The Best Australian Essays 2016. Melbourne: Black Inc, 2015. (Originally published in Granta Issue 133 ‘What Have We Done’, December 2015.
Edited by Sigrid Rausing
Here is a story I heard on the beach, about whales that die very far out to sea, perhaps of old age or ship strike. If they are not washed into shallower water by the wind and tides, their massive bodies eventually sink, and simultaneously decay as they sink; they are continuously pecked at by fish, swimming crabs, amphipods and sharks attracted to the carcass. It takes a long time. Weeks, months. Later the whale will slip below the depth where epipelagic foragers can feed off it. As the pressure compounds, the whale’s body decelerates in its fall, and putrefying gases build up in its softening tissues. It drifts past fish that no longer look like anything we might call fish, but bottled fireworks, reticulated rigging and musical instruments turned inside out. The whale enters the abyssopelagic zone. No light has ever shone here, for so long as the world has had water. Purblind hagfish creep, jawless, pale as the liberated internal organs of other sea animals. The only sound is the tickly scrunch of brittle stars, splitting themselves in half and eating one another alive. Slowly. It is very cold. Hell’s analogue on earth. Hagfish rise to meet the carcass and tunnel in, lathering their burrows with mucus. They absorb whalish nutrients through their skin.
The whale body reaches a point where the buoyancy of its meat and organs is only tethered down by the force of its falling bones. Methane is released in minuscule bubbles. It scatters skin and sodden flesh below it, upon which grows a carpet of white worms waving upwards (grass on its grave). Then, sometimes, the entire whale skeleton will suddenly burst through the cloud of its carcass. For a time, the skeleton might stay hitched jerkily at the spine to its parachute of muscle; a macabre marionette dangling in the slight currents. Then it drops, falls quickly to the sea floor, into the plush cemetery of the worms. Gusts of billowing silt roll away. The mantle of the whale’s pulpier parts settles over it. Marine snow (anonymous matter, ground to a salt in the lighter layers of the sea) beats down ceaselessly. Rat-tails, devouring snails and more polychaetes appear. The bones are stripped and then fluff up with silver-white bacteria, so that it appears as if the skeleton is draped in metres of downy towelling. Years may pass, decades even, before there is nothing left except a dent that holds the dark darker.