When death came calling, we died too

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2004

Low TideBy Brandon Loomis.

When a friend at Alaska Fish and Game got federal permission to take the skull from a rotting humpback whale for educational purposes - possibly for display at Juneau-Douglas High School - he had no problem rounding up a crew. You can always find men with something to prove, either to themselves or to each other.

In the carving of a ripe 28-ton juvenile, though, what proves out is not what's expected. What starts as office chatter about the testing of man against nature - and man against weaker-stomached man, and man against those who would call themselves "Alaskan" - quietly shifts to devastating humility when you're slathering your mustache and surgical mask with mentholated vapor rub and climbing on a festering goo pile that was recently one of our planet's most majestic creatures.

To be fair, there was one woman on this endeavor, a woman who used a fillet knife admirably and more than got her hands dirty, and I did not ask her motivation. I will not attempt to offer insight into the mind of woman. But there were three men on this venture, in addition to the one who seemed legitimately driven by science and posterity, and this is the cautionary tale of them, and how they died a little.

It seemed both crazy and appropriate to boat out past Lucky Me and collect the skull of this unfortunate young whale before it either floated away or got towed off by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for burial at sea. As we motored out of Juneau on a gillnetter, armed only with knives, the vapor rub and latex gloves that proved ineffective, some of us had a strong sense of our senselessness. This whale had been beached for more than a week and was opened up in numerous places during an official necropsy, providing portals for crawlies both visible and microscopic. And our leader, who'd been in on the necropsy, advised us that the stench had been harsh even then, several 80-degree days previous. But we also had a certain sense of mission, thanks to his pep talk. The humpback, he said, is a sort of unofficial mascot for Juneau, and yet nowhere in town can you go look at a skull. Someone needed to act, and it might as well be us.

And then we approached the beach, with binoculars, and the horror sunk in. The whale had melted, in part. In places where skin and blubber had been opened it looked like housing insulation. Where skin slumped off onto the rocky beach the animal looked fake, like black paint sprayed onto yellow foam and chicken wire on a parade float. And toward its head, our prize, the animal was opened and oozing, giant briskets and wet bubble gum that we would spend hours slicing and peeling once we numbed ourselves and accepted our fates as punishment for our hubris.

Rotting humpback has a sickly sweet smell that is deceptively mild at times but rides heavy on the air and is capable of great, gagging bursts that necessitate walk-abouts. There are pockets in the neck that emit sour, rancid blasts, particularly when you're stripping flesh away from the esophogus, and there's no way to do this job except to climb straight up onto the beast and get your face and arms into it. It is a job that requires inner dialogue.

At first we tried the classic tactic of humor in the face of adversity: "Come on. Get up there. Do it for the kids!" There was a comparison to the Star Wars trilogy scene in which Luke Skywalker cuts open a beast and spends the frozen night inside. And our determined and deliberate leader, who made the rest of us feel like children for our lack of resolve and fortitude, was likened to Ahab. One of my colleagues appeared angry in his knifework and became known as "serial killer."

But humor cannot persist or prevail in such conditions, and soon we had to resort to inner defense mechanisms. Mine was a stupid smile that stayed in place well past the event; not a signal of humor or mere bemusement but a dumbstruck shifting in my soul. What started with a spark of brashness - Is there there nothing we cannot do? - settled into a humble study in mortality and limitation, both of man and whale. Ultimately, I know, we are going to an ugly, smelly place. And I can't stop thinking about it.

The beheading was not quite total. We got through what we could, including the spine, but we could not reach all the way to the ground in the center, and we could not, obviously, flip the whale. Not even the gillnetter and a web of ropes could do that. And so our plan of sinking the head to let the crabs do their work was foiled. We'll have to wait out some more natural processing before the job is done, and this emptiness fueled our remorse on the way home. What, exactly, had we been thinking?

A week later the three of us with no particular stake in this continue our internal questioning, and none of us are smiling. One says he's glad he did it if only for the new experience of "controlled horror." One, after discarding his clothes and scrubbing all week, said he's glad for his own educational experience: the close-up with the giant barnacles, the proportions of the animal, the texture of the skin.

I do hope that the last part of this mission is successful, though I won't be there to share in the glory. And I do hope that Juneau residents for years to come have a whale skull to ponder. But what happened in our own skulls would be far more educational, if only I could figure it out. All I can say for sure is that a whale is a very real thing to me now.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.

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