Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 28, 2021

Perth Festival: Rebecca Gibbs and Fathoms, The World in the Whale

This weekend, I’m catching up with ‘watch at home’ tickets I had for the Perth Festival.  This session was hosted by Mike Bianco in conversation with Rebecca Gibbs, talking about her book Fathoms, The World in the Whale.

Bianco began by asking how Gibbs got started as a storyteller, in a land of storytellers.  She said that she grew up in Perth aware that she was living under a spell of environmental precarity. Perth is situated on a thin margin that runs down the coast, sandwiched between places of ancient geological time, a huge plate of rock (the name of which I didn’t catch and probably couldn’t spell anyway) and the deepest part of the Indian Ocean.  Influenced by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Gibbs said that she wanted to write a scientifically informed narrative that also has aesthetic and political qualities.  So though the book started out as straight science writing— lucid, consumable and compelling—it morphed into a narrative comprising scenes in more evocative language.

The catalyst for writing this book was the stranding of a a yearling humpback whale in her local area. There was a carnivalesque atmosphere as people expressed a sense of wonder at being so close to an animal that is rarely seen close up, even though it was obviously going to die.  She talked with a wildlife officer about the possibility of euthanising it because it was suffering, and learned about the fundamental dilemma that underlies any prospect of a humane death for a whale: because it’s so big, the death in the brain takes a long time to kill the rest of the whale.  (For me, that is why what the Japanese do when they hunt whales is so wicked.  We know now, as they did not know in previous eras, that there is no humane way to kill a whale. To continue to kill them, for whatever reason, is morally wrong).

In the event, the WA stranded whale died anyway.  When they did the equivalent of an autopsy on it, they found that it had ingested all kinds of foreign objects—mainly plastic, including even a flattened greenhouse, a grotesque symbol of what we are doing to the planet.

The session included revolting slides of people cutting up whales at whaling stations.  Whaling was the world’s first extractive industry, and in previous eras people had as much whale product in their lives as we do with plastics, everything from whale corsets to lamps and all kinds of lubricants. It was also a fixative in paint so it plays a role in the artworks that we consume.  In the 20th century it found its way into soap, margarine, bio pharmaceuticals, and even a role in the space race.  It was astonishing to learn that there are still small amounts of whale oil performing as lubricants in cameras taking photos in space.

Gibbs noted that there is a mismatch between the mystification of the whale and the reality: they can be massive carriers of toxic chemicals.  There are ‘legacy chemicals’ in the air they take in and in the soluble pollutants from the water they swim in.  Because they can be so old and so big, they can still be carrying chemicals from long ago that are now banned.

Food for thought…

Thanks to the organisers of the Perth Festival for making this session available.


  1. I read this one and really liked it. A well informed book.


    • I must admit, I’m not much into whales. I mean, I’m on their side for welfare and conservation reasons, but I’ve found other things to do when The Spouse went whale-watching at various places.
      I am not very good at The Great Outdoors…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not a great outdoors person either but I do love the ocean. I’ve always been drawn to whales. I went whale watching in my early teens and loved it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Fathoms: the world in the whale by Rebecca Giggs (Scribe Publications), see my report: Perth Festival: Rebecca Gibbs and Fathoms, The World in the Whale […]


  3. […] Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs (Scribe Publications), see my report of the Perth Festival event featuring this author and her book […]


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