Fresh Bones by D.K. McCutchen

by D.K. McCutchen

“The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge, and the water roaring in its passage through that pipe is inferior in impetus and velocity to the blood gushing from the whale’s heart.’ — Paley’s Theology

My Kiwi crewmate Simon had an idea. He was going to help me get started on a research project on dolphins –if I decided to stay in New Zealand. He knew his supervisors had some data available on toxins in Hector’s dolphin, a tiny toothed whale endemic to the islands. Up to now we’d been out assisting on a sperm whale study, the opposite end of the spectrum in size. I read every science paper Simon had and wrote his supervisors with ideas proposing possible areas of study. A year of research promised so much. It could be a step forward, allow me to create my own direction. I didn’t have to be ship’s Nanny anymore.

Simon introduced me to an expatriate Canadian, with a big smile, who allowed us to help her with several dolphin dissections that were meant to provide information on population ecology and, eventually, toxin levels. It felt right to be learning again, like striding freely on the beach after cramped months at sea.

On a cement pad on the sea side of the university aquarium, Sara the Canadian, Simon, and I, were dissecting two female dolphins. Like most of Sara’s specimens, the first one had been an incidental bi-catch in a gill net. The fishermen had been trying to catch fish and only accidentally netted the young dolphins. You could see the marks from the nets where they had bitten deep into the struggling dolphin’s flesh. Most of the bi-catch seemed to be juvenile males. Possibly the adults were better at avoiding the death traps. The fishermen were surprisingly helpful in providing Sara with any dolphins they caught accidentally, especially since many of the professional fishermen were not happy over the restrictions on gillnetting, which were meant to give some seasonal protection to the dolphins while they were near shore and too young to avoid the nets.

Sometimes Sara would hear about dead dolphins washed up on shore and would collect those as well. Occasionally they would show the same scarring from the nets, leading her to suspect that a few of the fishermen were getting rid of evidence they felt was restricting their fisheries, instead of handing it over for study. Sara could still get the information she wanted, but it made for smelly, horrible days.

The second female was a beach-cast specimen. She did not have any obvious net marks on her, but she was not fresh. We opened up a netted female first and took measurements, removed teeth for aging, ovaries for reproductive status, and were just in the process of flensing the bones in preparation to send them to the local museum when two groups of tourists came trooping through the area where we were working. The first was a young school group who gathered around to stare. Their teacher expressed disgust at the blood and exposed flesh, but the children showed a keen interest.

‘Why did you kill that fish?’ one tiny girl-child demanded, launching Sara into a lecture on gillnetting and mammals. The teacher listened to that. The children just wanted to touch.

‘No!’ Sara’s voice was sharp. ‘We don’t know for sure what killed any of these dolphins, and humans and dolphins are close enough to share many diseases.’ She indicated her plastic gloves and butcher’s apron.

The class moved on. A group of Japanese tourists gathered around.

A woman asked, ‘Are you going to eat it?’ The meat was a deep red and looked like the best cut in the market — if you ignored the smell. That was Simon’s cue.

‘No way!’ He grinned to show he meant well. ‘Most of these coastal species are loaded with toxins. Part of what we hope to learn is what kind of poisons these animals carry, how much their blubber stores, and whether their toxin load is affecting their breeding.’

The woman looked skeptical.

‘Any animal high up on the food chain is going to have a greater percentage of stored poisons in its flesh,’ Simon said carefully, ‘it’s called bio-accumulation. A concentration of any toxins in the lower species accumulates in the predator species at the top of the chain or food web. We are at the top of the web. If we feed on other animals, like dolphins, who are also at the top, we get the megadoses of the toxins their bodies have stored. If toxins are affecting their breeding, it is likely to affect us as well.’

The woman didn’t understand a word. Didn’t want to. She frowned and walked away without speaking.

‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, was she? I wasn’t even talking about all that political hooha around eating whale meat,’ Simon said grumpily.

‘Eating dolphin and whale is a touchy subject,’ Sara said quietly. ‘A lot of Japanese believe the Americans are campaigning against whaling to force the Japanese to buy American beef. They could be right.’

We finished flensing and bagged and tagged the unrecognizable lumps of meat and bone that had been a dolphin. It made for a long day, but the second female was already thawed so we started in on her. She was the beach-cast specimen, not as noisome as some but her skin looked strange and patchy. She looked even stranger inside.

‘Look,’ Sara said, ‘her milk glands are full.’ When pressed, milk still spurted out.

We looked further. The mesentery, normally a clear, Glad Wrap-like tissue holding the intestines in place, was beaded with yellow pearl chains of swollen lymph glands. Her immune system was highly activated.

‘Oh,’ Sara said sadly, ‘look at this, I think she’d only just given birth.’ We looked at the still-inflated uterus.

‘Could the calf survive without her?’ I asked, knowing the answer.


We finished as quickly as possible, feeling ill. It was disturbing to look at something so like one’s own reproductive system, and so diseased. We took a long walk on the beach afterward, none of us speaking, just breathing in the fresh smells of the sea. There was nothing but ocean between the cold sand beach where we stood and the Antarctic. The water had that look of wire-brushed steel. I felt decidedly seasick. I didn’t like it. I was on land. I pictured the calf out there on its own, so young, and probably so briefly.

We spotted a fiordland crested penguin, unusual here, and we lay on the sand to watch it. It sat quietly against a sand dune and molted. A penguin molting looks something like a fat dust mop with ringworm. Delightful.

‘It’s strange,’ Sara said finally, ‘how desperately important issues in one era aren’t even a question in the next. Today, you Americans can’t decide whether to allow the morning-after pill to reduce teen abortions. Tomorrow, birth control may become mandatory around the world, and we could find ourselves fighting for our right to breed, if we still can,’ she breathed out heavily. ‘To me, the research being done on persistent organochlorines, endocrine disrupters, estrogenic compounds — all our dangerous garbage — completely overrides the emotional arguments of whether whaling should be allowed or not, or of whether one nation should have a say in what another nation eats. Putting aside all other environmental impacts, philosophical beliefs, political arguments, what have you, it is quite obvious that whale and dolphin are simply not safe for humans to eat.’

‘It’s a cosmic bloody joke,’ Simon said, ‘Here ya go targeting endangered critters for aphrodisiacal medicines, like as not. Where’s the bleedin’ logic in that? They wouldn’t be endangered in the first place if they bred well, would they? Then the toxins they carry make us even less fertile. Brilliant aphrodisiac….’

‘An argument for natural irony,’ Sara said, waving toward the penguin, as if the odd, uncomfortable looking bird illustrated her point.

‘Or purposeful, bloody-minded ignorance,’ Simon said, glaring at me for some reason.

The insistent nausea that had been plaguing me suddenly made sense. Light dawneth over marblehead. Oh, but how our babies will hate their parents when the oceans are bleak and rotting, like the carcasses of magnificent animals we can almost imagine on a black shore. We need to eat, we need to shit, our garbage outstrips our imaginations and feeds our food. We can admire a whale, we can eat a whale, a whale can eat us, and we wish to continue eating the whale, living the whale, absorbing its strength into us. We will also die without everything that is and feeds the whale. The whales are dying from us.
I finally know who my imaginary audience is while I’m out here, living these stories. –It’s my children.

‘You’re preaching to the converted,’ I told them both, hands on my suddenly relevant belly.

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