Australian writer Rebecca Giggs opens her book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale, with a disturbing scene: A crowd has gathered to observe the death of a beached whale, a process that can take days as the whale’s insides boil beneath its blubber. As the crowd takes selfies with the heaving leviathan, Giggs approaches an official who might be called upon to euthanize the whale. She learns that whales cannot be euthanized through a shot to their brain or heart; such acts would only increase the creature’s suffering. Instead, a poison informally known as Green Dream must be shot by the gallon into the whale. To avoid contaminating other wildlife, whales euthanized with Green Dream are then hauled to a dump, where they decompose with human waste. As this opening anecdote suggests, Giggs has an eye for unforgettable and disturbing details that probe at the ancient and ongoing relationship between humans and whales.
Whale eyes, whale tongues, whale noises, whale skin: Giggs explores the contours of humans’ obsession with whales over time in terrific specificity. Her investigation is historical, cultural, biological and personal. She has pursued whales herself, visiting decomposing whales, going whale watching and, as a child, reaching out a small hand to touch a whale skeleton in a museum (a skeleton whose provenance she later traces, wondering how so many dead whales came to hang in museums). She travels to Japan to eat whale and discusses them with others—at dinner parties with friends and in small university offices with academics. All of this is engaging. Yet it is Giggs’ poetic and insightful analysis that elevates this book into something unforgettable.
In the whale, Giggs truly does find the world. She finds clues that unlock how humans have engaged nature—tales of greed, aggression, wonder, desperation, longing, nostalgia, love, curiosity and obsession. Her prose, previously published in literary outlets such as Granta, is luminous. “A whale is a wonder,” she writes near the book’s end, “not because it is the world’s biggest animal, but because it augments our moral capacity.” In tracing humankind’s continuing intersection with these alluring creatures, Giggs ultimately uncovers seeds of hope and, planting them in her fertile mind, cultivates a lush landscape that offers remarkable views of nature, humanity and how we might find a way forward together.