Normally I have little or no feeling for dead animals. While I have buried various pets and, on the insistence of my children delivered the necessary eulogies, these have been the exception. Apart from corpses displayed in the butcher’s shop or the ‘real thing’ stuffed in displays in museums, my nearest viewing of dead beasts comes from behind a steering wheel. Dead insects on the windscreen are an issue of inconvenience rather than bereavement.
For larger animals there is more involvement. Squashed birds or rabbits will usually raise an emotional flicker and hedgehogs, badgers and foxes somewhat more. Dead cats and dogs make me sad for their owners and the corpse of a large red deer by the roadside in Scotland did get at me – indeed the image flashes back whenever we drive along that bit of the A9! So the relationship I formed with a dead whale was perhaps a surprise.
The newspaper announced that a young female whale, some 30 tonnes and around 25 meters in length, had been found on the beach St Tronoën, just a few kilometres from our cottage in France. It had appeared overnight. It had probably died at sea and been washed ashore on a windy high tide. It was, the experts said, emaciated (although you would never have known), and whatever had caused her wasting had probably caused her demise. With my wife we went along to see.
The local gendarmes had blocked off the road to the beach so we joined thousands walking from an overflowing car park next to the church. A thin line of people, all ages, all sorts, all sizes, filed down the road and across the dunes. It was very like a pilgrimage. There was no path so the pilgrims had created one as they went. We trudged chatting over ditches, through hedges and across marshland. Children were full of questions, older people related how they had previously seen a whale beached in years gone by.
The final dune at the end of our 3 kilometre walk was more of a hillock and from the top we could see her lying along the beach. Suddenly the talking stopped. Without thinking, feelings of solemnity descended. Silence and contemplation was the order of the day. It had been a magnificent animal and we all walked towards it in awe. Then we wandered slowly round, at a respectful distance, nobody touching. We just looked. It was enormous. Lying on its side, for most of us it blocked out the horizon. Its body was scratched and there were blood stains on its tail and nose. Here was this once magnificent and agile swimmer now immobile, exposed, inert, helpless and obviously prey to the elements and nature’s various scavengers. Whether it was its enormity, its erstwhile gentleness, its quasi mythical status or perhaps because it was a sister mammal, seeing it and being near made me feel tearful, as it did many others. After around 30 minutes we left and made our way back in another snaking file but this time we were subdued.
It had been a moving experience. I have seen pictures of thousands queuing to see the coffins of royalty or the preserved torsos of heads of state (Lenin attracted millions every year!), but that behaviour does not interest me at all. Indeed it seems rather grotesque. However, if I were asked whether one should view a whale lying in state, I would say ‘yes’. Here was something very animal and very profound and very normal. Somehow there was a mysterious attachment.
This article was first posted on 10 April 2011. I was moved to re-post it on hearing the news of the desperate efforts of volunteers to re-float the survivors from among several hundred pilot whales that beached this week at Farewell Spit at the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island.
This article also appears in a new collection of my posts from the Greyhares blog – “In the Fullness of Time” – which is to be published next month
Joe Collier, 11th February 2017.
Illustration: Stranded whale at Katwijk in Holland in 1598