a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
When I was a little girl, I liked to walk down to the landwash to see the bodies of pothead whales. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, they often beached themselves on the shoreline of my home in Musgrave Harbour, Newfoundland. My family had to keep the dogs on leashes, otherwise they would tunnel inside rotting whales and roll around. The dogs loved the smell, but we did not.
Back in those days, whales were a big part of backport culture. My dad told me about eating muktuk, and it wasn’t until decades later that I would try narwhal, its skin and fat sliced and diced by uluit and served with soy sauce at Inuit feasts. It is an acquired taste.
My grandmother decorated her yard with whale bones instead of pink plastic flamingos. Porous vertebrae decorated fences and the sides of houses, and I thought they looked like airplane propellers. Sometimes they were painted bright colours, but mostly they were bleached grey-white by the elements.
I sang songs like “Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor,” wherein the ubiquitous Jack of folklore heroically grabbed a whale right by the tail and turned it inside out. I imagined this looking like a Star Trek transporter accident. I didn’t know any whalers, so I learned about the specifics of whale hunting by reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Judy Blume’s Blubber. I thought of Pinnochio being swallowed by Monstro. I imagined what Old Testament Jonah might have heard while inside the belly of a whale.
By the early 2000s, I no longer lived near the ocean, but I craved to see it. I had an opportunity to visit Halifax, and when I told my friends how excited I was to go to the harbour, they were mystified. No one wanted to come with me, so I went alone. The shore was not what I expected. Instead of seashells and seaweed, I saw plastic diapers, used condoms, and tampon applicators. The water stank of sewage, and while my heart sank and my bile rose, I saw a seal swimming in the polluted water. “I’m so sorry,” I shouted. “You shouldn’t have to live in this.”
Most folks use sound to communicate. Sometimes we clap. Sometimes we stamp our feet, but when we use body noises to communicate, we typically use our mouths. Other creatures verbalise with different body parts. Crickets rub their legs together. Rattlesnakes shake their tails. Herrings speak through their anuses with fast repetitive ticks. Marine biologists refer to these sounds as FRTs–because of course they do. Vast swirling schools of herring send out barrages of butt bubbles. If you’re ever out on the water and see a cloud of tiny bubbles rising to the surface, listen, and maybe you too shall hear the song of the herring.
I liked to lie on the beach and listen to the sounds of the ocean. Gulls shrieked, plovers piped, and seals barked like dogs. All the while, waves moved tonnes of rocks and sand back and forth, back and forth, washing boulders into sand and grinding sharp edges down into smooth ones.
Bubbles bloop, sand slides, and sea animals make epic space battle noises. Orcas, whales, seals, walruses, narwhals, and fish communicate underwater in a series of laser blast trills, pings, bangs, bubbles, and beeps. The sounds wouldn’t be out of place in any retro-futuristic sci-fi flick.
Sperm whales, like classic country western singers, vocalize through their nasal passages. Just below their blowholes are two lips, which, for reasons unknown to me, are called “monkey lips.” Air blown through monkey lips sounds a lot like air escaping the neck of a balloon. The noise gets amplified into rapping sounds by the spermaceti organ, a wax-filled and fatty bit of anatomy which rests atop the whale’s skull. The clicks then ricochet off the skull and are directed back out through the solid and liquid waxes of the spermaceti organ. This bit of anatomy is called a spermaceti because once upon a time, European know-it-alls proclaimed the organ to be full of whale splooge. In spite of the prim and proper reputation of the Victorians, they too were mad for anything and everything sperm whale, including what they thought was cum. The people of Europe and the Americas simply could not get their hands on enough of the stuff.
They were also mad for ambergris, which is a special sort of sperm whale crap shat by about 10% of sperm whales. This sought-after poo smells exactly like the shit that it is when fresh, but becomes all the rage for perfumers when it’s old and dry. In 2012, a little boy in the UK found a pound of aged sperm whale turd. This piece of poop was valued at about $60,000 US. Rich people all over the world still spritz parfum du merde onto their pulse points.
The sperm whales, like many other kinds of whales, were hunted primarily for their blubber. When blubber is rendered, it creates an excellent fuel and lubricant. It burns bright, produces little smoke, doesn’t smell too bad, and won’t freeze in the cold. Spermaceti wax burns even brighter, cleaner, and with no odour at all. Candles made of the stuff became a status symbol for the rich in Europe and the Americas, and whale fat became the fuel and lube of choice for the Industrial Revolution. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries prospered through the industrialized mass murder of whales. Whale oil was used throughout the Cold War in submarines and intercontinental missiles, it made it into the vacuum of space with NASA, and until the 1970s, General Motors used it as an additive for transmission fluid. Although the Europeans were wrong about the whales having heads full of sperm, the name stuck, and these giants of the sea continued communicating with one another and haunting sailors with their hammering sounds.
Whales narrowly avoided total extinction, partially thanks to humans deciding petroleum and kerosene are better fuel sources, partially because of marine disasters, and partially because of the concept of diminishing returns. Large scale whaling was no longer economically viable. In 1982, recognizing the imminent extinction of several species of whales, including the sperm whale, the International Whaling Commission called for a moratorium on commercial whaling. Whale populations were finally given an opportunity to replenish after centuries of over-hunting.
In the time of Moby Dick, sperm whales were known to whalers as carpenter fish on account of all the hammering sounds they make. Imagine sitting inside the belly of a wooden ship far out to sea and hearing someone rapping away at the hull. Would you think you were losing your mind? Would you think you heard a ghost? It must have been hard to sleep with all that hammering going on. Whales don’t even need to be nearby to bang bang bang at the planks separating you from the deep. They are the loudest animals on earth, louder than jet planes taking off. The loudest sound ever recorded was a Saturn rocket launch (235 dB), and a sperm whale can speak just as loudly. Our eardrums burst at around 150 dB, and 180-200 dB is enough to kill us. In comparison, we speak at around 60-65 dB. Sperm whales have the power to kill you with their voice at close range, but they use other methods to enact their vengeance. In 1820, an angry sperm whale christened Mocha Dick sank the whaling ship Essex, inspiring Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
Whales use their voices to communicate, not to kill. A sperm whale’s words contain all sorts of information, including the sex of the speaker. Each pod has its own accent, too. What do you suppose they say when they speak to one another? Do they need to shout to be heard over the cacophony of shipping, fracking, and military testing? Do whales scream one another’s names?
Whales are among the most acoustically sophisticated creatures in the world, but over the past sixty years, they have lost 90% of their distance hearing. The amount of underwater noise doubles every decade, and whales are becoming nonverbal in the sound smog. Why call out when no one can hear you over the twisting screws of cargo ships?
The sperm whale is the eagle of the sea, soaring through the deep and pinpointing prey from great distances. They hunt their prey in the darkest parts of the ocean, so instead of using their eyes to lock onto their next meal, just like bats, they use echolocation. With tremendous precision, a sperm whale can target a tasty fish or squid from kilometres away. Much of their time is spent hunting. An adult eats about a tonne of food a day, or at least they do until seismic surveying, fracking, drilling, exploding sea ice, shipping traffic, military training, etcetera kill them, or make them deaf, mad, or uncommunicative.
Some medical historians believe Vincent Van Gogh had tinnitus. He cut off his own ear to escape the incessant ringing and roaring noises inside his own head. His hearing was impaired, and he could not tolerate loud sounds. As time went on, he became more and more despondent, eventually escaping his misery through suicide.
Every year, thousands of whales make their way onto the shore. Are whales going through a suicide epidemic? Do they, like Van Gogh, choose to die in order to escape their prison of sound? Many of them, upon being rescued by humans, go on to strand themselves again and again. Sometimes they kill themselves en masse. We know whales are stressed by noise pollution. Stress hormones show up in their poop. Dead whales with decompression injuries and bleeding ears wash up on the Peloponnesian coast, collateral damage to anti-submarine training.
On September 11, 2001, whales got their first mental health day in many decades. For about a week after 9/11, shipping lanes remained untravelled, and whales stopped shitting stress hormones. For the first time in years, sea life received peace because shipping traffic had drifted to a halt. The volume of underwater noise was turned waaaay down, and the whales rejoiced. At least, I like to think they rejoiced.
Whales had their second reprieve in 2020 when early COVID pandemic measures ground the human world to a halt. Shuttered docks kept pleasure craft from the water. Fear of contagion diminished the number of active cruise ships. Whale-watching tours ended, and whales gained another temporary measure of peace. People liked to joke that even as we sickened, nature was healing.
Unfortunately, the peace did not last. Whales got one more blip of reprieve in March of 2021. The Ever Given container ship corked up the Suez Canal and the oceans quietened again. The economy tanked and whales breathed a sigh of relief.
The peace did not last. Now, orcas have revived and taken to attacking a variety of boats, sometimes sinking them. It feels like the 1977 movie Orca was prophetic. It feels like Moby Dick has become a cetacean meme.
There’s a terrible irony that the petroleum which first saved the whales is now the cause of their demise. The fossil fuel industry has become more important to the powers that be than the people who’ve become reliant on it. Land defenders and water protectors are criminalised, and our world is on fire. When fossil fuels are burned, greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, causing a cascading heating effect. As ice shelves melt, sperm whales boldly go where no sperm whale has gone before. In 2014, a pair of them were seen in the high Arctic, an ecosystem they are not well-suited for. Although the Arctic is home to many whales, whales of the north are capable of breaking through sea ice with their bony heads. A sperm whale’s head is soft, and they have a dorsal fin easily injured by sea ice. As the oceans heat up, sperm whales head north. The ice is leaving us.
In Inuit oral tradition, Nuliajuk is the mother of the sea. There are many versions of this tale, but these elements remain constant: Nuliajuk’s fingers were severed, and as she sank into the ocean, her fingers became whales. These creatures, our blood relatives, offer themselves to us in order that we may survive. In return, we are to treat them with respect. If we mistreat the sea and its denizens, then Nuliajuk will make us suffer.
Whales have been vanishing along with other sea life, and Nuliajuk is furious. We have broken our covenant with the mother of the sea. We are in the midst of a massive extinction event, driven by unchecked capitalism. Pollution, overfishing, ecological collapse, and global warming are killing us. In July of 2023, Florida sea water measured an unprecedented 38.43 degrees Celsius (101.9 degrees Fahrenheit). This is only the beginning.
Listen to the oral tradition of the Inuit. We must respect the gifts of the ocean. Appease Nuliajuk, and fight the corporations destroying our home. If we save the whales, we save ourselves.
Shantell Powell is a two-spirit author, artist, and swamp hag who grew up on the land and off the grid. She is the Yosef Wosk Fellow for the 2023 Vancouver Manuscript Intensive, and a recent graduate of the Writers’ Studio at Simon Fraser University and the LET(s) Lead Academy at Yale University. She has a BA in Classics, English drama, and Fine Art at the University of New Brunswick, and studied art and design at Conestoga College and the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design. Her writing appears in Augur, Feminist Studies Journal, Yellow Medicine Journal, and more. Her visual art has been shown in the National Textile Museum, OCAD, and Porcelain Painters of Canada magazine. When she’s not writing or making things, she gets filthy in the woods. You can find her on Mastodon at https://c.im/@Shanmonster