Strandings: Confessions of a Whale Scavenger by Peter Riley (2022, Profile Books)
Today it is estimated that populations of the great whales (baleen and sperm whales) have declined by between 66% and 90% of their pre-whaling level. We live in a world haunted by these lost whales; their bones adorn our churchyards and private gardens; their smell is imitated in our perfumes; they haunt our oceans in their lost ecosystem services (their fertilising faecal plumes, their carcasses – ‘whale fall’ – supporting sea-floor life); and finally, these whales, long forgotten by the rest of us, haunt the mind of Peter Riley.
Riley comes to the realisation that the stranded whales might be speaking about the world more broadly; a world where ‘the wild’ is vapourised and ‘flows as capital through us all’
A quick glance at Strandings might make you think that the book is about to do for whales what Merlin Sheldrake did for mushrooms (Entangled Life), Peter Godfrey-Smith did for octopuses (Other Minds) and Robin Wall Kimmerer did for mosses (Gathering Moss) and provide a kind of accessible biological-cultural affirmation of the wonder and complexity of non-human life. But Riley, whose socially legible identity is that of a lecturer in American literature, provides us with an altogether stranger, more disquieting offering.
Beginning with his teenage indoctrination helping a young woman load the jaw of a sperm whale into her Volvo 245, Riley’s focus is solely on dead whales and those individuals who descend upon Britain’s estimated 800 yearly strandings. ‘I’ve known them all,’ he writes, ‘private collectors, grave-robbers, thieves, Brexiteers, smugglers, suppliers, revolutionaries, deviants, hoarders, fetishists, aristocratic patrons’. Most of the members of this ‘necro-cetacean subculture’ come to harvest (occasionally valuable) bones and teeth. Riley, meanwhile, ducking out of department meetings and seminars, hovers on the margins, gleaning the odd human or whale life-story while trying to work out why these stranded whales have such a pull on him and what significance they might hold.
In a sense, Riley’s work is something of a conscious continuation of a tradition that ascribes meaning to stranding events – from the Māori who traditionally thought they were a good sign, a gift from the god of the sea, to early modern England where a whale stranding was seen as a ‘certain sign of an insuing Judgement’. There is no cultural consensus about stranded whales among the scavengers that Riley meets: two find them emblematic of Britain’s beached sovereignty soon to be re-floated by a victorious Brexit result; another reads her interest in collecting whale bones as a proxy for her fractured relationship with her father; for a removal crew that Riley joins, a swollen sperm whale is simply a logistical problem to be solved with the aid of a crane and a double-barrelled shotgun.
Strandings ultimately conveys this uncertain reality, providing an impression of missed connection and potentially irrevocable loss; of intelligent beings written off as collateral damage before we’ve begun to understand them.
For his part, after several attempts to explore his obsession psychoanalytically, Riley comes to the realisation that the stranded whales might be speaking about the world more broadly; a world where ‘the wild’ is vapourised and ‘flows as capital through us all’. Here, stranded whales – fat, inelegant, awkwardly dead, undeniably present – are ‘an affront to the smooth functioning of capital’. They serve as an inconvenient challenge to that cultural myth that there is still a ‘nature’ somewhere ‘out there’, rendered on our screens in 4K, that is untouched by the business-as-usual activities of contemporary capitalism.
This idea is given sombre reality in one haunting episode in Strandings where Riley assists in the excavation of a junior pilot whale which one of the scavengers has buried in her garden. Now a skeleton, as they finish the excavation Riley looks at a ‘small mound of earth’ beneath the whale’s rib cage. He catalogues the contents including: ‘two lighters […] part of a foam cup, a ball of fishing line, a Mars bar wrapper […] a mini-ice cream spoon […] a three pinned piece of Lego, a fluorescent squid lure with viscous looking spikes’. Though it cannot be known if this globule caused this particular stranding, the episode nonetheless provides a pointed image of the ecological chaos precipitated by our ordinary life-building activities. Our lives, reflected through the prism of a dead whale’s stomach.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that we see ourselves reflected in whales; read significances into their strandings. Like us, they’re socially complex animals, and cultural transmission has been noted in many species, perhaps most famously in the differing ‘dialects’ of orca pods and in the evolving songs of humpback whales. Their skeletons meanwhile betray their land mammal origins with pelvis bones once attached to hind legs and eerie hand bones beneath their flippers which Riley comes to see as ‘the hands of a decadent dandy’. And yet despite such flickers of interspecies identification, and even a broad move to a ‘save the whales’ culture, escalating pressures like ship collisions, ocean noise and loss of prey all mean that cetaceans today find themselves in a world increasingly inhospitable to them.
Strandings ultimately conveys this uncertain reality, providing an impression of missed connection and potentially irrevocable loss; of intelligent beings written off as collateral damage before we’ve begun to understand them. In this sense, the scavengers in Strandings, collecting the odd tooth or lump of ambergris, end up looking like the characters in the sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic; humans left to rummage through the vestiges of long-gone extra-terrestrials, the remaining objects holding an irrepressible allure, but a meaning that can no longer be understood.
Strandings is a strange book; disarmingly candid and born out of such a personal preoccupation that Riley must have wondered if it could ever resonate with an external reader. And yet it does, and Riley’s writing ends up getting under your skin. Early on, he mentions an archaic term that describes the way that ‘whales (sometimes dolphins)’ respond to sensory overload: they become ‘gallied’. Riley repeats Herman Melville’s description of this state as an ‘inert irresolution’, a kind of ‘still becharmed panic’. Ever since reading Strandings I’ve been unsettled. I’ve found myself revisiting the few, fleeting cetacean encounters I’ve had: a decomposing porpoise at Burton Bradstock, another on Anglesey Island, and, finally, memories of joining the crowds in 2006 when the Thames whale made its journey to the capital (an event also witnessed by Peter Riley). I would have been nine years old, and we just happened to be in London on a family trip, but I remember a journalist asked my mum where we were from, and she told them we’d come up all the way from Dorset specially to see it. I don’t remember much else, but it remains the only time I’ve seen a living whale. Not an iconic leap of a humpback in the pacific, but a half-remembered glimpse of a juvenile bottlenose, lost, confused in the murk, its body scraping the riverbed, while everyone, the tourists, the journalists, the Londoners, Peter Riley, and nine-year-old me, looked on – gallied too, I suppose.