Last week, a humpback whale washed up on the shores of Jacob Riis Park, where he was buried on the beach. Someone on a walk must have spotted the whale and called the police, which is what some people do when they don’t know what to do. Local environmental officials and the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society couldn’t even examine the whale because of social distancing protocols. The whale was young and was likely hit by a boat. There have been more whale deaths these past few years because, paradoxically, the ocean around New York is actually getting cleaner.
If the whale had died deeper out into the ocean, it might have sunk to the bottom of the sea, where it would welcome a whole ecosystem of deep-sea creatures. This is called a whale fall. Hagfish and sleeper sharks would snack on the whale’s slowly decomposing body. For those who make a home in the abyssal zone, where the cold and dark and pressure are extreme, the whale would be a feast of carbon, much nicer than their normal meals of marine snow (shells and skeleton bits and other dead specks).
If only we were all so lucky to have our bodies return to the water and dissolve into sustenance for other creatures, to simply fall. Or maybe that’s me projecting. I do have a Pisces rising, and am prone to astral projection (or rather, aqual projection).
If I could have gone to pay my respects to the whale, I would have whalegazed with more intensity than either Béla Tarr or Noah Baumbach could have ever dreamed. Instead, here is how I pictured the last moments of the whale:
The whale is going to Riis because it is the queer beach, even back when the bathhouse was functional and not in ruins. The whale thinks maybe they’ll take off their crop top because they heard that a lot of creatures go topless at Riis. They’re wearing combat boots even though it’s not very practical for the beach, or for a whale. The whale gets a little more high than they meant to, because they were nervous about going topless, but now they cannot find their friends because they are so high. After a while under the bright sun, they feel too exposed, and decide to lay down on the sand.
But then, I thought, this is just me projecting again, longing for simpler, sunnier problems, longing for my community. We do not need blogs like, “We are all this beached whale dying alone” or “Why the beached whale is queer.” The whale is not a metaphor for what humans are going through. The whale is just itself, or was.
Then again, nothing is ever just itself. Metaphors are useful right now insofar as they keep us connected to things outside of ourselves, or even larger than ourselves.
Maybe we won’t get to the beach this summer, won’t commune with bodies and bodies of water. Maybe several summers from now, we will lay our blankets over whale bones and remember.