Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs

This review could be as big as a blue whale or as small as a krill, because I have so much to say about Fathoms, and it’s almost too much – like any book I loved, it’s impossible to know where to start and my inclination is to simply say ‘just read it’.

The subtitle of Fathoms – ‘The world in the whale’ is both literal and metaphoric. Rebecca Giggs writes of a whale found with an entire greenhouse and its paraphernalia in its stomach –

We struggle to understand the sprawl of our impact, but there it is, within one cavernous stomach: pollution, climate, animal welfare, wildness, commerce, the future, and the past. Inside the whale, the world.

Giggs goes on to reflect how whales are a measure of the condition of our seas; are a significant part of cultural heritage, of folklore, history, and of economies. Just when you think there’s nothing more that can be said about whales, Giggs offers a fresh perspective, a twist. It’s an astounding piece of writing. And no, you don’t have to be a whale-lover to appreciate this book, because it speaks to something larger – a reminder that there is so much about the natural world that we don’t know; the cost of human dominion over animals; climate change; and the role of whales in philosophy, literature, industry, and technology.

It is, perhaps, easy to imagine the enterprise of whaling in an era of drawing rooms, sniffing-salts and hand-lit street lamps, but to conceive of the industry undergirding the birth of the automotive city requires surprising effort (let alone to reflect on whaling being coterminous with the space age).

There is a huge amount of information in this book, sorted into eight chapters, with each chapter fronted by an extensive ‘topic list’. The lists hint at the breadth of this book, from ‘Whales, Do They Travel the Ocean in Veins?’and ‘Soap and Butter and Bombs’ to ‘The Narrowing of Killer-Whale Culture’ and ‘Whalefall’.

From the dark come red-streamer creatures that flutter all over. Colourless crabs; their delicate gluttony. Life pops. It is as though the whale were a pinata cracked open, flinging bright treasures. On the body gather coin-sized mussels, lucinid clams, limpets, and crepitating things that live off sulphate. Over 200 different species can occupy the frame of one whale carcass.

I marked over 110 passages in Fathoms. Truly. And not single sentences, but rafts of text. In the reading moment, it was all so important, so relevant, so beautifully written. Looking back over those passages, my reasons for marking them still apply but I’m left with the problem of summarising and reviewing this wonderful book. It’s impossible, but I can share what I loved most.

Firstly, I was constantly surprised by incredible whale facts, and the insight Giggs applied.

Fractional exposure builds up over multiple seasons, making some whales more polluted than their environment…
Though I had started out seeking answers to how and why whales died, what had begun to click into place was this: my entire definition of pollution demanded revision.

The chapter on ‘charisma’, which Giggs describes as ‘… a species capacity to function as a mascot, to sustain a riveting narrative…’ is confronting (where do I park my snorkelling and diving generated guilt?).

Secondly, the fine writing – Giggs’s descriptions of whales and the sea are sublime. She strikes a balance between laying out the facts and building the narrative, stringing it all together with rich prose.

The whale’s extreme bigness is not just stupendous, but a bit eerie; to think of aliveness, and sensitivity, on such a scale.

Thirdly, the references to things already in my whale knowledge – 52 Blue, whale song, whale fat as a ‘cure’, and the history of whaling in Australia – 

Under civic pressure, Australian whaling ceased in 1977, and though Australia was the last English-language nation to persist with commercial whaling, it was also the first country to shift to an official anti-whaling rhetoric.

Giggs goes on to describe Australia’s ground-breaking whale protection legislation. As I read, I was reminded of a childhood event that looms large in my memory – my dad, a geographer (and keen photographer) visited Australia’s last whaling station in Albany. He took photos – huge slabs of blubber, men in rubber boots hosing the blood, body parts so large they made no sense on the human scale of the station – and showed me the pictures on his return. I realised as I read this section of Fathoms, that I was five when I saw those pictures… No wonder the horror of seeing them has stayed with me – how could those slaughtered whales compare to anything I’d seen until that point in my life?

And lastly, the reminder of the intrinsic value of our natural world, and in particular the unknown and silent depths of the ocean –

Silence is the resource we most overlook, though its potential is inwardly replenishing, and its absence is often taxing.

4/5 Superb.

I received my copy of Fathoms from the publisher, Scribe UK, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

17 responses

    • Those photos are as clear to me now as they were when I first saw them – as far as I know, my dad still has them, although it’s decades since I’ve seen them. NOt sure if I want to see them again!

  1. Wow. Sorry for the ineloquent response, but that is an amazing review. I love your writing! I have also always loved whales and could use a change-up in my nonfiction writing so am off to look for this book now. Thank you!

    • It’s certainly one that you could pick up and put down (maybe in one reading it would be too much whale info??) – I read it over a month or so.

  2. Well said Kate. It’s impossible to believe what we do to the oceans, do to the planet for that matter, and if there are future generations they will look back on us with incredulity (and a fair amount of dislike). We overfish until species are virtually extinct, drop our nets lower and overfish that next level too, pump our oceans full of industrial waste, kill fish for ‘sport’, kill whales to prove a point. The wonder is that whales survive at all. I hope they outlive us.

  3. I’ve not been much inclined to read this but now having read your review I might have changed my mind! Does it say anything about whale watching tours? Yay or nay.

    • There’s a lot about whale-watching tours and, like many issues she explores, she doesn’t give a definitive yay or nay – instead, she treads the line of ‘there’s an educative and awareness element that’s important’ but equally ‘we can’t encroach’.

  4. I read this during first lockdown last year, in one weekend. I couldn’t put it down. Mesmerising, lyrical and intimate were the words I kept returning to in my response. I’m glad to see people still reading it and loving it 🙂

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