REBECCA GIGGS The world in the whale

When WA author Rebecca Giggs encountered a humpback whale washed up on a Perth beach, she began to wonder how the lives of whales might shed light on the condition of our seas. The investigative journey that followed took her to the depths of the ocean and across the world, culminating in her first published book; Fathoms: the World in the Whale (out now through Scribe Publications). BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with Giggs to find out what her research revealed, from whale “pop” songs, the whaling trade in Japan, their environmental importance, and why they still remain a mystery to this day.

Congratulations on the release of this book. Do you remember a moment that you first felt you wanted to write it, or was it a combination of experiences or intrigue that grew over time?

Fathoms was initially contracted as a short book about how the lives of whales shed light on the condition of our seas. I wrote about my experiences helping out at a whale beaching south of City Beach. At that point I believed the book would largely focus on this event alone.

In time, Fathoms broadened out to link whales to bigger concerns about the hidden impacts we have on nature. Like, what does it mean to want to “save” animals now? Is our fawning over cute, big-eyed creatures on social media related to a fear that the environment is irrevocably changed? What are our obligations to the other species we expect to share a future with; and what sort of lives do we want to safeguard for those animals in the wild?

Why was Fathoms something you felt needed to be written? Is there still a lot we as humans still don’t know about whales?

Whales are very mysterious animals. There are some whale species we only know from skulls and spinal bones found on remote beaches — whales that people have never seen alive. In 2016 scientists discovered an entirely new kind of whale when they ran tests on a skeleton that had hung, for many years, as a mascot in the gymnasium of an Alaskan high school.

And yet, however bewitching and remote they seem, today whales are also returning to us junk that we have overlooked: some whales are washing up with stomachs full of plastic waste. Not all of this is rubbish from the fisheries industry; whales have been discovered having swallowed pairs of jeans, flowerpots, DVDs, ice cream tubs. It was this dissonance that really got a hold of me as a writer. The incongruity of whales being, at once, strange, wild wonders, and also archives of human consumer culture.

And what do you feel are the greatest mysteries about whales that you personally, or in the scientific and research community are yet to solve?

We are still only just beginning to grasp the function of whales not just in marine food-webs, but in larger cycles of energy and matter. I think most people, by now, are vaguely familiar with the idea that trees and forests help to regulate the climate. But it’s surprising to learn that whales too, change the chemical composition of the atmosphere and play a role in Earth’s climate system.

Because of how they feed, some whales move great volumes of organic matter from slow-moving deep waters, up to more rapidly mixing, lighter layers of the sea, and their manure fertilises the growth of plankton, which are akin to tiny plants. In turn, plankton absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen on a planetary scale. I believe that over the next decade we’ll come to better understand animals not just as victims of environmental change, but as active agents in ecological systems that shape the weather, the sea and the landscape.

In the book you recount your experiences as a child seeing the blue whale skeleton at the WA Museum and it having quite an impact on you. In what other ways is Western Australia central to both your development as a writer, and to the content of the book as a whole?

Perth is still my home in Australia. I’m usually there for around three or four months in the year, tapping away at my laptop in one of the municipal libraries. Fathoms features the WA Museum, yes, and also the south coast beaches my mother grew up on. WA shaped me as a writer, and continues to.

I often think this has something to do with the feeling of living in the thin margin between two inscrutable and powerful environments: the great flat shield-rock of the Yilgarn Craton inland, and the Diamantina Deep: the deepest marine ravine in the Indian Ocean, which is lined with a kind of ooze that has existed there since the Jurassic.

In a more pragmatic sense, my early writing was nurtured by the Perth literary community, particularly when I was getting started. I feel a lot of loyalty and gratitude to Perth bookstores, book clubs, WA writers and artistic institutions. This city is my point of orientation, even when I’m off pursuing stories elsewhere in the world.

You also investigated the whaling industry in Japan. That must have been hard when you had immersed yourself so much in the subject matter, but was it necessary in trying to paint a picture of the reality for whales even now in contemporary times?

I went to Japan not only to reflect on why whales are still eaten in some parts of the world, but also to look back at my own context from afar, and to consider to what degree my feelings about whales were the product of my upbringing and the setting in which I formed my ideas. I expected to learn that the Japanese thought of whales in a mercenary way, as a natural resource; I guess, as we might think of sardines, oysters, or any other marine creature we customarily harvest for food.

But that wasn’t the case. The basis of Japanese whaling lies in politics and symbolism, just as our strong connection to whales is, also, about history and cultural narrative. The time I spent there helped me to see that contradictory ideas about animals can share similar taproots.

I imagine despite publishing this book, you’ll always feel academically and emotionally invested in the world of whales, but are you looking to try your hand at another subject next and if so what might it be?

I’m playing around with several ideas for my next book, a process which mainly involves throwing lots and lots of coloured post-its up on the wall, and then inching them around day by day, staring at them to see possible points of connection. At the beginning, everything seems possible! Yes, I think I’ll always feel a strong attachment to whales, but I’m hoping to turn my attention to something smaller in scale next.

athoms the world in the whale