Into the Wild

Darkness and Light — The Life and Death of a Whale


The bones look like driftwood from a distance, half-submerged at the high tide line. Binoculars reveal them to be ancient stone artifacts. Or so it seems. This whale carcass is hard to believe.

A ridge of vertebrae divided into two ranges, surrounded by scattered ribs, leads to a skull with so much mass it seems to be the last thing still covered in flesh. But it is all bone, long wedges forming the prow of the whale’s head.

It is a gray whale. This 42-foot female spent the final months of its life around Bremerton and Olympia, far from the species’ usual migration route. When it died in late June, scientists towed it here. A necropsy revealed “poor blubber condition, lack of internal fat stores, and no food in the GI tract,” according to Cascadia Research Collective.

We drift offshore for a while, taking it in. A handful of grays strand in Washington every year. Since 2019, when 34 stranded, they have been dying in higher numbers, part of an “unusual mortality event” with causes still uncertain. This year there have been 13 strandings, most of them on the outer coast. When grays die in Puget Sound they are often towed to secure beaches like this one where they can feed the ecosystem in peace. (It is illegal to possess any part of a whale skeleton.)

It stretches the senses, this whale built of tiny crustaceans scooped from Alaskan seafloors, now eaten by other tiny crustaceans — a feeling only heightened by the fact that we have come here after sunset.

We float in a Puget Sound that is without a whisper. Dark clouds roof the heavens. Trees like ink sprays rise from nearby bluffs, and now and then the soft manic whistle of duck wings passes overhead. For someone who lives near the Key Peninsula Highway, this kind of silence hits deep. We are about to cross that threshold and join the night stalkers, release our vision, let other sensations take over. Sometimes, I’ll admit it, lying in bed I feel a rush of jealousy for the night racers that own the highway in the wee hours. At least they’re out there, a part of the night, weaving and chasing.

Coyote is here. It slipped in magically, a sturdy coyote who makes a show of tugging at something above the skeleton, gnawing. When the tide turns and begins to push us away, the coyote follows, hopping up on driftwood logs, sighting down its long nose. I’d give my paddle to know its thoughts.

Whooshes just overhead turn out to be gulls high above, scattered yet aiming for the same unknown haven. Along the dark shoreline, more of the sky’s last light is held in the water than in the rocks. At the edge I spy, reflected upside-down, four dark orbs that are invisible among the rocks. Sandpipers. They give a soft shriek and split when we come past.

We begin a crossing of open water. It is absolutely calm. A window has opened in the clouds to the west, casting an ember’s glow that is not enough to show me the boundary between air and water; the old biblical separation of water from the sky, from firmament is lost and my strokes are merely trust in the rhythm of movement. When lumps of seaweed and jellyfish pass, they might as well be at eye level. The thought of catching an edge and dumping into the water feels somehow no different from doing it. Imagination and reality, subconscious and conscious, are compressed, endless.

We enter a bay ringed with homes, all lit, some more than others. We stick to the shadows. This night realm, spirit-like, is always nearby. So is our ability to move through it. Yet we keep it at bay, blocked by the very contrivances we think extend our sight.

Wendell Berry wrote, “To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark.”

That whale has known dark, light, death and life, while we stay locked in the grind.

We glide past an anchored dock, silhouetted by lights on shore, that reeks of long-dead crabs hidden in its crevices by otters. A homeowner, hearing our talk, comes onto his porch, turns on a floodlight, and peers out.

Later. “Over here. It’s happening,” says my friend from a dark seam in the shoreline. I enter the tree-crossed cove. Every movement of our paddles sends blue-white sparks through the water. I dip my hands into the water. Bioluminescence. We play. Splashes send showers of glowing stars through the water. Running my hand through the water covers it in pinpricks that flash two, three, four times.

The bioluminescence is patchy, fragile. The source is single-celled zooplankton called dinoflagellates. These become common in summer’s warm algae-rich water. At night they migrate to the surface to feed. Their bodies contain an enzyme that releases chemical energy in the form of light when they are physically disturbed, a reaction thought to scare off predators, like shining a flashlight in an assailant’s eyes.

To witness bioluminescence requires avoiding light. Even the moon is too bright. Not only does ambient light make it hard for your eyes to catch bioluminescence, the dinoflagellates tend to stay in deeper water to avoid it.

Outside the bay, on a dark stretch of coastline, we pass through electric displays. The water remains silent. Dazzling sparks swirl around our kayaks. We begin to hear tiny pops: small fish jumping here and there. My eyes unfocus. A blue streak, faint and fast as a bat in the night sky, ends in a tiny pop. A fish has just swum past and jumped.