As soon as we read about the dead whale, it was clear we were about to take a field trip.
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.
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. "Está 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
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 it died. 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
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