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Outdoors/Adventure

A beached whale and a lingering, profound impact

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: March 6
  • Published March 6

A rope anchored a dead humpback whale to a tree near Hope in June 2016. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

A sense of urgency sent us running across the grass, sand and mud, splashing through small creeks that meandered through the sloping ground. Ten feet from the prostrate animal Christine and I suddenly stopped, speechless. We glanced at each other knowing there was nothing to say.

On many occasions we had seen them, their slick black skin flashing wet in the sun as they sent salt spray into the air with their breaching displays. These rituals, perhaps thousands of years old, revealed that we, in an instant, recognized only a peripheral view of their existence.

As hunters, approaching a dead animal in the field was part of our life. These moments are a mixture of emotions that we understand, the lot of hunters who have deep feelings for the animals that provide us sustenance.

Nothing in our experience had prepared us to be standing next to the humpback whale that lay on its side on a lonely stretch of Turnagain Arm tidal mud.

It was early on a late June morning that we drove the highway to Hope, where we planned to take one of our young English setters for a romp into the mountains. It was in an open spot where rock cliffs dropped into the ocean on either side of a wide-open, sloped tidal flat that we saw the whale.

We parked and ran, confused that there was anything we could do for the magnificent animal but somehow, we were hopeful.

Our hopes dissipated as we smelled the decomposing flesh and saw the long yellow rope tied, from a tail as wide as a charter boat, to a large spruce tree on the bank. There was nothing we could do. But we couldn't leave.

We walked around the 40-foot-long leviathan, fascinated by every square inch, each telling a story. The shining anthracite skin we had seen so often in the water was now a dull black-grey that resembled truck tires. The deep scars covering the skin evidenced a life in the world's oceans that we could not conceive. Rope burns around the tail suggested the whale had been pounded through the night by the only thing capable of such a thing, the ocean surf.

The crusted barnacles to the belly, tail and the 10-foot-long pectoral fins harbored sea creatures that emerged from the shells searching for life-sustaining salt water that wasn't there.

Christine Cunningham touches a humpback whale that beached and died near Hope in June 2016. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

The inlet breezes were mild; the only sound the lapping of small waves on the muddy shore. Gulls, ravens and eagles had not yet arrived. A surreal and haunting sadness enveloped the massive carcass framed in the stunning background of the Chugach Mountains.

After a while a fellow came down and told us that the whale had beached itself around midnight. He said the rope had been placed to hold the whale in place so a necropsy could be performed.

The rope was disturbing.

Remembering that our anxious setter was waiting in the truck, we tore ourselves away to finish the day's plan. As we drove off the truck was filled with reflective silence. It didn't take long to realize our hearts were not in the mountains. "Let's just go back," Christine said.

A small crowd had gathered on the landward side of the whale, near the massive tail. Most were taking photos with cellphones and covering their noses as the ocean breeze now blew the stench inland.

A team of scientists from the Alaska Sealife Center were cutting into the belly side of the carcass, rivulets of blood staining the tidal mud as it ran to the water's edge. Large chunks of white blubber were removed and set to the side as the team attempted to penetrate the core of the colossal mass of flesh stretched out before them.

Trying to capture these moments in time I found staying on the viewfinder of the camera and viewing the scene through the lens presented the images with welcome detachment.

As I walked around the whale I heard comments from the bystanders. "Someone should have salvaged this animal, what a waste." "Must be the sonar that caused this." "We can thank global warming for this tragedy." People trying to make sense of something of such magnitude that, when up close and personal, is difficult to grasp.

Except, I thought, it does make sense. Death in nature is constant and it isn't wasteful. It occurred to me as I stood there how out of touch with nature it seems we have become. That we are so self-important that unless a dead animal is salvaged for human use it is wasted. This magnificent creature, in death, would provide life for innumerable forms of other life, be they creatures of the sea or the land-born scavengers that make their living on such finds.

I spent a long time capturing images and couldn't find a way to walk away. Then I looked out to the water and a pair of beluga whales surfaced just off-shore. She had family now, and I could leave.

Many months have passed, and I still think about that whale. I cannot explain why it has had such a profound effect. There are coastal communities in Alaska that still practice whale hunting as part of the subsistence lifestyle. I suspect those folks would find my sentiment odd, if not bizarre. The environment in which we live, it seems, shapes our beliefs and our perception of the world.

The rope still disturbs me. Like a man-made snake latched in a death grip to the colossal tail, the rope signified everything that is wrong with the relationship we have created with nature. A natural world so perverted that no creature can just expire as a normal process. We have to suspect that what we have done to the natural world had a hand in it.

My thoughts drift, asking myself if I was a voyeur intruding on a death that perhaps deserves more dignity than becoming a showpiece for people to watch as it is hacked up. Maybe it is the simple sentimentality of an old guy whose own mortality looms on the horizon. I can't nail down exactly why this dead whale has demanded so much of my attention; I'll probably never know.

Steve Meyer of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at oldduckhunter@outlook.com.

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