Autopsy of a Whale

by Danny Adcock

Grey skies scurry South as if they have somewhere to be, and are in a hurry to get there. The sea is still some way off even though I am several hundred yards down the beach. There is a confused chop on its drab, brownish waters, and it does not look very inviting. The shifting sands that slope gently down to meet it are covered in the scrunch of emptied razor shells, and old tide lines like contours on a map segue into one another, and delineate the beach into different shades. This is the precise curve of Norfolk coast where the Wash becomes the North Sea, between Holme and Hunstanton; where North West Norfolk becomes North Norfolk, and where arcades, caravans and chalets give way to gourmet pubs, swanky holiday homes, boutiques and delis.

A few hundred yards away what I am here to see lies forlornly on the sand, its head facing the sea that it must have struggled so desperately with the evening before. This is the last of a group of six sperm whales that were seen together in the North Sea, to become stranded and die on the beaches of Norfolk and Lincolnshire in recent weeks. I have seen sperm whales off the New Zealand coast, but there is little to equate that experience with this. I guess it is between forty and fifty feet long, but it is not the whale’s size that enthrals me, everyone knows whales are big; it is the creature’s head and jaw that are extraordinary. If people wear the scars of their lives upon their faces, then so do sperm whales, and if a face can ever be said to tell a story, then the life and character of these whales is writ large in theirs. Its head and jaw are a blotchy grey-blue, stained in places with white patches in a pattern like blooms in a petri dish; it is scored, striated and scarred from its deep-sea battles with its favourite prey, giant and colossal squid (that is not a superfluous use of epithet on my behalf for both species exist). There are perfectly circular pock-marks, as if someone has placed a cup on the whale’s skin and drawn round it, which can surely only have come from the suckers on a squid’s tentacle. Imagining life in those harrowingly inky depths conjures up images of Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and of course, nobody can ever see a sperm whale without thinking of Herman Melville’s sprawling, mythic epic of life, death and obsession.

Though the whales that died here didn’t belong here in life, in death it seems they do. The tide has already left a slight hollow around this one’s body, and its great tail is partly covered with sand. It is already sinking into, and becoming a part of this landscape and, though it is alien to it, it does not seem nearly as out of place as the two four-wheel drives parked incongruously next to it. Left to nature, gradually this whale would melt into the landscape, like the ice sheets that created it hundreds of thousands of years ago. The gulls, fish, foxes and other creatures of land and sea would be provided with a bounty to last months. But, eventually, time and tide would have scoured all away; skin, blubber, bones and memories, all ground down a little more with each wave, each tide. But that is not this whale’s fate. This whale’s fate is to be ignominiously shovelled onto the back of a low-loader, driven away, and buried in a landfill site or incinerated somewhere far from where it lived and died. Anthropomorphism aside, there is an undeniable sadness in that.

About twenty people are standing around the dark bulk of the whale which lies on its right side, its long, slim, lower jaw agape, and punctuated at regular intervals by large pairs of white teeth. Most are photographers or journalists. There are a few dog-walkers, and others here specifically to see the whale, as well as four camera crews, and an ex-Springwatch presenter. Another car is approaching across the sand from Hunstanton. Most people are taking photographs, whether professionally or on their mobile phones, and I take a couple myself.

The coastguard begins to cordon the body of the whale off. Eventually everyone is behind the tape which flutters wildly in the wind. Whereas before, everybody was milling about, walking round and round the body of the whale, now we are static, and side by side. Conversations begin. One man, who is so inadequately dressed against the cold wind in a thin blue hoody that he is visibly shivering, is so committed to staying he has found some sort of plastic sheeting which he stuffs up the back of his top to try and stop the wind scything through it. He groans every now and then, I presume at the cold, and attempts to re-position his makeshift clothing. As another four-wheel drive pulls up next to the whale’s body, this one belonging to the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Program, he groans again.

‘Once they arrive, the experience seems to belong to them somehow,’ he says, as if he has some previous knowledge of ‘them’ and of what they are about to do.

I understand what he means. Now we are beyond the cordon, it seems almost as if we’ve lost contact with the whale, lost the intimacy that there was in proximity. It feels almost as if when we were able to get close to it, to touch its cold rubbery skin, we were afforded, or were affording, comfort somehow. To their credit, those within the cordon seem to understand this; there is a palpable sense of embarrassment in their avoidance of eye contact with those of us who were here first, but are now forbidden from approaching the whale.

The autopsy begins with a small square of blubber being cut from the whale’s flank with scalpel-like precision. Then its eye is removed. Though I can tell what is happening, the scientist performing the autopsy is obviously sensitive to those watching, for he keeps the eye slightly hidden by his body, and then slides it gelatinously into a specimen bag which he hands to one of his colleagues, who removes it quickly to the car. Whales engender strong feelings in people, whether dead or alive, and when a hacksaw is produced and, with some difficulty, the lower third of the whale’s jaw is sawn through, blue-hoody mutters under his breath.

‘I wish they wouldn’t do that,’ he groans.

‘What’s the point of it, that’s what I want to know?’ someone else demands. ‘Why can’t they leave the damned thing in peace?’

I don’t reply, but I do know that this whale is dead. If in death it can give up some clue from its enigmatic life as to what caused it, and its pod-mates, to leave their normal deep-water habitat somewhere North of Scotland, and strand themselves in these shallow seas then, though what is taking place here may not be pleasant, its death may prove to have some meaning.

The autopsy continues with a ten-inch blade on the end of a four-foot handle. It must be just the sort of implement the whalers used. Its salient sharpness slices through the ten-inch-thick blubber with ease, but at the same time it causes disturbing waves to ripple through time like the angry flapping of an unfurling sail: this is what we used to do to whales. The well-known history of human-whale interaction is a predictably and notoriously bloody one, as is the history of our interaction with many species, not least ourselves. But the figure clambering over the dead whale, eviscerating it, dismembering it, is not just an anachronism, a brutal ghost from the past, he is also a symbol of hope, of beneficence, even though the physicality of what he is doing makes that hard to perceive.

There is a sense of loss and sadness here, tragedy even, when you take in to account the fact this whale is one of six to have died. Though they swam together in life, they died separately, in ones and twos. Sperm whales communicate using a series of clicks and whistles like dolphins, and there is some research to suggest different groups use different dialects. This whale would certainly have known that it was alone when it died. To imagine its unanswered calls reverberating through the cold, grey slabs of waves sliding across the North Sea is to invoke a quite heart breaking poignancy. Whether it was capable of understanding why those calls went unanswered, of understanding and feeling the sense of its own impending death, and the death of those it swam with, is a question it does not feel good to dwell on.

As I stand amongst the small crowd still here, I wonder why it is that people seem to love and value whales over many other creatures. I passed the half-rotten carcass of a seal at the top of the beach, but I barely glanced at it, and it certainly wouldn’t have produced the reaction here today. People attribute value to many things, often subconsciously. Pounds and pence are the most obvious, but not only currency, and whether our car is newer than our neighbour’s, our house bigger, our holiday more exotic, are the yardsticks that society sets us. Society even rates and assigns value to individuals. Usually we perceive family, friends and those we trust to be more valuable to us than others. And in some way we also assign value to the natural world. Dead deer on the roadside here in Norfolk rarely attract more than a passing comment; rabbits, hares and pheasants none. The familiar is also the insignificant. I am guilty of this myself even as I write these words, and the inconsistencies of my flawed, human nature are clear. I can find words to write on the regal magnificence of deer; the beauty of a cock pheasant’s plumage under a Winter sun; the mad-eyed speed of a hare over a field in the Spring, but I struggle with the rabbit. We assign value by quantity and size too, and both of these attributes contribute at least partly to why we often give whales more value than we do other creatures. Rabbits are inconsequential in size, but seemingly superfluous in number, whereas whales are spectacular in size, but depleted in number. Other factors, besides those we consider to hold an intrinsic value, affect our perception of worth, with some of the photographers and camera crew here today being responsible. The media tell us some people are worth more respect, and are more valuable to society than others, and they do the same with animals. There are creatures far closer to extinction than whales, but they are smaller, less intelligent, are not washing up dead on our beaches, and have little mainstream news value.

If somehow the death of these whales brings the wider problems the seas have to the attention of an audience who might not otherwise have thought about their existence, perhaps there is a semblance of positivity to be gleaned from the scudding granite skies of today. The loss of this wonderful animal, beautiful and awe-inspiring even in death, is undoubtedly a tragedy that has affected more than those of us usually interested in the wild. As well as sadness there is anger and concern here today. We do not, and may never, know the real reason these whales came into the North Sea, somewhere they could never survive. Perhaps the value of this whale is that even in death it has the ability to move, to enthral, to excite, to foster curiosity in an ever-shrinking natural world. And it is important to give the whale’s death value, because by doing so we can give value, in turn, to its life. Without the death of this whale and the others, none of them would have existed in our lives, in much the same way we speculate whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound when there is nobody there to hear it.

This whale has made a sound, and its death and life have value and meaning to us, both as individuals, and as a society. In our increasingly dystopic, modern world beset with the constant threat of financial catastrophe, of ecological meltdown, of deepening ethnic and religious divides driven by hidden agendas, it is the value of wildness, of freedom, of beauty, of awe; the value of nature.

Danny Adcock is a contributor to Caught By The River, and The Island Review, and also writes for angling magazine Fallon’s Angler. As well as writing about nature and landscape, he is a keen fly fisherman, cyclist, and amateur photographer. He lives in North Norfolk. His blog can be found at: