Funeral for a Whale By Julia Leef

Funeral for a Whale

Julia Leef

              It’s not often something happens that brings people out of their homes and makes them brave the summer traffic, but in 2005 it seemed that everyone came to see the beached whale in Southampton. I first heard about it when my mom came home from work with the news. Get your shoes on, she said. Come on, there’s a dead whale washed up just past Halsey Neck beach, let’s go. Let’s go see the show. Dead whale in town for one night only and tickets are cheap so come on down.

I remember being somewhat excited when I first heard about it. I’d never seen a whale before, at least not one that wasn’t captured onscreen or frozen in the pages of a book. This was something entirely new to me, and new to a lot of people, judging by the number of cars crammed into the lots by the beaches. We didn’t have four-wheel drive, so we had to walk a ways to reach the spot where everyone had gathered. Even so, we could see it from a distance. A great, hulking mass, undefinable as of yet. Smaller, more mobile shapes flitted around it like buzzing flies. As we approached, the flies solidified into a crowd of people who wanted to see the whale while it was still in one piece; this incredible creature one could usually only catch glimpses of, just hiding beneath the surface, now lying exposed for the cameras and camcorders.

The facts I learned later. A fin whale, sixty feet long and over 100,000 pounds. Female. Probably killed by a collision with a ship. Dead at least a few weeks before washing up on shore. At the time, there was just the whale itself, decomposing on the sand while adults chronicled the moment with their cameras and kids played in the surf. I was thirteen and very impressed by the sheer size of the animal. When the biggest animal you’ve ever seen in person is the deer strolling through your backyard, a whale leaves quite an impression on you. I stared at it through the crowd and the police tape, surprised at how fake it looked, lying there on the beach. Perhaps it was because the only whales I had ever seen were the ones swimming around on the Discovery Channel, or maybe because it seemed like one of those things that happens on some other beach far away, and you read about it in the paper, mention it to one or two friends, and then forget all about it by evening. But there it was, a mountain of flesh with one glazed-over eye staring through me.

Something as grotesque as a beached whale doesn’t happen very often in Southampton, so the appearance of a fin whale, which is usually found in deeper waters, generated a lot of public attention. Good news for headlines, bad news for local officials. The lede of each newspaper article was almost formulaic–giant whale washed up on the famous Hampton beaches, enormous body of a whale stains the glamorous sands of Southampton, etc. Reporters delighted in the contrast between the rich and beautiful and this ugly corpse. Others didn’t take it quite so well. It’s wasn’t the tourist season yet, but they didn’t want their Hampton beaches marred by the rotting corpse of one of nature’s most stunning creatures. The tourists come here to see sun, sand, and surf, not dead denizens of the deep. That sort of thing just isn’t good for publicity.

The marine researchers wanted to study the body more–it’s not often a fin whale washes up on land–but we needed our beaches back so they buried it in the dunes. I wonder what would be there now if we dug it up again. It would be like a dinosaur excavation, only with a sea theme. Could be great fun for the kids.

Those papers that wrote articles about it–the ones that thanked the press gods for such a sensational headline to spice up their issues–they called the hole that they buried the whale in a grave. But I wonder, did anyone go to her funeral? Or did we all get bored with something as insignificant as a dead whale once the headline changed the next morning?