Whale Scent

There was a time I was smaller than this. Barefoot, summer-frocked, home-cut hair. If were lucky, smelling like cheap ice pops. It was one of those times I followed my father along the seawall. The storm had passed, it was warm, the tide halfway. My father, who photographed everything; I don’t recall him holding a camera. Everything I remember smelt like clean salt and beach heated seaweed; perhaps because it was fresh. The whale was fresh. We were empty handed. This memory opens like a box of that fresh sea air, streams out, tidal, blue-green. We are tiny, perched over a rock. Below us the whale carcass looks, mournful, out to the ocean. It cannot go home. It is oblivious to my awe, to being an  object of awakening. The oceans are That Big. Nature is immense. Above us, sky, space. We are tiny, perched in time, perched in space.
I was four, maybe five years old. Forty years ago.
And here, on Wansonmouth Beach, I am walking, barefoot. My daughter cuts my hair and I forget what colour it is now. I have always been her hair-dolly. Dog runs by, doing her dog smiles. The tide is halfway, dragging surf all up my trousers. I follow a sand line through the small rocks that poke your instep. A storm, I am thinking, has uncovered that rock, for I don’t recall it. Gulls sit all over it. It must be warm. The air is warm, though it is raining. I don’t have a camera. I carry my shoes and a flask of coffee. The rock is not a rock, it looks like a pile of tarpaulins. Only sticking up through the fabric and sand are vast vertebrae, as big as my grown-up head. Recognisable only by bones, I have found a beached whale. Dog rolls at its periphery.
It smells, not like a land mammal would. No sweet-sickness. It’s like… maybe if you take the earth element from a dry cowpat and soak it in ancient seaweed oil?
Pleasant and unpleasant in equal parts.
One does not necessarily want ones dog to smell thus.
Called away, she follows over to what is a skull, not a pale boulder. Bare of flesh, it has the same smell.
‘You are far from your body.’ I whisper; agog at the hole where the vertebrae would have connected. The structure, the engineering of it, like an iron ship. ‘But you are facing the sea.’
I stand behind it, watching Dog play in the white water, watching the rise of the waves.
That rich oil-salt smell: the sky above.


  1. How very sad though. I hate seeing beached whales or dolphins. They do make one feel very small though.

  2. Such a lovely, though sad sentiment. It almost seems as if you'd found the very old whale of your childhood!

  3. Hopefully this one perished of being suitably aged. Plastic ingestion is a big problem for whales, so we are making efforts to reduce our plastic consumption.


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