Rebecca Giggs, author of Fathoms: The World in the Whale, discusses the role of whales in our global culture and changing environment, in conversation with Nick Pyenson, author of Spying on Whales and curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.
Watch the recording from this event here or read the transcript below:
When Rebecca Giggs encountered a humpback whale stranded on her local beachfront in Australia, she began to wonder how the lives of whales reflect the condition of our oceans. Fathoms blends natural history, philosophy, and science to explore: How do whales experience ecological change? How has whale culture been both understood and changed by human technology? What can observing whales teach us about the complexity, splendor, and fragility of life on earth?
“Masterly.”—The New Yorker
“Fathoms immediately earns its place in the pantheon of classics of the new golden age of environmental writing.”—Literary Hub
“Lyrical…Giggs’s writing has an old-fashioned lushness and elaborateness of thought. Its finest passages—and they are many—awaken a sense of wonder.”—The Washington Post
“[A] delving, haunted and poetic debut.”—The New York Times Book Review
Winner of the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction • Finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction • Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
About Spying on Whales
Nick Pyenson’s research has given us the answers to some of our biggest questions about whales. He takes us deep inside the Smithsonian’s unparalleled fossil collections, to frigid Antarctic waters, and to the arid desert in Chile, where scientists race against time to document the largest fossil whale site ever found. Full of rich storytelling and scientific discovery, Spying on Whales spans the ancient past to an uncertain future—all to better understand the most enigmatic creatures on Earth.
“[Pyenson] draws out one of the most fascinating stories in the history of life.”—The New Yorker
“Spying on Whales represents the best of science writing.”—Edward O. Wilson
“This is a fantastic book. Nick Pyenson writes with a rare combination of passion, scientific insight, and knowledge of Deep Time. I couldn’t put it down.”—Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus
We appreciate the support of the 1455 Literary Arts Summer Festival in sharing information about this event.
SARAH LAWSON: Hello, and welcome to The World in the Whale with Rebecca Giggs and Nick Pyenson, presented by from the Virginia Festival of the Book in partnership with the 1455 Literary Arts Summer Festival. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. First, please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. Also, this event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at the bottom of your Zoom window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from a local bookseller or check out copies from your library, please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our upcoming schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give. Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers.
Rebecca Giggs, author of Fathoms, is from Perth, Australia. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, and Best Australian Essays, among other publications. Her writing focuses on our connection to animals in a time of technological change and ecological crisis. Fathoms is her debut book and was winner of the 2020 Andrew Carnegie-Mellon for Excellence in Nonfiction, a finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, and a finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. She lives in Australia.
Nick Pyenson is author of Spying on Whales, coauthor of the forthcoming children’s book The Whale Who Swam Through Time, and the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for scientists and engineers from the Obama White House. He lives with his family in Maryland.
Rebecca, Nick, join us on screen, and we are excited to hear much more about whales tonight. Thank you.
NICK PYENSON: Thank you so much. Thank you for the introduction, and I’m really happy to be here. I’m actually just outside of Washington D.C., and I think it’s appropriate to do the land acknowledgements too. I think the best land acknowledgement I can find here is that I should be acknowledging the traditional territory of the Nacotchtank and contemporary Piscataway people and honor all indigenous communities past, present, and future who make their home here where I am, just outside of Washington D.C. and University Park, Maryland.
My colleague—my fellow writer who I’ll be interviewing—is in Melbourne, originally from Perth. Rebecca Giggs. And I think she will do her own land acknowledgement because I would just not do an appropriate job otherwise.
REBECCA GIGGS: Thanks, Nick. It’s so wonderful to be here with you, joining you digitally from Melbourne today. We’ve just gone into a snap lockdown, so everybody is insulated in their homes, and it’s very quiet on the streets. Melbourne is within the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and its name is actually Narrm. So, it’s known by many people as Melbourne on the east coast of Australia and Victoria, but its first name is Narrm. It’s such a pleasure to be with you. It’s such a pleasure to be with you.
NICK PYENSON: And I guess we can just kind of jump into it, and what I would say is that one of the things that we have kind of had a correspondence on the side in anticipation of this event, and one of the—there’s so much to talk about. But I think that one of the best ways to frame it is that we both use whales as vehicles for narratives about knowledge—about knowing. And one of the things that really strikes me—and I have a lot of passages from your book highlighted and ready to go here, Rebecca. But one of the things that strikes me is that the sort of premise of your book is zooming in on different parts of what we can know about whales as reflections of greater worlds—worlds outside of our experience but are still telling us about the human relationship to these organisms— in particular, whales. We’ll be talking a lot about whales today.
So, I guess what I’d like to start off is let’s open where you open your book, which is on the coast of—I think you’re in south—the narrative takes place in southeast Australia. Is that right?
REBECCA GIGGS: The opening preface is in Perth, yeah.
NICK PYENSON: Is in Perth, sorry. Okay, so on the west coast. If you would, just kind of share with us—I think that’s the entry point to wonder and mystery for you, right?
REBECCA GIGGS: Yeah, absolutely. There are sort of two ways to tell the story about the inception point for the book. And the way that I’ve spoken about it since the hardback was released, by and large, had been to describe that encounter with a humpback whale on the beach in Perth, which took place some years ago now. This yearling humpback had stranded not far from my home. A yearling is not a massive whale. It was about eleven meters long. And it had stranded initially on a sandbar. So partially in the water, partially out. And under the superintendence of some wildlife officers, a group of the public came down, and we helped kind of move it off this sandbar and back into the ocean. But several hours later, it re-stranded higher up the beach this time and more concertedly on the ground. So, it seemed that it would continue to suffer and die, and it was unable to be dislodged from there.
A huge crowd of people came down to see this animal. And in Perth, although many people from overseas may have an impression of Australia as being very proximate to whales—like living in a whale’s world, which is very true on the east coast where you can stand on the beach, and you see breaching humpbacks during their migration daily. But on the west coast, they tend to stay on the side of Rottnest Island, out where the water’s deeper. So, you don’t see them so much from the coastline. You have to actually be on a boat ordinarily to encounter them.
So here was this animal that people find so bewitching. People brought down their children. They brought down their dogs on leashes. And everyone had different theories for why whales might strand. So initially, I got talking to people about their versions of that story. Some people said to me this animal is probably malnourished. It hasn’t been fed well by its mother, and therefore, it’s kind of skinny. Others thought perhaps it had something to do with plastic pollution or the activities of the Japanese scientific whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean. One person even said to me that they understood whale beachings to be connected to falling stars, although the more we talked about it, the harder it was to locate why that might be. Whether the whales were kind of drawn off course by changes in the cosmological sphere or if they confused night for day when stars started to fall.
Anyhow, so I had all these theories, and I was kind of interested in the ways in which they point to different understandings of causation in the natural world and the way we wrap kind of the death of a whale into bigger environmental stories, as you’ve said.
But in fact, the inception point for the book—another way to tell that story is to say that I was looking for a chance to talk about global change through a kind of Trojan Horse that people found they could empathize with. Because it’s been my experience as somebody who cares deeply about the natural world that when I hear about the melting ice caps and the changing ozone layer, I find it so deeply disembodied and hard to latch my head to. Hard to feel emotionally. Whereas, of course, whales are this entity that we have this long history of projecting onto, considering to be like human beings in some way. And I felt like there was this sort of uncanny boundary between familiarity and strangeness that I could leverage to get people involved in a bigger environmental story.
NICK PYENSON: You speak about this really well in the earlier chapters of the book, and I’m going to read from it. And you are talking about—weaving several threads at once here. And you’re talking about the meaning of the whale. And you’ve just talked about the whale fall in particular, which is just a beautiful passage describing the whole process by which a whale dies a natural death at sea—or even sometimes unnatural at the hand of human causation—and that carcass falls down through the water column, ending up on the sea floor, in which it takes on a second life. So, you’ve described this all.
But you say the way an undersea whale falls is a death plot; it also ignites a life force. The way whales may entomb the history of human enterprise within their bodies yet simultaneously be a wellspring of wild wonder to us.
So, whales are really the inception point, the entryway, the gateway for a lot more than just themselves. It’s like you were saying with the people on the beach. People come at it from a lot of different directions, experiences, kind of wants of what they seek out of it. And there are so many directions to go from there. It’s almost like whales in and then whales out.
REBECCA GIGGS: Sorry to interrupt, but yeah, I absolutely agree with that. And I think part of that—like there are lots of different intellectual ways to come at the whale as a body of knowledge, and then there’s a physical kind of approach, where you’re sort of engaged in this act of decomposition yourself, and you’re looking at like the lungs and the way that the change in the atmosphere pollution-wise has affected the whale’s lungs. Or in your book, we see the earwax of the whale has this amazing almost like a tree-ring account of the whale’s environment history contained in the wax of its ears.
So, there are all these different intellectual ways. But ultimately, on a slightly more cynical level, I do believe that if you come at people on the level of their environmental conscience, you’ll only ever be writing in a kind of pious way about questions that are existential in scale and kind of apocalyptic in tone. You know, these are the emotional temperatures of the environmental moment we’re in. Whereas I want to know this sort of part of you that’s drawn to stay up late watching weird videos of goblin sharks and clams that stick out their long yellow tongues and blobfish.
And actually, for me, in Spying on Whales, one of the most affecting passages was this one—and perhaps you’ll tell this story—but the one about the organ that you discovered. This kind of huge, grisly organ, which I absolutely had that feeling of I can’t turn away from the book because there’s this kind of uncanny strangeness to this particular structure that we’d never known about inside the heads of whales.
NICK PYENSON: Yeah, I was looking at past correspondence, and that’s one of the things that stuck out. This was several years ago, you said. That was a really weird story, and it was a wild experience. And I think I tried to capture—for me, ultimately, this is about the discovery of a new sensory organ in the chin of a specific group of gulp-feeding whales and how we figured that out. And for me as a scientist and as a wannabe writer—as an aspiring writer—I want to tell stories that explain how we know. Because I think it’s one thing to state the discovery, but to give the background and all the work that goes into it—I think that can be really illuminating and also important for people to know.
For me, that whole process was about boundaries of knowledge—about ignorance. If you don’t know your own ignorance, you won’t be able to say that’s something new, that’s something we don’t know, and we need to know more about it.
So, I’m just going to hold that as our next topic, which is about the boundaries—the edges of knowledge. So, the cue will be how whales show us how little we know. So going from the many different ways of knowing to how little we know. But I see in the Q&A—I’m just going to read out this question from Katie Trombetty. “In either of your books, was there a story that you wanted to tell or a piece of information you wanted to share but was left out? Was on the cutting room floor. Didn’t fit the overall narrative, too sad, etcetera. Love both your books.” So, Rebecca.
REBECCA GIGGS: Thank you so much, Katie. You’ve given me the opportunity to tell a wonderful story from the southeast coast of Western Australia. So, I did a research trip down to the small town of Eden, historically a shoreside whaling town. Wonderful place. If ever you have the chance to be on the south coast of eastern Australia, definitely one to visit. It’s got a fantastic killer whale museum.
At any length, the story that I tell in the book about Eden is about nineteenth-century Australian whale bathers who went to whaling stations to climb inside the carcasses of dead humpback and southern right whales to have different kinds of ailments cured. Arthritis, depression. They thought that the fat and elements of the whale could kind of cure these ailments by steaming them inside these hot bodies that they’d climbed inside. It must have been fetid and horrible.
At any length, there’s another story from Eden that ended up on the cutting room floor, and it’s this. Australian whalers in the late 1800s, early 1900s used killer whales the same way that British hunters used to use beagles and hounds to drive foxes towards them. They had a reciprocal relationship with pods of orca where the orca would drive larger whales—blue whales, humpbacks, southern rights, melon-headed whales—into a bay. And then the hunters would come at the whales on the other side with spears and other kinds of whaling equipment. They’d kill the larger whales, and then they’d shear off the lips of the whale and the tongue, and they’d feed it to individual killer whales. So, it’s quite a distinct relationship. And there are all kinds of tall tales that spring from this history—stories of association between individual whalers and individual whales. There’s in fact one whale well known there called Old Tom, who…
NICK PYENSON: Mmm-hmm. Right.
REBECCA GIGGS: And, yeah, it’s an interesting subversion of the narrative that we talk about in terms of whales as victims of whaling and whalers as perpetrators. And it just didn’t fit with what I wanted to say in the book more broadly. And also, it’s hard to separate myth from reality. It seems certain that that collaboration existed. And in some cases, I think the argument that’s made that I find very compelling is that indigenous whalers had been using that relationship for many hundreds of years prior to colonial whalers coming along and stepping into the feet of the Aboriginal whalers from the region.
But yeah, that’s a kind of extraordinary history, and there are amazing photos of whalers out in the bay, and these huge killer whales—like a submarine has kind of come out of the water—this dark head of the whale with the big fin. Terrifying, in fact. But there are the whales, kind of jovially sitting alongside them. One whaler had drowned very famously and was purportedly—his body was brought back to the shore by the orca without harm, to be returned to his parents. So, it’s a fascinating history.
REBECCA GIGGS: What ended up on the cutting room floor for Spying on Whales?
NICK PYENSON: Well, I’m so like captivated by Old Tom and the whales of Eden. I’ve read several books about this. And it all fits into one kind of cinematic story about this pod of killer whales. I guess what I’d just add to that too is that when you recognize that killer whales live human lifetimes and sometimes longer—I think the oldest killer whale’s grandmother or great-grandmother identified over a hundred years in Puget Sound. If that’s true, then these kinds of interactions are as transgenerational for humans as they are for that pod of whales. And that some of these whales likely worked with generations of the same clan of human as much as humans would work with the same clans of whales. There’s other analogues of that elsewhere in the animal world, and that reminds me of some incredible passages from Carl Safina’s book about what animals think. And there’s some just wonderful anecdotes about the interactions between humans and whales. And you realize—again, going to our next peg—how little we know. There clearly is communication between these two species of very sophisticated mammals, and each gets something out of the collaboration.
We should kind of—for me, at least in my opinion—we should accept this evidence at face value. That it is collaborative hunting across species. And if you think that’s so surprising, then you’ve never seen dogs hunting with humans, right? So, this has happened before.
To answer your question, Rebecca, about what I left on the cutting room floor, I left about 60,000 words on the cutting room floor. So, the quick answer to that is many, many vignettes from the life of a scientist in the field. Or a lab bench or in my case the museum hallways. Beyond Words. That’s the name of Carl Safina’s book. Thank you to Sarah for posting that in the chat.
Yeah, it’s the cutting room floor that I lament. So, I’m going to answer that question in the inverse and say that one of the things about learning how to write a narrative in a book-length format is what to leave out. And that’s hard as a scientist because, as a scientist, you’re kind of taught to drill down and give as much information as possible. And if you can’t fit it into the length of a scientific report, put it in the supplement. Or put it in your field notes. And that’s really counter to what a good narrative is, which is giving you just what you need to be carried along.
What I would like to move is a little bit through our outline. We were talking about the edges of knowledge and how little we know about whales. I think for you, in your book, you talk—and this is something I really get out of—you kind of pick up on the things a particular author likes—the stories they like. And I think for you that has to do with whale navigation and how whales end up stranded in the beach. And for Australians—especially those who live in Tasmania—this is a big deal because it turns out there are places where whales tend to strand over the scope of decades. Hot spots. And why they do that is the mystery. I think you mention that example at some point. But this gets at the variety of knowledge and the ways that—all the different explanations of what we don’t know. So, I’ll dish you.
REBECCA GIGGS: My mother is from the southwest of Western Australia, which is actually the part of Australia where the very tail end of whaling took place. Australia didn’t stop whaling until 1977. It was the last English-speaking nation to cease commercial whaling. And the last whaling station was down in Albany, which was my mother’s hometown. But not far from there is a bay called Hamlin Bay, where only two years ago or three years ago something in the order of three hundred pilot whales pulled up. Tasmania, as well. There are a number of hotspots there where hundreds of whales can end up stranded.
And of course, an event like that happens, and it almost has a kind of religious connotation. Like here is this mass of animal life that’s suddenly appeared and is, you know, to our eyes the tragedy of the suffering is so acute. And for what reason? It’s still such an intense mystery. And there are theories. If you read—Ed Yong in The Atlantic had a wonderful piece where he said something like each whale pod strands for a different reason. It’s kind of unhappy in its own unique way.
NICK PYENSON: Dickensian. No, sorry. That’s a quote from—
REBECCA GIGGS: Anna Karenina.
NICK PYENSON: Yes. Every family, yes. Sorry, go on.
REBECCA GIGGS: So, these mass strandings are one thing. But the other really striking event, of course, is when a very large whale appears. I got quite interested in this period in 2016 when sperm whales started pulling up along the coasts of Europe. Germany, France, the UK—there was suddenly—seemingly an abundance of sperm whales just appeared. Individual whales but also in pairs. And because it was seemingly without cause, I think a lot of people were reaching for an answer to the question how are we involved. Is this the result of perhaps irradiated water being discharged from the Fukushima Power Plant after the disaster there that’s kind of affected the whales in some way? Or is this an environmental reason that’s triggered by anthropogenic change in the oceans?
But interestingly, the theory that I found most compelling was actually from a journal of astrobiology, which purported to have done a series of studies looking at the ways that sperm whales navigate in the open ocean. As individual animals moving through the dark, no landmarks, no sense of how one orientates oneself in that world. It’s sort of magic. And they said that one of theories at the moment is that they’re navigating by magnetic sea marks. Again, it’s an amazing sort of sense which is so alien to us. What it must be like to sense magnetic fields.
And there had been in 2016 a solar storm which had in a very minute way slightly distorted the magnetic fields for a season. And so, they said the strandings may well be because these whales are navigating alongside almost mountains of magnetic energy. And when they’ve moved slightly, they’ve become disorientated, and they think they’re in deeper water where in fact they’re in shallow water, and this is the reason they’ve stranded.
So, this outlandish idea that was put to me on the beach initially in Perth—that whale beachings are in some way connected to the astral plane—turns out to have some kind of grounding in reality. And I think that story—to bring it back to this question of how much we don’t know—as a paleontologist and someone who works with bones, you put so wonderfully in Spying on Whales the fact that there are some species of whale we know from just like a handful of bones. Like pieces of bone that are smaller than chess pieces. And yet they belong to these bus-sized mammals.
NICK PYENSON: Yeah. That’s something I confront on a daily basis. And I remember there’s a passage in your book that talks about it. And one of my notes to myself—this is about species of beaked whales, which are also among the whales that do strand on occasion. And actually, their strandings, when they show up on shore—and we talked a bit about the entry points for whales. Their inaccessibility really defines how we can know them because they live their lives in complex, enormous environments. And the only times we get at them is if they’re stationary on the beach or if we’re able to spot them in that 1 percent of their time they breach or come out of the water and breathe at the water surface. And to know about just the numbers of species of whales on the planet, beaked whales are actually among the more species-rich groups. There are some twenty species, the majority of which we know about from just a few specimens, including many stranded specimens. So those stranded specimens do not include complete skeletons or complete carcasses. Yeah, you’re talking about—this is a single fossil whale vertebra. But you’re talking about knowledge that’s not too much different from this, possessing in one hand the entirety of human knowledge about a lineage, a species that’s around today, and where it came from. And as a paleontologist, there are many species of fossil whales for which we have tens of thousands of bones. So, I flip that around and say, wow, there’s fossil species for which we know way more about its osteology than the living species of whales on our planet.
And if you want any better example of how poorly we know about the whales on our planet—these are large mammals that are alive on planet Earth right now—we are still describing new species of whales even as of last year. So where do we end with that? I think we still have a few more species to describe—I don’t know how many.
REBECCA GIGGS: They found one—well, found one—recently—didn’t they a few years back with a skeleton in an Alaskan high school that was like a mascot for the basketball team.
NICK PYENSON: Right.
REBECCA GIGGS: They did analysis on that, and they were like genetically this is not a whale that we know.
NICK PYENSON: That species was actually—a specimen belonging to that species had been sitting on the shelves of the Smithsonian for many years. And a lot of people said that one’s different—that one belongs to something different. And that’s part of the great detective story that scientists undertake—is trying to figure that out. Trying to actually connect the dots and gather the evidence. And sometimes the evidence is a world-spanning adventure. That’s kind of why we play that game, and that’s part of the narrative I wanted to share—is how that can be exciting and a source of equal amounts of wonder. You know that process of knowing for a scientist can be exhilarating sometimes.
And I think about—just as a side note. I might as well say it now. In Spying on Whales, one of the things I wanted to say is how we came to find all the fossil whales by the side of the Atacama highway in a fossil site in Chile called Cerro Ballena. And I just brought a 3D print of all those fossil whales here. And it looks good on camera here, but this is just a facsimile of the work we did created by 3D scanning of the site nearly ten years ago.
REBECCA GIGGS: And we should say as well, these are not miniature whales. What you have there is a scale—
NICK PYENSON: A scale model. They’re not actually this big.
REBECCA GIGGS: Prehistoric, puppy-sized whales.
NICK PYENSON: Yeah, there are limits, right? And for me as a scientist, that’s one of the great things about asking questions about whales. They teach us a lot about the limits of biology. And that’s still an ongoing process.
Let’s pivot for a second to—I want to get back to another thread in your book, which is this—it’s something really poignant that comes through. And it starts too also with what I think can be very emotional for people. And you identify this, that you were emotionally struck by seeing the whale on the beach. And you talk about the green dream. For euthanizing a whale, it’s not trivial process because we actually don’t really know how to do that in the most ethical way.
This is a story in your book about a single individual whale. But you’re not just talking about one whale; you’re actually talking about all the whales that are and their suffering. And so, there’s several dimensions to this, and I just want to spell them out. From the individual level, you talking about that emotionally in a way that is an entry point for talking about other things. And I think that the biggest—I want to provide the other bookend, which is this idea of defaunation, which Brooke Jarvis has written about. And interestingly enough, is a word that now scientists have adopted in full and now use in the pages of scientific journals, including Science of Nature, where you can find articles about scientists studying biodiversity and talking about defaunation. Brooke Jarvis talks about this as loss of place, but I think it goes back to your entry point, which is about loss of knowledge, loss of identity. That’s our entry point. I guess the question is do we need to reinvent a different ethic that’s tied to both suffering and place. Those are two different things, but they’re united when we talk about whales.
REBECCA GIGGS: Yes, that is a very nuanced question. I’ll walk it back just a little bit and talk about the green dream, and then we’ll briefly touch on defaunation.
So, when I was on the beach in Perth and this humpback whale was dying over the course of several days—and it wasn’t a nice death. This is a grisly death. You can hear its breathing get more and more occluded, and the animal is thrashing in the water. The wildlife officers who were overseeing that event and keeping the crowd separate from the whale were talking about whether or not it would be responsible to euthanize it.
So, to kill a large mammal like a whale is difficult. It’s not like killing a cow in an abattoir or a horse. If you put a bolt through the brain, it takes a while for the heart to register it. And vice versa, if you shoot the animal in the heart, it takes a while for the brain to register it. The organs are so far apart and there’s such a galaxy of them that it takes a long time for the body to die. And so, there’s a humane question there. The other factor was a toxicology question, which is that if you gave the animal a barbiturate injection, which they had the equipment for there—a veterinary injection which has a green fluid, and they were calling it the green dream, to put the animal to sleep. Then you would be introducing a chemical into the environment that if the body was not then removed from the beach and put into landfill—if all the little crabs and other decomposers came and fed from the body of the whale, they would be carrying that poison out into the environment more broadly. So, a decision was made to let nature take its course.
That hasn’t always been the case. On the east coast of Australia, there have been a couple of high-profile whale euthanizations. Most notably in Pittwater Bay a few years ago, there was a young humpback whale—a calf—that had been separated from its mother that had taken to suckling off yachts. So, it was kind of moving along, trying to feed from the underside of these yachts in quite a wealthy part of Sydney. And there, they did decide to euthanize the whale. But when I spoke to one of the mammalogists who was responsible for doing it, he said to me, “I hated to do it. It broke my heart to do it. But once I’d done it, it was me who got hate mail.” He was absolutely eviscerated in the media. There was a lot of polarizing opinion around that decision. And I think that was a factor in this case as well in Perth.
So, the green dream became this kind of metaphor I suppose for me for balancing the interests of the animal, the question of its suffering in the wild and how much we’re responsible for that suffering, as against our responsibility to act or to withhold action. And, yeah, I think it really became the way that I wanted to talk about that responsibility for wild animals today. That we can no longer speak of withholding ourselves from environments. That’s clearly no longer a sort of feasible action, if it ever was. And so, we have kind of a responsibility for thinking about the sorts of free lives that we want to ensure for those animals.
There are species of whales today that are more restrained in the wild than they would ever be if they were in captivity because they have been fettered by so much fishery junk, and they’re carrying around cables and bits of plastic in their stomachs, and they’re caught up in netting. And that is a kind of confinement greater yet than being contained in a pool in a Sea World. These things are very tragic and very hard to think about but necessary.
Anyhow, as the book progressed, I also began to look at this question of defaunation, which I think has been talked a lot about in the context of the changes in insect populations, which Brooke’s wonderful writing is kind of focused on that insect apocalypse that we’re experiencing. But I wanted to take it back to the question of whaling and thinking about the fact that we didn’t see the extinction of species during the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century whaling operations, but we did see this huge movement of biomass out of the ocean and into human industrial activity. And in doing so, we triggered other kinds of ecological cascades. The death of decomposers that we probably never even knew about on the sea floor and a change in the energetic composition of those undersea ecologies.
So, yeah, in terms of that question of a future ethic, thinking no longer so much about extinction but about the ways in which we’ve changed the numerousness of animals and in doing so had an effect on the ecological function of environments.
The kind of culmination of this—to give one more minute to this topic—is that now we’re coming to understand that whales are in some ways interlinked with the chemical composition of the atmosphere because of the ways in which their manure fertilizes the growth of plankton. And plankton are one of the most amazing oxygen emitters on the face of the planet. So, some people are making the argument that we need to preserve whale populations at a greater degree of numerousness not because we’re interested in keeping a kind of stable population that will prevent extinction but because they have this flow-on effect that’s positive to carbon capture and storage and the atmosphere.
So, I increasingly think conservation ethics that are focused on the ecological function of animals rather than their charisma or their story is going to be the way things move in the future.
NICK PYENSON: Let’s pause there. The next peg will be this idea of looking in the future. What the stories that are entombed in whales tell us about the future that we’ll all play a part in. And Katie Trombetty has another question. She asks, “What are your favorite books about whales, and do you have book list you would share with people who’d like to read more?” Rebecca?
REBECCA GIGGS: That’s a great question. I loved Philip Hoare’s Leviathan. That’s H-o-a-r-e. Leviathan, or the Whale. From a few years ago. It is quite focused on the literary history of whales, so there’s a big swath that’s on Moby Dick in the middle of that book. But, yeah, just a really poetic and personal encounter with whales.
Gosh, I can give you kind of natural history writing more broadly. This wonderful study that’s behind me is not my study. Ordinarily, I have all my whale books arrayed in front of me. But I would put Philip’s book foremost. How about you, Nick?
NICK PYENSON: Well, I happen to have the book I would recommend because I’ve been slowly pulling my library from my office back home to populate my current reading list. And that’s Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth. She’s an environmental historian at Brown University. And this is a story about a place—about what is now a water connection between eastern Russia and western Alaska. Beringia was at one point in the Ice Ages emergent, and that’s how we think the first Americans so to speak—the first North Americans—came across a land bridge. And right now, that’s ground zero for one of the most productive and prolific fisheries on the planet—the Bering Sea. That’s where most of the US gets its seafood. If you eat salmon or any kind of white fish or any kind of shellfish, chances are it’s coming from the Bering Sea. And it’s one of the best-managed fisheries too on the planet. But that productivity is in large part tied to the animal populations you see there. Whales just are one part of the floating coast.
So, there’s these wonderful passages in there about bowhead whales that can live much longer than we do. And it’s tied to not just place but the people who live in that place as well. Of course, in Beringia you have indigenous peoples who’ve lived there for—their cultures go back thousands of years. In some cases, those cultures are tied to whaling. In other cases, those cultures are tied to fish or fisher or eating walruses or reindeer too. So, it’s not just about whales; it’s about much more.
But I think those stories about place are really powerful because it gets back to this idea of defaunation. We want to preserve diversity, but that diversity is tied to place, and that’s important, even for migrating animals.
So, speaking about migration, that reminds me that, you know, one of the points you bring up is that as rapacious as industrial whaling was in the twentieth century—some two to three million individual whales were killed and removed from the world’s oceans. And the effects of which on ecosystems we still don’t really understand. That’s a complex question, and I have colleagues who understand the calculations that underpin that and what that means. Those species didn’t go extinct. And actually, the ones that we were most worried about for extinction—and I’m going to presage what I’m going to get at here with endings. This question of how do we confront extinction in planet Earth in the age of humans. So, whaling didn’t render any species of whales extinct. Instead, what has rendered species of whales that we know are extinct are entirely human activities—modifying river systems. Or as I was just reading now today on Twitter, the Mexican government has suspended efforts—the few mitigation efforts that would probably save the vaquita, which is a small species of porpoise that only lives in the Gulf of California along the west coast of Mexico near Baja California.
So, we live in a time of endangerment for many species of whales, and I think that forward-looking question—what are we going to accept as humans that bear some responsibility—some complicity? And that goes back to this idea of ethic. Are we just going to stand by while some species go extinct again? Or are we going to try to do what we can? And you’re familiar with the plights—those plights are different depending on the different species of whales. For those who live off the coast—who live in Virginia—you’ll be thinking about the North Atlantic right whale, for which there’s only a few hundred left and maybe only a hundred breeding females. That’s the real number to watch. And they live right alongside urban oceans of the United States that jeopardize their lives and lead, as you say, to much suffering. So, the idea—the ethic—is not just an intellectual one. It is a material one that relates to people’s livelihoods, if it’s tied to fishing in the same waters that a whale species that’s jeopardized may live. Or maybe very remote. These river dolphins that live alongside dense populations—those dense populations may be very far removed from your life. So how do you confront that idea of endlings right now, after having written your book?
REBECCA GIGGS: Yeah, this is very top of mind for me at the moment. I think since the Australian east coast bushfires in 2019, 2020, a lot of us have been thinking here about what it might mean to rescue a wild animal from its environment—natural environment but increasingly capricious. I’m actually doing my wildlife rescue certificate at the moment, so probably next time you see me I’ll have a little wombat to take care of. Or as my partner says, you wish we end up with a baby wombat, but we’re probably going to get a teenage emu or something kind of scary.
NICK PYENSON: A little more destructive than a wombat.
REBECCA GIGGS: Yes, exactly. So, wildlife rescue is really in a lot of people’s minds here. Of course, the whale cannot be saved in captivity. The whale needs to be saved in the wild. And I think this is the big change from what the 1980’s environmental movement strived to use the whale for and what it is possible to use the whale for now. So, in the eighties, it really was this icon of green devotion, and it brought together this like global citizenry who never really—you know, some of them not on coastlines. Some people living in urban environments in high-rise buildings, whose idea of a whale and its magic really hinged on actually how remote it was but nonetheless felt moved to get up and march for the whale and be kind of active on its behalf.
Now of course, they were agitating against whaling governments and whaling fleets. But to be for saving the whale now means to be knitted together into this system of worldliness that’s so much greater because it means being active on the subject of plastic pollution, to be active on the subject of climate change. These are the environmental threats that pose a risk to populations of whales today. And I think that that’s really the great power of the animal to us at least—is that it augments our moral capacity. Because in coming years, we’re going to be asked to care for things that are very remote, be it future generations or people living on the Equator or animal populations far from human habitation. And if we’re constantly thinking we can only act on behalf of things that we’ve met and that we know, then we’re going to lose a lot of the life that makes our own emotional palette so rich. Because our suffering is linked to the depletion of the natural world. I would like to call on everyone’s kind of benevolence, but ultimately, I think selfishly when we lose animal populations, we lose something that is critical to our own palette of experience.
So, I think part of the project of writing this book and your book as well and what you do more broadly is that kind of re-enchantment with distant wildness and kind of sovereign nature outside of human habitation. We need that. We need that even if we live in cities.
NICK PYENSON: Right. There are other nations. That’s a line from Henry Beston’s Outermost House. “In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with senses that we had lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. Or in some cases, with whales we actually do hear the voices, but we still don’t know what they say. They are not brethren. They are not underlings. They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”
So, I think enchantment with the wildness—that goes back to the ways of knowing that you write so powerfully about. I was thinking you weave together in your book those ways of knowing, whether they’re in a museum—you talk about walking with your sister through—is it in Western Australia? The museum in Perth? Yeah. Walking down the staircase looking at a whale skeleton and kind of transport the reader through that. But braiding it with the lives of stranded whales—the suffering that we see. The numbers of plastic bags that end up with them.
So, life in the anthropocene is about—at least, I think you were kind of asking me how much this resonates. For me, it’s about being a good ancestor. I’m a bit biased, but I think you can make the argument this is a great time to be alive. We really are at a junction when we understand our imprint on the natural world. You can’t deny that. And if you at all have a moral conscience, suffering is linked to that. This is acute if you’re in Australia. How many billions of animal lives were killed in the wildfires? I mean, untold numbers. And whether you think that there’s a scala naturae for bugs or mammals—if you just cut it at mammals, that’s still a lot of mammal life that has perished. And we are at the—it’s not a unique event. That was not a cataclysm that could not have been predicted, right? So, we have only more and more knowledge. I guess the question is are we going to use that to empower ourselves as good ancestors? To have an ethic that is expansive.
And I guess that enchantment—necessarily if you’re going to be enchanted by whales, it has to be removed. You have to undergo this journey of the imagination. You may be so lucky to experience a whale up close, living or cast on the beach. But if not, studying them and knowing about them—I think it’s not just what scientists say. It’s what anybody can glean and what anybody feels like they can know that tells us about lives outside of our own. Because whales are out there living lives in ways that we are only beginning to understand and know, far removed from our lives in cities and in other places.
I noticed we’re coming up on time here. Is there anything that you want to share about maybe what you’re working on next? You kind of hinted at this in our correspondence.
REBECCA GIGGS: Yeah. Maybe I’ll just finish by kind of putting a capstone on what you’ve just said so eloquently. Which is that, as you were speaking just then, I was thinking of a quote from Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who worked on the ozone layer. He said something once like what is the point of developing a science that is capable of making really accurate predictions if all we’re willing to do is stand around and watch and wait for them to come true.
And I do think that there’s a sense in which, even as we’re discovering more and more every day there are animals with cognitive abilities that match ours, that have equally complex cultures, that are in and of themselves the other nations, the one thing that we do seem to have that is unique is an ability to forecast the future. And not just to adapt to current conditions but to change our behavior in line with that vision of the future. And knowing that about ourselves, I think that should give us even more impetus to act. Because we are the future-imagining animal.
What I’m working on next—at the moment, it’s like a wall of Post-It notes. I’m just building myself into a cave of ideas. But, yeah, I’m doing some work on pets at the moment. And, yeah, a kind of mirror to Fathoms to some extent because they are the most proximate animal as opposed to the most distant. And very different emotional state attached to pets. It’s all about affection rather than awe and wonder. But I’m just beginning to feel my way into that topic. Yeah, and doing some other bits and pieces of freelance work at the moment.
But you have a children’s book out. I know we’ve got just one more minute but tell us about the children’s book before we have to sign off.
NICK PYENSON: Yeah, it’s a spinoff of a chapter in Spying on Whales that I co-wrote with the illustrator of Spying on Whales, Alex Boersma. And so, it’s a kids’ book. It’ll be out next year. It’s all about a bowhead whale that lives centuries and the worlds that it experiences that change in front of it for both itself and its genealogy. So, it’s really whales telling us about worlds beyond us, and it’s a book about climate change. It’s about the future. Because the world that a whale born today in the Arctic will experience is unlike any of its ancestors since that lineage started three million years ago. So that’s a captivating premise, and the challenge is to write something compelling with it.
REBECCA GIGGS: Do you have a cover image for it?
NICK PYENSON: I do not, not with me, but we’ll share it soon on social media. Alex Boersma is doing watercolor and other media, not just the line cut that you see in black and white in the book. It’s a different style. But yeah, it’s telling the story of many generations from the perspective of the whale herself.
REBECCA GIGGS: Let me just show you, before we sign off, the paperback cover for Fathom. Because the hardback has been out for a little while now.
NICK PYENSON: And that’s the US that’s available—that’s the US cover, right?
REBECCA GIGGS: Yeah. So, if people are trying to find it in the store, it’s this sort of glossy blue cover now. Yeah, so I’m excited. These just arrived yesterday.
NICK PYENSON: That is one of the great things. I have a soft version of the hardback, which I call the Wonder Woman 1984 cover because it’s got all that kind of Hollywood gloss. Congratulations on the success with that book and the awards and the acclaim that it’s garnered, Rebecca, and it’s great to chat with you.
I think I’m under obligation, unfortunately, to wrap things up. And I want to thank Rebecca coming to us from a half a world away and to read more of her book. And I also want to thank the organizers of the Virginia Festival of the Book, who are over it. VaBook.org. And to check out any future virtual events that they may be holding.
Oh, I see one more Q&A. I think we have time. I’ll wait until the hook comes over. Jordan Taylor. “Whales have such a rich literary and scientific tradition, but have you ever encountered a work of art in another medium that conveys the expansive sense you both find in whales?” Music, art, you know.
REBECCA GIGGS: I love museum artifacts as a form of sculpture. The osteology, the amazing skeletons. But also, there are some fantastic fiberglass versions of whales in a museum in Minoh Park in Japan and also in the Natural History Museum in London. And then just whale songs—recordings of whale songs really, I find bewitching. And I often sort of play that in the background when I’m working, just to have this presence of some other kind of intelligence in the space.
NICK PYENSON: YouTube is great that way, isn’t it? I like your plug for—I’m a little biased as a museum curator. I love the plug for museums. And what I’d say is support those museums wherever they are. Whether they’re museums of culture or natural history, those are the places that carry knowledge forward—that preserve it outside of our lives—and help inform future generations. That’s part of being a good ancestor. So that would be my plug.
REBECCA GIGGS: And we just don’t know, do we? I feel like what we’re discovering now in terms of the technological ability to look at these old bones and extract new information—just these archives of natural specimens. What’s going to come online in ten years’ time, twenty years’ time? The genetic technology. People can think we’re just keeping these dusty bones as a kind of tabula rasa for life that’s in these drawers. But actually, what they’re going to unfold in the future will be miraculous. So, yeah, I agree absolutely. Support your local museums.
NICK PYENSON: The way I think of it is natural history museums in particular save the world. And the director of my museum has a bumper sticker in his office that says that. And it sounds saccharine, but it actually is—you can read it literally. Parts of worlds that go back in geologic time are saved in museums. And we want to know about them because the people who founded museums could not know how important museums are right now today, as we’re losing parts of the world, as parts of the world are changing. So, if you want to know what the next few generations, decades, centuries are going to look like, we’re going to need museums moving forward as much as we need scientists participating in decision-making processes, as much as we need an informed electorate too. So that’s why I think you can’t go wrong writing kids’ books because they will end up being future voters. So, if you can help inspire wonder—and there’s lot of ways to inspire wonder.
REBECCA GIGGS: Thank you so much.
NICK PYENSON: Sure, no problem. We’ll have to talk more.
REBECCA GIGGS: So much to think about. Yeah. It’s been such a pleasure to make this happen and in front of an audience as well. I think we would’ve had a great conversation no matter what.
NICK PYENSON: I know, I know.
REBECCA GIGGS: But thank you to the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m really happy.
NICK PYENSON: Thanks so much. I think it’s on me to sign off. I’ve already kind of given my sign off, and we’re just kind of like newscaster banter here right now. But I’m waiting for them to cancel. But I think we’re at time at an hour. Yes, I can just say bye now. So that’s what I’ll say. I’ll say bye now. Thank you. And there will be a recording over at the Virginia Festival of the Book and the fine people who have organized that. Thanks so much. Thank you for joining us. Thank you, Rebecca.
REBECCA GIGGS: Thank you. Take care. Bye-bye.
NICK PYENSON: Bye.