The first time I did this to my neck, I’d been carrying you home on my shoulders. I’d carried you everywhere on my shoulders, until that day. Swung you up over my neck and grabbed your toes. You clamped your chubby thighs around me and clutched at my eyes.
The last time, you were holed up in the caravan, texting your friends to come get you because I had nosed out your drug habit. The sink was full of dishes. I had done my neck again. We yelled at each other through the rattly aluminium door. I yelled with worry and pain; you yelled with worry and pain.
And out the kitchen window, across the highway, past the salvage yard, over the railway line, through the bulrushes and the weeds that follow the trains, through the shallows of the Princess Royal Harbour, past the cobblers, skates, sharks, stingrays, meadows of sea grass, a shipwreck from the 1850s, engine blocks, razor fish and the brown stain of the river, past all these things, in the centre of the harbour, there is a sandbar where the pelicans sit at low tide, fishing. On that sandbar a young male humpback whale was stranded.
‘The young males are breaching, leaping out of the water in the Sound,’ a young woman told me, a few weeks before the humpack’s stranding. ‘It’s amazing. I can see them from my work.’
She worked at Whale World, the tourist’s Mecca for all things whale. It was the last working whaling station in the southern hemisphere. Thirty-three years ago the place provided the setting for an emotional standoff between harpooners, greenies, bikies and an ex-deputy prime minister.
For a decade after commercial whaling ended, the great white sharks continued their pilgrimage to the whaling station. The odour of blubber and flesh still leached from the concrete ramp where the carcasses of southern right and sperm whales had been hauled up and dismantled. Eventually the death smell and the sharks dissipated, though both never really went away. The whales returned to the sound, and now it’s the tourists who follow them.
On the sandbar in the middle of the town harbour, the young whale’s skin ruptured in the sun, peeled open like a daggy black vinyl couch. Fisheries officers placed bouncing yellow markers around him: no boating past this point. The whale had its own 200-metre exclusion zone and a media agent from the Department of Environment and Conservation. The sweet agony of a dying whale made the news every night during that federal election.
I was baiting crab pots and setting nets from on a small commercial fishing boat when I first saw the whale, the day after he became stranded. I instantly recognised the black swell in the water. The yellow markers around his bulk made a more ominous scene. I half expected to see crab pot rope wrapped around the carcass or something awful like that. Then he breathed and waved a speckled pectoral fin out of the sea.
‘Shit!’ I said. ‘It’s still alive!’
The tide was low with the waxing moon and the whale lay with a third of his bulk out of the water. He watched us approach, eye half closed. From the other side of his head he inhaled, smelling us. Between these two senses was the long, smiling curve of his mouth, barnacled and peeling. His mouth was peeling.
I rang a fisheries officer.
‘He’s sick apparently,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel very good about it myself, Sarah, but it’s not our department. You need to ring Pete at DEC – they deal with mammals.’
The dog was going ballistic. He couldn’t believe his luck. He will bark at navigation markers, seals, other boats, a man walking down the street with a black umbrella – and here was a whole whale. The barking was upsetting the whale and so we did not stay long by his side, leaving to set the leatherjacket nets out near the shipwreck.
How could the authorities watch a whale swim over to a sand bank and strand itself? I rang Dad in tears. He asked me whether we should go out and tow it off in the middle of the night. I thought about the questionable horsepower of my little Johnson motor and said I’d phone him in the morning with some news. Maybe we could spend the day covering the whale in wet blankets to stop the sun from blistering its skin.
‘You don’t listen!’
You repeat this mantra whenever our household becomes a state of siege.
‘You don’t listen to me! You make me feel awful. You don’t understand. You don’t know me at all.’
The next morning, I tied the dog up before dawn. He was not coming fishing. We picked up the leatherjacket nets and motored over to the whale. As the sun rose over the port, the whale lifted his tail and slapped it into the sea grass. The tide had risen. Sea covered his blowhole, so he lifted his head to breathe. I poured buckets of water over his skin and stroked him over the gunwales of the dinghy. His skin felt like moulded plastic with warmth underneath: hard and yet soft, cool to the touch. Eggplant skin. His body tapered into the creases and folds of his tail in straight, strong lines. In the still, dawn waters, ripples undulated away from his trembling body.
I had brought blankets to keep the whale damp and protect his peeling skin from the sun and the birds but the tide was too high. The blankets would have floated away or gotten tangled with the whale. I couldn’t see them being much use at all.
The young humpback was about twenty-five feet long. A ton for a foot, the old gunners used to say. His body spread over the sandbar, less obese with the high tide but still I could see the havoc that gravity was creating for him. Twenty ton at the least of grounded flesh, bone and organs. It must have been painful.
I filled the bucket from between the metal of the boat and the black skin of the whale and poured more water over him. The smooth seal of his blowhole opened as he blasted warm breath straight into my face, my hair blowing back with the force. It was shocking, not unpleasant. I thought a whale’s breath would have been fetid, like that of a seal, but it was clean air from deep inside the beast.
I was pulling up crab pots from the shallows and shaking the blue mannas into a rattling ice slurry when I saw the fisheries boat speeding to meet the Port Authority’s tender coming from the opposite direction. ‘Whoo! Here come the cavalry!’ my boss said sarcastically. The two boats milled around the yellow markers for a while and then left. They were waiting for the whale to die so they could tow it away.
A growing sense of outrage gripped me. It was election day, and down at the Saturday morning coffee gathering, everyone wanted to talk politics.
‘You’d think someone in this town would know how to kill a whale … or even save one,’ I said to the table of friends. ‘He’s just out there! Stuck on a sandbar. And DEC have decided he’s gonna die naturally. This whale is not dying anytime soon. It will take weeks. The whale’s back is blistering. Does anyone care?’
They did, of course, but they had not felt the breath of the whale.
‘A few years ago, I went to a talk by a man who worked with strandings,’ Rosie told me. ‘He said that when whales beach themselves, something happens to their body clock. It stops. And then it goes backwards, a countdown to death. He reckoned that once that backwards clock starts, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t help.’
‘Then why doesn’t someone just go in with a .303 and shoot it?’ Simon asked.
‘It’s too big to shoot with a gun. They’d just mess it up.’
‘Then why don’t they blow it up? You know, detonate it.’
‘It’s moving too much, they reckon.’
DEC’s media releases thudded through the patter of the election. They said that the whale had come in to die and that it must be left alone. Boaters had to observe the 200-metre exclusion zone or they would be prosecuted. From what I could see, the whale was not winding down; he was stuck. He listed to one side so that his eye was often above water and his blowhole faced the town. When the tide rose every morning, he had to lift his head to breathe a cloud of mist above the water.
This was barbaric, an RSPCA issue. Nobody would act on his obvious suffering; we were not allowed near enough to help him.
‘He wants to get off the sandbar,’ I told Dad. ‘He’s just stuck.’
But did he? Was he?
On Sunday, the wind blew and the harbour was broken by white streaky foam. No-one had won the election yet and it was looking like it would take weeks to overcome the hung parliament. I looked out the kitchen window and picked up the binoculars. Since the whale stranded, the binoculars had become a part of my kitchen window ensemble, sitting alongside the juicer and the microwave oven.
I couldn’t see the yellow markers in the chop of the southerly. Maybe the whale had died and been towed away in the night? Panic swelled in my stomach. No. A twenty-ton whale towed away in the middle of the night? Then I saw a puff of spray. I wondered about all the other people at their kitchen windows around the harbour and the strange smattering of a gathering grief. I put down the binoculars and thought I should learn to pray, in some heathen kind of way.
‘Mum. Stop thinking about the whale.’
‘I want to help it somehow.’
‘Well you can’t. What’s this book about?’
‘It’s about the future.’
‘Did you finish that last one? Cloud Atlas?’
‘Yeah, it was great.’
‘You read so many books, Mum. I wish we had a TV. I’ve read so much; I’m exhausted. I’ve read two novels.’
You stretched your lovely, lithesome self on the couch.
I thought about those dishes with mould growing on them.
‘I’ve read two books.’
‘Mum! You’re not listening. You said you wanted me to enjoy reading more. Look how much I’ve read!’
I rushed to you, smothered you with kisses and praise and you received them as joyously as when you were three. How simple it is, sometimes.
This teenager, he would not starve to death on the sandbar. He was living from his fat reserves created in the krill grounds of Antarctica. Perhaps, like DEC said, he had a slow-acting pathogen creeping through his body and infiltrating his vital organs. Perhaps, as the whale expert in the city said, those young warrior boys who were showing off in the sound had beaten him up and kicked him out of his tribe. Perhaps, as the Fisheries officer told me, his mother had abandoned him, cut him away from the teat after the huge journey from Antarctica. She slunk out of King George Sound, thinking her child’s belly was full and that she had successfully completed parenting the child. The story of why the young whale was dying changed daily, until it became apparent that nobody really knew.
The distress and concern of other people began to grow in small, uncertain clusters around the town. Fishing crews offered their big boats to tow the whale out to sea. Which waters would be safer for a sick whale? Nobody knew. Someone else said he owned a big enough gun to put him down.
Whatever the people wanted, the whale would die, and he had chosen a safe place to do that. He meandered into the harbour to the sandbar and wriggled through the ribbon weed until he was stuck fast. He leaned his huge body towards the north and prepared to die. Every thirty seconds or so his jaunty plume of smoky breath rose from the sea.
I did not know which questions to ask any more. Why couldn’t I comfort the whale? Why couldn’t we tow it off the sandbar? Why couldn’t someone put it out of its misery? These were not the right questions. I only knew that I did not know anything.
Over the days, my anger at bureaucrats and government departments subsided. True, they controlled the nature of his demise, but it was not their fault that this creature chose death. I began to think that the whale’s suffering would only be worse if we interfered. The official policy was to wait until the whale died, tow it away and bury it. This was expected to take several weeks.
Now I just needed my misery to end. It was disquieting, it was wrong, it was against my water to watch a young, healthy creature slowly suicide, but I gradually learnt to respect the whale’s need for a quiet place. I stopped visiting him while I was out fishing because I knew he did not like the sound of motor, the figures of humans looming over him, or the proximity of the boat. I could not bear to see his peeling skin anymore. I was crying a lot during those days.
Gannets dive-bomb into the blue, the tide turns and the fish come in.
At the sand quarry, your little brother and his mates played on the sand hill. I wouldn’t allow them to go there alone because of my childhood friend who witnessed her brother being buried alive in a sand spill. (She ran home along the beach, and when she and the grown-ups came back, she could not remember the exact place where the sand poured down over him.)
So we went as a gang. I rummaged through the piles of spoil from old building sites for willow pattern shards and torpedo bottles. The dog sniffed out a mob of kangaroos and disappeared. The children practised their sand-boarding technique on the soft slopes. They surfed that running, golden sand, their arms like wings, feet riding the moving world beneath them.
That day, on the other side of the hill, we found four huge skulls. Brown with oil, the skulls lay in a neat row, identical in size; they were from the last great whale stranding. Behind them rose the burial mounds, fallen in where the innards had rotted, rib bones of the leviathans looking like strange plants poking out of the earth.
This place is where their carcasses end up. This place is where the whales go when they have died in front of humans. They are towed to a boat ramp and craned onto a flatbed truck. There is no brine to smooth and support their perfect bodies. Sand sticks to their skin. People take photographs of the ungainly mess with mobile phones and then the whales are driven away from the sea forever.
On a windy day, I filleted whiting on the verandah of a fishing shack, far from the town and the dying whale. I heard the man on the radio say that they were euthanising the whale that afternoon with a controlled detonation. He paused and did not know what to say. He played a song then, by Louis Armstrong.
It is a sad story, the story of the whale who died for two weeks on the sandbar in the town harbour, in front of us all. For a longer while than that, Daughter – years – your eyes turned leaden like an unhappy sky.
You asked me recently why I was crying. I answered that I was crying for the whale. You were correct in your disbelief, my fire child. You were so right when you hugged me, rubbed my neck and said that sometimes I need to be not-Mum, just as you need to be not-Daughter. I am noticing that wild blue light returning to your eyes, spreading sun-like over glad water.
It is good to see you back.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!