A review of Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Fathoms: The World in the Whale
by Rebecca Giggs
Paperback, 368pp, ISBN (13):9781925321388, April 2020, $35aud

In 2015, Rebecca Giggs wrote an article called “Whale Fall”, published in Granta, and chronicling an event in which Giggs helped push a beached humpback whale off a Perth beach back out to the sea. The whale returned and slowly died on the shoreline until it was ultimately killed by authorities who had to deal with the massive carcass (“Beach and bundle”). The experience had enough impact on Giggs to send her researching what happens when a whale usually dies, out at sea, its decaying body becoming an entire ecosystem for creatures (‘fugitive species’) that only live in dead whales.  The piece, which is reprinted in Fathoms as the prologue is fascinating, and encompasses some of the book’s overall themes.

Fathoms contains eight additional essays that work in similar ways to “Whalefall”, pivoting around these explorations, from the history of whale hunting, including how whales were captured, killed and rendered, the whales’ ecological comeback, their relationship to different ethnic cultures and mythologies, the impact of ecological destruction, artistic and psychological explorations of the whales and other species that we’ve rendered extinct, and above all, the relationship between whales and the world of the human:

Pocketed into the world’s natural objects, small, observable cacophonies of the self take place.  What we find to listen or look inside ourselves with, may have its own life, its own story — though it’s a narrative in a frequency that proves tricky to separate out from the tales we tell about who we are, and where we’ve come from. (185)

Fathoms is dense with information. Each of the essays stands alone but taken together they build a picture that encompasses a range of disciplines and genres including science, art, ecology, history, philosophy, psychology and memoir, rendered with the engaging quality of narrative and the linguistic precision of poetry. The book is supported by what is clearly extensive research. The “Further Reading” section at the back contains something like fifty references per chapter. Not for a moment, however, does the narrative lag or slip. Fathoms reads smoothly and easily, driven by its underlying story about the search for self and meaning against the changing world of the whales. Giggs resists anthropomorphism – the whales remain alien and unknowable – in spite of the microscopic gaze, but also, in some way, can be seen as kindred mammals who share traits with humans, like being social, affectionate with their young, and a complex enough brain to indicate that they may well experience self-awareness, feelings and high-level cognitive powers: “But what message should we, who never enter to these depths, take from the whalefall – what does this story boil down to?”  It’s a hard question which Giggs attempts to answer in writing that never stops being, by turns, mind-blowing, exquisite, and engaging:

Vast feelings that slide, beyond command, beneath the wakeful tending of our days. The pleasure is that we are mysterious, even to ourselves. The fabulist ocean, this inscrutable outer space whales return from, in a metaphorical sense, enchants us with our own inward enigmas. Many throughout history have figured the sea analogous to the human unconscious. (88)

The essays each begin with a word montage; a taster or anchor to what is coming. They are often funny: “Pandas as Leverage” ; “Whales with knees”; “Twitter before Tokyo” or poignant: “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Cooks a Dolphin”; “Tomb or Time Capsule”. Each essay takes another perspective of the whale, from the nature of the whale itself, to the various impacts whaling has had on civilisation, the uses of whalebone, spermaceti, blubber and oil, how our love for the natural world can be deadly, the impact of whaling, plastic pollution, extinctions (including an exploration of the anthropocene), whales in art and music (or as music), or the relationship between whales and the cosmos:

Animal voices from the depths of the oceans east today at the extremity of space as we have been able to plumb it. The scale of the universe is, tick by tick, unwound in sound. (179)

Fathoms is beautifully written, always aiming for the bigger picture: what it means to live in the world; and what it means to be enthralled by the world we live in and destroying it.  In many ways, the book shows us that whales are a key to who we are, to the world we’ve created, and to the world that is coming.  The oceans (and whales) are warming, filing with plastic, and our mess is on the move, reaching everywhere and everyone: “icebergs opaque with wet wipes like browning hibiscus.”. Giggs puts this into an historical context that is almost unbearably empathetic. Nothing she writes is overly simplified and yet the links between human desire and greed and our own potential end as a species are all too clear:

In the belly of a whale, the greenhouse: and an unopened tin of spam found ten kilometres down in the stygian depths of the Mariana Trench (surely the furthest point any swine, dead of alive, has ever travelled to: that pig, an astronaut to its kind). (250)

The writing may be devastating at times, as much for its beauty as for the impact of its message, but there is a call to action in Fathoms that is urgent.  Having travelled the distance that Giggs takes us in Fathoms, it seems obvious that there is no choice: “Each of us now sharpens the focus dial on the future of the ocean, of the weather, of the whales and their kin.”  Fathoms is a glorious, beautiful and deeply important book.