Since New Year’s Day I had been desperate to see the whale beached on the edge of the beautifully named Ynslas sand dunes in Borth. It was not to be on New Year’s Day, but finally on the 3rd January, during a spate of unexpectedly good weather, that I had the opportunity to see it.
The Cambrian News had run a feature on the whale so I was not surprised when we rounded the corner of one large pile of sandy marram grass to discover that the whale already had company. There they were – the insect-like profiles of human beings crouching in the sand, with enlarged DLR camera lenses at the ready, and all pointed at one, almost undefinable object mooted to its oddly terrestrial grave.
It was a clear afternoon in West Wales, we were standing on the periphery of one of the most breath-taking landmarks of this region – the fabulous Dyfi (pronounced ‘dovey’) estuary. Behind us the uncommonly placid sea ruffled in lines of gentle, geometric perfection. Perhaps even the sea had grown tired of chaos, chaos that had ripped and battered and savaged the coastline since the arrival and swift departure of Storm Frank. The third serious storm to strike the west coast in little under a month.
Yet here was chaos in front of me: expelled, debarred from the wild, blubbery sea broth. Here was the whale.
At first, framed by the lazy brown-gold of the sand-dunes behind it, the petrified corpse of the whale, deprived of its head, resembled a piece of bulbous wood. The swooping lines of its thorax articulated the beginnings of the stomach area, swollen with gas produced by decomposing flesh. A thick rib-like bone jutted from the stump of its neck where its head should have been. The smell downwind was distinctly fishy, but as I performed a little tour around the carcass I felt that the sight was not half as bloody as I expected it to be. At that moment – cast in the deep portentous apricot light of late afternoon, the whale appeared almost at rest. At least he would be, were it not for the scrutiny. I turned towards the sea.
It seemed oddly fortuitous that just the month before I had run a little article with Ego, a local Aberystwyth magazine on a work of installation art by the art duo Ackroyd & Harvey called Stranded. This ‘sculpture’ was also a recumbent minke whale corpse, but this time undressed of all its flesh. I distinctly remember the couple discussing the difficulties of whale excoriation in the ‘making of’ video. In particular, I remember the danger they discussed of exploding gaseous flesh, fermenting in the not inconsiderable cavities of the whale’s famously capacious lungs. Yes, I thought, turning round around, our friend the whale did have an oddly inflated stomach. I wondered if Ackroyd and Harvey would pop round to investigate the competition. They had a 6-long minke whale skeleton, bleached and encrusted with alum crystals on a plinth in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre; but just ten miles away in Borth, the general public had the same thing, available to view in all its tragic, decomposing glory outside of an institutional setting. Here there was nothing but a small, awkward ‘biohazard’ sign to demarcate the pile as anything different from just another ashen sand dune.
We turned to walk the length of the beach and then across the lumpy precipices of the Ynslas sand dunes. I began wondering if all of this creative hype about washed-up whale corpses amounted to a much more sinister indication of something that was effecting the ocean. It reminded me of something Ackroyd and Harvey said on the opening night: ‘for the first time in the history of records, the chemistry of the ocean is changing.’ And here was the evidence, a slice of evidence that could not be ignored: climate change’s flesh momento mori.
(Since writing this news of a number difference occurrences of whales beached in the UK have filtered into the British media, including a sperm whale in Norfolk, Skegness and Wainfleet. Scientists are scratching their heads over why the number of whales strandings off the English & Welsh coast have sky rocketed this year; one explanation being that a pod fell victim to the treacherous waters of the shallow North Sea after taking a ‘wrong turn from the Atlantic’. Rebecca Giggs writes very eloquently of her own sighting of a beached whale off the coast of Australia in Granta magazine’s polemically entitled issue What Have We Done? (133)).