When a whale dies, it becomes whale fall. Its body, an immense ecosystem, sinks slowly to the ocean floor. But that ecosystem changes. First come ratfish, hagfish and sharks – mobile scavengers who smell flesh and swim in to feed. For years, sometimes, the vast world sinks. When it reaches bottom, new colonizers – worms, crustaceans and mollusks – “enrichment opportunists”– move in to feed on leftover blubber or burrow into the sediment beneath the remains.
Finally there are only bones, and the last stage begins. Bacteria begin breaking down lipids inside the bones, generating sulfur, which attracts more bacteria and a huge community of strange mussels, worms, snails…. The whale has left the upper world of light-sourced life and now supports a world based in sulfur.
The universe of whale fall and its infinite layers of meaning, its darkness and its memory of sound, its vast continuum from light to song to trying out, from divers to scavengers to worms to, in the end, the lipid music rising from bones – this has fascinated me ever since I first read about it.
I’ll be reading “Whale Fall” poems in Berkeley at Moe’s Books on February 2nd at 7:30 pm, along with the extraordinary fiction writer Sandra Hunter.