I have an affiliate relationship with Bookshop.org and Malaprop's Bookstore in beautiful Asheville, NC. I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you if you purchase merchandise through links on my site. Read more on my affiliate page.
When Rebecca Giggs witnesses a stranded whale dying on the beach in Australia, she sets out to research the ecological role that whales fill and their place in the interconnected natural world.
When I first finished this book back in January, I rated it 3 stars. I roughly translate that to “good enough but forgettable.” Yet here I am in April, going for walks on the beach every morning, mesh bag over my shoulder, picking up every tiny piece of litter I see along the water line. I don’t want whales to accidentally eat the litter when it washes out to sea. Unimaginable numbers of ocean life die when they accidentally ingest our trash. I’ve discussed this with my husband, who brings up the point that I (and the other walkers out there with me) am enabling all the litter bugs to keep dropping their White Claw cans wherever they want since the beach is magically clean again when they emerge from their drunken stupors the next afternoon. It’s a fair point but my rebuttal is that addressing human behavior is a long-term project but the whales need help now. Forgettable book? Not at all. Disturbing? Most definitely.
Since I’ve waited three months to write this review, some details have faded. The author begins with that beached whale and discusses what causes mass strandings (no one is sure, if I recall correctly) and then describes in terrible detail exactly how beached whales die. It’s not an easy death and it isn’t easy to read about. Once the whale dies (with or without human intervention, which is its own thorny ecological conundrum), the problem of disposal arises. Authorities have tried some pretty horrific tactics, and again, there’s no easy answer.
Another section that stands out to me describes a “whalefall,” the way that a whale that dies out at sea decomposes and slowly, inexorably falls to the ocean floor. The process fosters an entire ecosystem, from the surface dwellers to organisms who live at the bottom of the ocean, far past the point of light penetration. This part is also graphic but knowing that this is the way things should be makes it easier to stomach.
The problem of plastic trash and chemical contaminants in the ocean is also covered in depth. Someone found a whale that had swallowed an entire greenhouse that washed out to sea in a savage storm! Women in Greenland are discouraged from breastfeeding because their milk is so contaminated with chemicals from the fish they eat, it’s bad for their children. Just think about that for a few minutes. Humans live as if we’re independent of nature but when we poison it, we ultimately poison ourselves too.
Ms. Griggs also addresses whale hunting at length. She particularly calls out Japanese whaling, saying that the country really doesn’t eat much whale meat so everything they catch and butcher just gets canned to sit in a warehouse. I’m oversimplifying, but that was my takeaway.
The writing is very introspective, philosophical, and beautiful, but that may have taken away from the book a bit for me. I personally prefer writing like that in small chunks and have a hard time maintaining the focus it requires for long periods of time. That said, my focus may have added to my retention of more facts than I would normally expect. It’s hard to say.
I could go on because Ms. Griggs covers a lot more ground, but I’ll try to wrap up my review. This is not an easy book to read by any means. The topics are difficult and sometimes horrifying. The language requires the reader’s full attention. But a book that makes a tangible difference in my behavior could also make a change in the behavior of others, hopefully leading us to finally get serious about saving our oceans and ourselves.
Rennie at What’s Nonfiction
If you liked Fathoms: The World in the Whale, you might also like my reviews of
- Mountainfit by Meera Lee Sethi
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Buy Fathoms: The World in the Whale from Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC.
I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in beautiful Asheville, NC. I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you if you purchase merchandise through links on my site.