Indeed, many of the humpback whale flukes I saw during my sessions of organizing photos into Cascadia’s database, wherein whales are identified on an individual level according to the unique colors and patterns on their tails or dorsal regions, were scarred by propeller marks.
Cascadia researchers frequently conduct projects involving the attachment of suction cup tracking tags to large whales. This, combined with photo identification, allows them to track individuals and populations. They also tag whales and monitor their responses and behavior around ships. During one project, they found that in the Santa Barbara Channel, California—a busy shipping lane for cargo vessels—ships hit and killed at least five blue whales in 2007.1 Cascadia partnered with other organizations to research the problem, resulting in the Vessel Speed Reduction Program, which incentivizes ships to reduce their speed through the channel.
Along North America’s Atlantic coastline, meanwhile, human industry threatens one whale species with extinction. Less than five hundred northern right whales survive, a tiny fragment of a population almost wiped out by whaling. In this decimated network, every life lost represents a tremendous blow. According to calculations of population viability, right whales can sustain only one death per year if they are to survive. But in the first half of 2019, for example, over 1 percent of the remaining population died—in total, six whales, including some of the less than one hundred breeding females left alive.2 Before then, in 2018, NOAA researcher Peter Corkeron expressed a belief that “we can save them.”3 But major threats continue, including ship strikes and entanglements in crab and lobster trap lines. Propellers slice through bodies and sever spines. Bows crush skulls. Ropes dig through flesh. Unless we see the bodies, the collective doesn’t notice. The ships chug on. New England’s lobster and crab trapping continues. The machinery of industrial humankind threatens existence itself—millions of years of genetic legacy slammed and lacerated and cut from the world, and not even on purpose.
My daughter and I almost went the way of the stricken whales in 2015 on Interstate-94 as it diverges and loops south into I-494. It only took a moment of inattention, a moment of carelessness by the man who, in all other ways, has shown me utter care.
The rear of a gray SUV fills the sky all at once, a wall of fiberglass and lightweight alloys. Our red Ford crunches into the other vehicle at fifty miles per hour. I don’t hear, don’t see, and there is no pain, but I feel the impact. My body lurches against the seatbelt, yanked up and down by tremendous pressure.
My senses return when time again speeds up. Hot smell, acrid and smoky. The sound of my own voice, gasping. Pain low in my belly. My eyes focus on the deflated airbag, dingy, now taking up space that moments ago was empty.
He bursts out his own door on the driver side, takes a few tries to force open the passenger door, helps me to the side of the road. I assess myself: pain, functional limbs. It’s hard to think over my panic. I’m five months pregnant, and feel hurt there. Really hurt.
He holds my body close, neither of us thinking to call anyone, just honed in on the small world between us, caught on a liminal edge. The future could suddenly be anything.
We hear sirens soon anyway. An off-duty first responder who witnessed the crash comes to my side to help me stay calm. I’ve never felt so helpless.
Everything after takes too long.
The ambulance ride and medical assessment take too long. I wait too long in the hospital hallway, feeling only waves of pain and fear. The ultrasound reassures me that my organs and my baby are okay for now. I wait longer for them to monitor us overnight.
Bed rest and the recovery from deep bruising also take too long, but by this point it’s impatience rather than fear: incredibly, we’re all fine. My daughter comes healthily four months later.
The encounter and pregnancy instill me with an unforgettable awareness of the delicacy of our bodies compared to our machines. It haunts my thoughts—hot engine smells and cars too close in front of me on the highway flood me with panicky adrenaline and flashbacks for years after. I think about the two young men from my high school class who have been killed in vehicle accidents—a four percent mortality rate for my cohort of fifty-three in under ten years. I dwell on roadkill. I remember the dog I saw get hit and killed, imagine the moment of heat and force, try to forget the sight of the owner picking up the body as blood dripped from the mouth. I often feel gratitude for my childhood cat, who had her hips broken by a car collision but survived and lived for another eighteen years.
I think about machines obliterating biology, burning away relationships and connections in an instant.
I remember the gray whale whose end came from a great engine on an unwavering path.
On Grayland Beach, the responders finish their collecting. At the table, I’ve been writing down the names of various organs and their destinations. The stranding responders have been handing me sliced bits of tissue, heavy as meat cutlets, to seal in plastic. Before the tide comes in, however, they have one more task, and I can’t avoid it to record data this time.
The Westport Aquarium, located just north of Grayland, is interested in acquiring the whale’s bones for display. They plan to bury the bones over the winter so that decay can clean them of flesh, but first, we need to free them.
I sink my body, small and alive, into the task of deconstructing this other. I stab a giant knife into her skin and saw down, in and out, to cut through thick blubber. I slam the point of the meat hook into the top of the rectangle of flesh and jerk-jerk-jerk my body, convulsing all my musculature, straining.
Slowly, very slowly, the layers of skin are pulled open like drawbridges. We see all of her ribcage, then her spine down her tail. The soft apparatus of living is stripped away. I behold her giant bones, giant skeleton, can’t help but feel reverence for her even in death. No match for the machine of industrial civilization.
I find her years later on Westport Aquarium’s Facebook page. I don’t live in Washington anymore, so I can’t visit in person; my relationship has been reduced to pixels and scrolling and clicks to see captions.
Scrolling-scrolling-scrolling through years of photos, I see them interring then extracting her bones from thick, damp, coastal forest soil, where microbes and invertebrates do the job of cleaning her skeleton. Then I see her, laid out, giant still, on tables in the little aquarium’s interior. Posters and tanks surround her, trying to educate visitors about her former world in the living seas.
I hope her death means something. I hope people reach for her bones like I reached for her dead flesh, yearning for connection even though she can’t participate anymore.
Later in the year, I read about an epidemic of dead gray whales washed up on the Pacific coast, looking emaciated and malnourished. Not ships this time, but starvation. One adult male, which normally would feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates, had a belly full of sea grass like a person trying to stave off hunger by eating lawn grass.4 Cascadia reports thirty dead whales in Washington (the average is about six strandings per year).5 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declares an “Unusual Mortality Event” for 2019.6
During my scientific training on the Pacific Northwest coast, I get to visit the ocean a lot. Every time I do, I search the waters obsessively for cetaceans, desperate to see one in the wild. Born in the middle of the continent, I never got the chance until I moved to Washington for school. But I longed for it. Vaporous breath, vital and sudden. Sleek, silvered skin. Undulation of powerful musculature, graceful as dancers. Awareness and connection in curious gazes from laterally-arranged eyes. Dolphins, whales, porpoises: I loved them without even being with them.
On my first trip whale-watching, I am glued to the railing, eyes
scanning, heart racing.
In Puget Sound, on a sunlit day of glittering blue water and distant fir forests and snowcapped mountains, I see a small group of gray whales for the first time. Their breath, sulfurous and pale, catches the light. A thick wet gasp as they take that one essential gulp of air. Their backs shine. They seem to slow, wait, allow our little whale-watching boat to catch up.
A whale spy-hops out of the water. Its thick body bobs up, head clear of the waves, eye turned toward us. It sinks back down with an oddly delicate splash. I hang over the edge, mouth sore from smiling.
The whale spy-hops a few more times, then leaves. The gray whales feed from the bottom of the Sound, dredging up benthic shellfish. They come to the surface to rest and breathe for a while then dive back down for several minutes to collect prey. We press on as the waves clear of giants.
2. Yong, Ed. “North Atlantic Right Whales Are Dying in Horrific Ways.” The Atlantic, June 27, 2019.
3. Beswick, Aaron. “‘We can save them’: NOAA researcher optimistic about N. Atlantic right whales.” The Chronicle Herald, November 11, 2018.
4. “Thousands of whales are dying. Scientists have run out of public beaches for the carcasses to rot.” USA Today, June 21, 2019.
5. “Cascadia Continues to Investigate Record Number of Strandings.” Cascadia Research Collective, June 26, 2019.
6. “2019 Gray Whale Unusual Mortality Event Along the West Coast.” NOAA Fisheries Website.
Keygan S. S. McClellan, a naturalist and graduate of the Creative Writing and Environment MFA program at Iowa State University, explores the confluence between nonhuman and human. Her writing appears in The Iowan, Cleaver Magazine, the climate fiction anthology Nothing Is As It Was, Cold Mountain Review, and other publications.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.