Meanwhile Bach on the beach….

by Greg Landreth

Ode to the Whale
Greg plays Ave Maria by Bach on the beach in Puerto Slight where a whale recently washed up dead on the beach.

I know, I know, I did say I was going to write something every day but as Robbie Burns understood, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay. As expected, the beaches are lined with the well rotted corpses of last years mortality and we have been continuing with the original plan of measuring and mapping their positions as well as taking CTD scans (chemical profiles) of the water columns inside and outside the fiords. This is wholly absorbing, steady work, even though Saoirse and the dinghies are ofen widely separated I can oversee their safety while the oceanographic work is proceeding. However we are now starting to enter a new phase of the investigation with the recent granting of permission to the expedition by Sernapesca to conduct necropsies on the whale carcasses. This has now become critically important with the appearance of new whale carcasses on shore, commingled with the ones from last years event. If we are to have any chance of understanding what happened here, the necropsies of this years new deaths moves right to the top of the list.

Compared with a necropsy, all else we have done on this expedition seems squeaky-clean by comparison. Over the years of expeditioning we have done it seems that I have become very good at reducing most activities, such as climbing, photography, whatever has been the aim of the expedition, to a simple time and motion study, working around the weather to achieve the best result that I can. To help with this, the participants themselves judge their activites with simple quantitive measurements. Perhaps it is too complicated to do otherwise. For instance a climber will judge his performance by the height of the mountain, a numerical rating of its difficulty, etc. A photograher’s conversation will be focussed around numbers of gigabytes and locations achieved. Here though, the simple concepts of time and motion come overshadowed by timing and emotion.

Simple creatures are one thing; we put mussels in the blender to test them for red tide without thinking much about it, but the idea of a person diving inside the rotting corpse of a mammal which may turn out to have a consciousness equal to our own has a gravity to it which should certainly cause one to falter and ask, “Why are we doing this?”. Back to the mechanics of it though, we have a lot of new things to think about. For a start, whale carcasses are fully involved with death. Saoirse is where we live and must remain liveable. That means that we need a fundamental change of rhythm to the proceedings each time we contemplate a necropsy. At the start we thought we had come prepared for this eventuality, and the first one we did in Puerto Slight went well. We had excellent weather, Alex, our veterinarian had all tools and protocols prepared, the tide was low, exposing the cuts which needed to made. All team members were suited up in a manner reminescent of the images of the teams of medics dealing with the Ebola crisis. Even so, with perfect conditions and all of the team involved (leaving their own separate studies aside for awhile), the act itself took a full day, still leaving the necessity of doing further dissections onboard. Though we must try to leave all things which involve death on the beach, inevitably there will be a lingering effect on board, bottled up inside specimen jars and people’s emotions.

For me, looking at the act from afar, the scene reminded me not so much of a western  hospital autopsy, but more like what I have read of the Tibetan concept of a sky burial. The slow white suited figures wielding sharp saws and knives contrasted with the black-winged figures of vultures and petrels waiting. Waiting for their chance to carry flesh back to the sky where cleansed, it will fall to earth once more. I thought that perhaps to complete the scene  we ought to be having a benediction from a Tibetan monk, but alas we do not have one aboard.

I decided then that we would have to make our own approximation. What did we have at hand?
Looking around the cabins in saoirse I managed to collect:

  1. My electric cello, bought in Santiago, supplied from China after a European pattern.
    1a) some battery powered speakers, found wanting a home in the Falkland Islands two years
  2. some sheet music, composed some hundreds of years ago, bought a while ago in Toronto and    copied onto a piece of paper of unknown origin with a Swedish printer designed in the USA
  3. A cheap plastic stool, probably made in China, bought in Punta Arenas
  4. A costume composed of cotton trousers made in New Zealand, a shirt made in the USA with wool supplied by Magellanic sheep and some Scandinavian gumboots.
  5. A piece of heavy plywood cut from a failed attept to make a new toilet seat for the boat using a Japanese jigsaw.
  6. A log (local) and a crab claw for adornment, also local.

A pretty good international effort I figured. So that is how I came to be playing my cello version of the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” on the beach next to a dead whale in  a place called Puerto Slight, next to a dead whale in Patagonia.  I did the best I could, but thankfully the recording camera mysteriously ran out of batteries and you will just have to take my word for it that it happened.

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