A video in the museum foyer chronicles the dismantling of a rotting whale that had beached itself on a nearby coast. The machinery hauling away its distended remains and the workers standing knee-deep in the guts of the creature arrest my attention; for the longest time I thought the death of a whale one of the saddest things imaginable. My teacher, Mr Maurice, schooled me otherwise. What’s worse than death is death without purpose.
Most whales don’t die on sand but in open water. As the carcass descends, sharks savage its soft hide and spill a fecund chaos that will nourish sea creatures for a century. This harassment was Mr Maurice’s lesson. For months the mobile scavengers gorge themselves on this flesh with the relish of a child who has happened upon a forbidden idea, thinking themselves the first in history to have encountered such an abundant resource, even countenancing the possibility that this might see them right for life (the shark) or make the older boys laugh (me), neither of us realising that as we tear chunks from the descending whale we send tiny, scuffed, and unhonoured remnants travelling ever upward, nourishing strata we will never meet – plankton and other forms of ocean lint – while the slurry of nutrients cascading towards the ocean floor equally invites creatures to burrow into whale marrow and flesh, and, we’re not done yet, grinned Mr Maurice, at the same time bacteria feast on the viscera and in turn vomit up hundreds of years of dinner for clams and snails, the meals kept refrigerated by the plummeting temperatures – like the Titanic, those that fall into deep waters are doomed to preservation, he said – and so as generations of land-dwellers rise and crumble, this single whale slowly passes through the ocean’s twilit realms towards the midnight zones, where frankly obscene bottom-feeders who have never seen light will still suck sustenance from the sinking hulk; it justifies a death.