As soon as we read about the dead whale, it was clear we were about to take a field trip.
"Let’s go," said my friend Nathan, peering at a newspaper photo of a giant beached vertebrae. He’s a sculptor, so he has an artist’s appreciation for bones. Besides, his mother had recently cracked one of her own vertebrae in a boating accident, and he thought a photograph of a jumbo replacement would make a perfect gift. I’ve known Nathan since we were both in nursery school, and I’ve learned to trust his instincts.
So Nathan, his wife Morgan, and I piled in their Subaru and set out for Half Moon Bay, winding over the Coast Range of California and abruptly trading sun for long fingers of late summer fog. The beach, when we arrived, was blanketed by clouds. We asked a lone man on a horse about the whale, and he pointed and wrinkled his nose. "Esta casi descompuesta," he said, which, I slowly remembered, meant that the whale had seen much, much better days.
We crested a rise, and there it was, a dark blotch in the surf surrounded by a handful of onlookers. As we approached, we could see that the waves and the sand had reduced the whale to a great shred of flesh, which sloshed limply in the sea.
No one was certain how this young humpback had died. Federal officials had recorded its cause of death as "unknown," surmising that the shark bites on its body had been inflicted only after its death. All we knew was that it had washed into the surf zone nearly a week ago, and that in recent days, the sea had gradually pushed it along the state beach. The endangered mammal had quickly created something of a stink, both literal and political.
When the 35-foot-long body swelled to grotesque extremes, local officials warned off gawkers, since gases inside the whale’s stomach could cause it to explode. And who would want to be showered with whale parts? The carcass soon deflated without incident, but its rotting flesh began to reek, and local and state bureaucrats squabbled over how to get rid of it.
The day before we visited, the state had tried to tow the remains out to sea, but the rope had broken, and the ebbing tide had postponed a second attempt. "I think everybody is hoping the tide will take it out, and it will become someone else's problem," a member of the local police department told the press.
But the whale’s body had, stubbornly, remained close to shore. The three of us stood on the beach, just out of reach of the waves, and looked at the disorderly mass of bones and flesh. Yet as the remains of its tail and barnacled flippers heaved in the ocean, it was still possible to imagine how the young humpback might have breached and leaped in the open sea, how it might have jostled with others in its pod.
It was as close as I had ever gotten to a whale, and, rot aside, I was awed by its size and bulk, its so recently powerful body. Near us stood two other carcass tourists, a middle-aged man and his young son. Nathan asked the man about the whale and its postmortem migrations, and soon the two of them had forgotten the whale, embarking instead on a discussion of local politics and the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain.
The boy, about 10, crouched at his father’s feet, the adult small talk cresting over him. Suddenly he looked up and, with preternatural clarity, said, "Hey, excuse me? We’re standing right in front of a dead whale. What happened to that topic?" We all laughed, surprised. "We moved on," said Nathan in a friendly way, and then he pointed at what remained of the humpback. "And so has he."
To the north, another father supervised the construction of elaborate sandcastles. A couple walked behind us, laughing and talking. But for a moment, our small group took on a funereal mood. We stood close together, looking out at the gray sky and the chilly sea and the whale’s discarded earthly suit, tossing and turning in the waves.
Several days later, the whale’s body traveled yet again, finally lodging itself in a rocky crevice beneath the beachfront Ritz-Carlton Hotel. There it remained, far from the more dignified depths of the open sea.
Michelle Nijhuis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Paonia, Colorado.
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