Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs

Book Review Fathoms: the world in the whale

‘The world as we once knew it has of course disappeared. Now too, quietly, the world as we don’t know it yet – a nature we’ve barely met – slinks away.’ (Fathoms)

Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs (Scribe Publications) gives a powerful insight into whales but has ultimately left me with an even greater awareness – that of care for the ocean.

We have thoughtlessly caused terrible harm to our oceans and the life that inhabits them. This damage, not least through plastic rubbish, permeates the wider world and has an insidious, often unrecognised, effect on humans.

The title, Fathoms, represents the book well. It is multifaceted: representing the depth of the ocean, what can be learned from its creatures, particularly whales, and the author’s deep understanding and style of communication. Some definitions of ‘fathoms’ are given early in the book. The contents – Whalefall, Petroglyph, Charisma, Scantling – entice.

The cover by Allison Colpoys is evocative and memorable.

This multi-awarded work spans history, science, classic literature and myth as well as memoir. The author is part of the book and takes us on her journey: a journey that begins and ends with a whale stranded on a beach surrounded by people with divergent agendas. We experience the author’s childhood encounters with whales, in most cases as skeletons.

Fathoms is a rich work. Rebecca Giggs shares the information and understanding she has accumulated with flair. The sensory writing in this literary nonfiction work reveals the author’s ‘scientifically literate imagination’.

Those who see the ocean as a psychological motif with symbolic history will be troubled ‘if the twenty-first century sea turns out to be not full of mystery, not inextricable in its depths, but peppered with the uncannily familiar detritus of human life’. Response to the ocean as an emotional landscape is threatened when faced with the ocean’s despoliation. Humans must negotiate the emotional, as well as the physical, change.

Historically there has been a strong connection between humans and whales, with people in the nineteenth century, for example, living in a whale world surrounded by whale products in a similar way to our world of plastic.

A petroglyph of a several thousand-year-old humpback whale at Balls Head on Sydney Harbour represents the connection between humans and whales. This rock engraving was made by the Cammeraygal people of the Eora nation. A petroglyph ‘dilate[s] a person’s perspective outwards, to consciousness of a bigger landscape and to relatedness between animals’.  It is an artform where, ironically, rock has been removed to create a void representing the image of the whale. The author suggests that this gap or absence reflects the loss of whales as well as the business of whaling and its ongoing and unexpected repercussions.

‘Whalefall’ is the natural but undervalued cycle of the dead whale body as both graveyard and life force. It is important for the whole ecosystem but the process has been interrupted by whalers’ removal of the carcass. The author makes compelling and shocking statements citing scientific studies about the impact of defaunation of whales in undersea food webs and terrestrial environments and ‘perhaps even more bizarrely, we now know that whaling altered the air and changed Earth’s atmosphere’.

It is interesting to consider the notion that fewer whales have died by whaling than pollution. We learn about unforgettable cases such as the dead sperm whale with a whole greenhouse and other gardening equipment in its belly. A Cuvier’s beaked whale was found in Bergen, Norway, filled with ‘Thirty pieces of plastic litter: a filmy sheet more than two metres long; shopping bags that once carried chicken in Ukraine and ice cream in Denmark …; a wrapper off a packet of Walkers crisps from Britain.’ It was described as ‘a plastic whale’.

Plastic gyres or floating garbage patches in the ocean are composed of microplastics and are generally invisible. They become part of the food chain. Larger macroplastics and, particularly, megaplastics such as nets and ropes cause suffocation and strangulation.

Noise pollution from marine traffic and underwater infrastructure is ‘reducing acoustic habitat’ for whales. Anthrophony (human-made sounds) limits the whale’s world, creating invisible walls of sound that the whale become trapped inside. Noise pollution hinders foraging and socialising and can be lethal. Consider how noise is also debilitating for humans, particularly as quiet natural sanctuaries disappear.

I expected to learn about different types of whales, whale migration, whale-watching, whale song and whales in captivity. I learned much about these topics and others as well. I learned the extraordinary fact that ‘humpbacks feed their young on pink milk’. Through shimmering, onomatopoeic descriptions I experienced the poetry and ‘picture language’ of whale songs that articulate ‘a sense of the unknown’ and how and why whale sound is deepening and changing.

I was reminded of human engagement with whales in classic literature and the Bible story of salvation and redemption about Jonah who lived for a short time inside a large sea creature assumed to be a whale. Old maps with their drolleries of hybridised whale sea monsters engaged my imagination. I was reminded of Eden’s memorial Killer whales in Shirley Barrett’s historical novel Rush Oh! But the unfathomable question remains – why do whales beach themselves?

Fathoms recognises that technology has segregated people and nature but is now the conduit to making people more aware, perhaps overcompensating by overcrowding places of natural significance and beauty. The book challenges us personally to help save the wilderness and wider environment.

We are left with an awareness to be more careful and thoughtful about how our lifestyle and actions, and even good intentions, can be destructive. We may resolve to help preserve nature through our everyday decisions – ‘eating, shopping, commuting’ and to ‘stay mystified’. We leave Fathoms armed with greater understanding and knowledge and, despite the prevailing damage, a sense of wonder and hope.

‘Whales, I saw, can magnify the better urgings of our nature, and renew those parts of us that are drawn, by wonder, to revise our place and our power in the natural world.’ (Fathoms)

Thank you to Scribe for the review copy of Fathoms.

Fathoms at Scribe Publications

Rebecca Giggs’ website

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