86. Yannick and the Whale

A WHALE ON A beach is stranded. The whale is a humpback whale, the beach is remote, practically deserted. The whale is lying on its belly, a beautiful and alien thing, immoveable, unmoving. It is also, very probably, in a state of profound distress, assuming animals suffer, which I believe, after having been debated for many centuries, is now commonly accepted. Picture, then, this stranded whale from above, from the air, from a helicopter, to be precise, hovering over the whale at a height of, say, four or five hundred feet, not directly above the whale but at an angle, let’s say a 45 degree angle. I am the helicopter's pilot. I have just flown the few miles from Kingsley after a fishing trawler notified the Department of the stranding. I am Kingsley's resident helicopter pilot, and it is among my many duties to follow up on stranding alerts. After all, pushing a whale back into the water is serious business. It involves heavy machinery, and trained personnel. My job is to try to figure out if the whale is lost, dying or dead. Often it will be already dead, its belly, bloated by the sun, ripped open by wild dogs or sharks feasting in the shallows at high tide. For this task I have received precisely one full day of training, at the Department's head office in Hobart a few years ago, soon after the mass strandings began. Until then, we had strandings only every few years - an isolated animal here or there. If it was still alive, practically the whole town would turn out to help push it back in. Then, something happened. The strandings became more frequent - not just in Kingsley, of course. Across the world, the animals belonging to the order Cetacea inexplicably switched into collective suicide mode. Entire species of whales and dolphins collapsed, somewhat like the disappearance of bees earlier this century. So, as I said, not just in Kingsley but, unfortunately, especially in Kingsley. It seems there are more strandings per mile of coastline north and south of Kingsley than just about anywhere else in the world. I can assure you, this is not an honour that sits easily with us. At times, in summer, after another mass stranding, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, it casts a stinking pall over the whole town. Tourists just don't come anymore, the population is slowly dwindling, and almost no one attends strandings anymore. Marine biologists and geologists and oceanographers and meteorologists the world over have studied the problem many times over without coming up with a satisfactory explanation: just why are all these whales and dolphins committing suicide? Still, it's not a question that tortures me. I just do my job. It’s just after dawn. All is calm, the surf is low, and beyond the surf the sea is glassy, all pinks and greys. My favorite time of day. We call this beach Surf Beach, for obvious reasons, but it's official name is Thompson Beach. Thompson also happens to be my family name. My grandfather once owned more land in these parts than I can take in from my vantage point in the sky. But the family has since fallen on hard times. Below me the whale appears intact. It hasn't yet been attacked by dogs or sharks. Circling the whale from above, I notice it is not alone. A man is standing next to the whale engaged in what appears to be a strange kind of pantomime, leaning against the whale, then standing back and gesticulating in its direction, then walking away from it, the returning to it again. Through the binoculars it appears that he is talking to the whale - I might even say, pleading or arguing with it. Nearby is a four-wheel-drive , a tent and a campsite. I'm guessing the man is Yannick Schroeder. Yannick is a friend, and it doesn't surprise me to see him here. He's a Kingsley local, but disappears every now and then. The last time he disappeared was about a fortnight ago, after a loud row with his wife about money and sex and love and other men and other women. Every town has a Yannick, a beautiful soul who can never quite get his life together. When he disappears, without warning, when the mood takes him, when the black dog bites, he goes to live on the coast by himself in a tent for weeks or months at a time. Now he’s leaning against the whale with both hands, as if trying to push it back into the water single-handedly. But he isn't really putting any effort into it, as if he’s thinking about something, maybe considering his options. Yannick’s a thinker, too much of a thinker, according to Rita. Suddenly he straightens and walks away from the whale a few metres, then just as abruptly he wheels around on his heels and walks back determinedly to the whale and punches it with his fist, once, then a pause, then two more punches in quick succession. Then he walks off again, slower this time, shaking his fist, as if he’s made his point. He stops and looks back at the whale and starts gesticulating wildly. It is as if - and I know this sounds crazy - it is as if Yannick is engaged in an argument with the whale. What argument could a man possibly have with a stranded humpback whale? Yannick approaches the whale again and starts kicking the thing, kicking it repeatedly, until he appears to cause himself some pain and hops away, clutching his foot, stumbling in the sand and falling over. It's hard to know who paints the sadder picture - Yannick or the whale. I turn the helicopter around and start heading back towards Kingsley. I signal to the Department to begin preparing for another whale rescue. It will be our third this month, our eighteenth this year, and it is only March. It is just a matter of time, I suppose, before the Department decides it is no longer worth the while, that if the whale has decided to throw itself upon the beach, then there is nothing we can do to change its mind.