Most dead whales sink slowly to the ocean floor, until they rest in the deep, 3000 feet or more.
Sometimes we see (and smell!) dead whales decomposing on the beach or in near shore waters, but those are very few of the many thousands of whales who die naturally every year. (If we lived in Norway or Japan or Iceland we might see the carcasses of the 2000 whales they still slaughter annually in commercial hunts.)
Those lucky enough to die naturally become what’s called “whale fall.”
Because it’s so cold in the deep, with lots of pressure, the whales decompose very slowly. Scavengers like hagfish and crabs show up first, and eat all their soft tissue in a few months. Then furry worms and shrimp, called “enrichment opportunists,” move in and colonize the massive whale bones for two or more years. Finally, the bacteria arrive and live for many decades, 50 years or more, off the bones’ lipids, feeding in turn many nearby mussels and clams.
Researchers using a remotely operated vehicle studied one 40-ton grey whale carcass deep off the coast of Santa Barbara for over ten years and found more than 30,000 animals, representing 200 different species, living off the one animal. A dead whale can be one of the most species-rich habitats in the ocean.
“There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
OK, this is a slightly morbid topic for my weekly post on ocean spirituality. I’m pretty sure those are eels in this picture, feasting on the dead whale. Creepy. Of course we know that every animal body eventually ends up in the sea in some diffuse form, thanks to decomposition, gravity, run off and continental shift. OK, more dreariness. I confess I’m feeling a bit dark these days; life and nation seem a little grim. My brooding about life and death reminded me of what I have learned at the Aquarium about whale falls.
But I am a resurrection girl. I do believe that life is always more powerful than death. Even for a 40-ton dead whale. In their one death they give life to tens of thousands of others. In that miraculous balance of life and death and new life, there is no waste, everything has value and meaning. Even in the darkest depths, a rich habitat.
They are haunting, pictures of whale falls, courtesy of deep sea technology. I am moved, and strangely reassured, seeing both the death hidden in the dark and the new life blooming from it. There is so much we know, and so much we have no idea about at all. I like learning new things. And I like letting the mystery be, down deep.
(Bluetheology.com. We invite you to a Blue Theology Retreat and Resource Day May 9 in Pacific Grove for religious leaders, “Walking With Jesus By The Sea.”)