Whale Road

THERE ARE SO many reasons that, when you look at the metres-long, meaty wound in the side of a whale, you don't want to think of a vagina. Teenage you says: gross. Feminist you: offensive. Literary you: obvious. But there it is, a gaping dark red metaphor surrounded by busy men in overalls. And just to take the analogy one great unacceptable leap forward, you have been scared all along about the smell, will there be a fishy smell, or a bloody smell, or some awful mix of the two? At best it might be a straight-up meat-and-bone smell, like the smell of your brother-in-law the butcher. And although, as it turns out, it never gets that strong, there's something about the fear of it, the anticipation, that is nauseating anyway. You know that somewhere under your feet, they're boiling down the sawed up bones and fat and rending them into oil, and just the thought of that sloshes around in your stomach.

‘Do you want to see a dead whale?’ was the first thing Brynja asked me, after showing me how to work the hot tub. ‘To see how big he is,’ she added, perhaps responding to a blankness on my face. We agreed that when the boat next came in, and her husband was working, she would let me know and I could drive down Hvalfjörður – whale fjord – to see it being ‘cut up to pieces.’

The boats went out, and they came in. They’re steam boats, brown, white and black, with a red star on the funnel. I found out later they’re powered by 20 per cent whale oil, something that I remember Melville commenting on in Moby-Dick. Not that that’s saying much, since he pretty much comments on everything. My old university tutor tells people I once said in class: ‘Moby-Dick would have been a great book, if it wasn’t for the whale.’ I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like me. I love Moby-Dick. But I know large parts of it are terrible. It’s like Meatloaf: you have to love it because it’s bombastic, not despite that fact.

Anyway, so the boats go out and the boats come in. The water is grey and choppy, but waveless, like a lake. The landscape here is all about the movement of light and shade. That makes it sound quite busy and beautiful, but it’s really just that there’s nothing else for it to be about. There are no trees. No snow at the moment. The mountains are what we in New Zealand call hills. So the big show is the light and dark patches, bits of summer and winter coexisting and interchanging.

I become obsessed with how you see a strip of landscape between each slat of the blinds, which together make up the whole outside world. I imagine rendering it as a tapestry, a long, thin strip of the world sliced up and joined back together. Or you could put it on a loop, like a fan belt, and have it turning on an engine at the Venice Biennale.

I should probably find something to do.

The first day I go down to the whaling station, Thorvaldur isn’t working. I stand up on the bank with the other tourists, it’s a well-known Thing To Do In Iceland, to stand on the mossy cone-shaped hill above the whaling station, and watch a whale being flensed. I use the word inside my head with a great deal of satisfaction. The boat is docked at the pier (wharf? jetty?) a hundred metres or so away. I expect to see it circled by a whirlpool of gulls, but there’s just a few, doing lazy circuits, or waiting in the water.

It takes me ages to realise that they’re towing the whale in towards the concrete ramp, underwater. Then I see the hook that’s attached to it, like a harpoon, though I’m not sure if it really is one. It’s moving through the water making a very small ripple. Under the surface I can see the white-with-black-stripes body of the whale. A yellow digger on the side of the wharf has a kind of hook attached to the end of it, a bit like the claw things that people have attached to a prosthetic arm, or used to. It’s not hooked over like a child’s letter j, but just sort of bent at the end, like a cheese knife. They use this to manoeuvre the body into place, so it can be dragged up the ramp. They get it into position, and then a couple of guys walk down and put a rope round the tail. I know from a friend that they wear gumboots with spikes on the bottom.

One of the great things about Iceland is that it is rarely slippery underfoot. Unlike in New Zealand, where, if you venture into the bush, you are forever slipping on wet grass, slick rocks, or mud, in Iceland you almost always have great grip. It’s the volcanic soils, free draining, and the lava, which is rough and porous, and the moss, so deep your feet sink into it. Even now, standing on a hillside on a forty-five degree angle, where ideally one leg would be ten inches shorter than the other, the moss gives you traction and you can stay upright, and winkle your iPhone out of your pocket without falling on your arse.

I am not going to go on about how people have to photograph everything, no one can just experience the world. No one ever could, of course. Even Hillary pissed at the top of Everest. People are despicable and I’m one of them. So they start butchering the whale, and I take some pictures and videos and eventually I get bored and go home. Herman Melville I ain’t.

A COUPLE OF days later, Thorvaldur knocks at the door. I pretend I haven’t just got out of bed. He has those big, puffy men’s hands, and when I shake the one he offers, even though I can feel it’s hard on the surface because he’s a farmer, the main sensation is that it’s soft and pillowy. He says they are bringing in a whale, and I can drive down and meet him at the station, if I park my car he’ll take me in. We talk for a minute about the beagles, the one that always wants to go walking off everywhere, and the one that stays close by. We squint at each other, in the manner of people who talk close to a body of water. In the ditch behind the cottage, little mini clouds of steam come up from the geothermal outlet.

When I get into his maroon Toyota Hilux, the smell is of my uncle: cigarette smoke and man stuff. The dash is covered in curled up pieces of paper, as one would expect. Yes, I can take photos. No one is surprised that you would want to, and no one is ashamed. At the Little Whale Museum up the road, the promotional photo is of a man in orange overalls, cutting up a whale on a lovely sunny day. But today it’s grey, like at the start of Moby-Dick. It’s mizzling.

Of course you want to feel sad when you see a dead whale, pulled up from the ocean deep. But instead you feel sort of, huh. And, yeah, that’s what a dead whale would look like. I try various things to make myself feel sadder, I look at what I think is a wound on the whale’s white underside, where there seem to be some pink guts poking out. How sad, its guts are poking out. Then Thorvaldur says, looking sheepish, it is, what do you say, a woman? It’s a female, and what I thought was a wound is its vulva, and the two marks on either side are its nipples. I think about whales having sex underwater, it must be hard when there’s nothing to press up against, what’s to stop the female just floating away? And the male must have to be upside down. But then, they’re probably looking at us thinking, you poor godforsaken wretches hooked up to all those wheels and machines.

And then I do feel a bit sad, because as they pull the whale up the ramp, its black-and-white-striped under-jaw is deflated, exactly like a soccer ball that’s been left out in the garden over winter. It’s just sort of dented in on itself, and you know it should be round and full in its black-and-white stripeyness, like the sail of a Viking ship. The skin of the whale is getting all grazed from being dragged on the concrete, so you can see red patches on the black and white. There’s a little boy, about three, in his mother’s arms, watching the whale go up the ramp. A man is trying to take a picture of him with the whale in the background but he’s not co-operating.

We walk round to get a new vantage point. There are stairs up the side of the fuel tank, rusted metal stairs, and I know I was raised in the romantic tradition because I want to photograph the rusted stairs, and the sea-faded plastic crates, and the piles of broken down machinery. Thorvaldur tells me a bit about the history of the whaling station, how it was originally part of an Allied operations base in World War II, which is why there are so many fuel tanks, and how the owner is the son of the original owner, who set up the station in the 1950s.

All the meat is exported to Japan, and I have a vague recollection that whale meat became a source of protein there after the war, in the devastation after the war. But like many of the facts I know, it’s possible I made that up.

I think for a minute of a man I heard about, either the luckiest or unluckiest man in Japan, who witnessed the bombs fall on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A river full of bodies is what I remember, and he was in a car factory, and how you can see through your eyelids when the bomb goes off.

THE FIRST THING they do is measure the whale with one of those yellow builders’ measuring tape things. It’s not that big, about the size of a bus. I mean, that’s big for an animal, and at times it seems to be a geological feature rather than a corpse, but it’s somehow smaller than I was expecting. I guess when you hear amazing whale statistics – a heart the size of a VW Beetle – they are usually about blue whales, and this is a fin whale.

The northern fin whale population and the southern fin whale population don’t mix, Thorvaldur tells me, which is why there are so many fin whales in the north, while in the southern ocean they may indeed be quite depleted. I tell him about how many whales there used to be in Wellington Harbour, that people wrote in to the paper complaining that they were keeping them awake, spouting in the night. Those were right whales, called that because they were the right ones to kill.

After they’ve measured the body, they cut out a bit of flesh and put it in an orange box, that’s the scientific part. Then they start to cut up the whale. Later at the whale museum I read that the flensing tools and whaling techniques were brought to Iceland by the Norwegians. The tool looks like a hockey stick with a curved blade about the width of a machete. Wearing spiked, dark-green gumboots a man walks along the top of the whale, cutting into the body with a kind of sweeping motion. Other men cut off the fin and it falls on to the tarmac with a wet thwack.

The layers of whale are very distinct, the black skin, the white fat, and the dark, dark red flesh. ‘It’s a lot of meat yes?’ Thorvaldur asks, once they’ve cut the cave-sized, mouth-shaped opening in the side, and that’s exactly what I’m thinking. You get a feel for the wealth that a whale represents, a mountain of food that you don’t so much butcher as mine.

All in all there’s probably a dozen men working on the body. When a slab of meat is cut free, a couple of guys hook it then drag it off. I don’t know why but I’m surprised how heavy the slabs seem to be. One man is running the winch, which is steam operated, so he’s standing in a cloud. He’s wearing a blue surgical-scrubs-type cap and blue gloves, and he has a face like a French actor, by which I mean, he has a mobile face, with deep, creamy lines. The winch is used to bring the heavier pieces of whale towards the rending area, where they will be cut up and pushed down into a pool of water to be boiled.

I’m watching the French actor man talk to Thorvaldur, and enjoying the vaguely health-spa feeling of the warm steam on my face, when I realise that they’ve started flaying the whale. Having cut into the blubber and attached hooks, they’re now peeling the outer layer off the body with the winch, like taking off a wetsuit, or pulling the chicken skin off a drumstick. My dad keeps pliers in the cutlery drawer for that exact purpose. Within half a minute the whale’s been stripped of its black skin and white blubber.

They cut the outer layer into sections, and when the pieces of the skin and blubber hit the tarmac, the flesh part spreads out like a kind of liquid jelly, still attached to the blubber and skin but sort of spilling and pouring across the ground, and then pulling back. I check myself for signs of sadness or disgust: nothing. Next time I look over at the whale, its jawbone is being winched up into the air, making it look for a minute like some kind of odd cathedral.

I ask Thorvaldur about the whale jawbones on the beach by the cottage, which I imagined had washed ashore. ‘I brought them there from the station, to get white,’ he says. ‘Maybe I can make something with them.’ He says he drove them home on his tractor. I want to tell him about the whale skeletons I’ve seen, at the museum in Wellington, and in Oxford, and how they are hung with invisible threads and how they resemble buildings, meeting houses, or architectural plans. But I know no one wants to hear about something better, somewhere else. So I say: ‘you could make a gate with them.’

It’s starting to drizzle now. Most of the tourists have left the hillside: after the first half hour of watching a dead whale you feel like you’ve seen as much as you need to. Now that we’re really into the body of it, they start up the saw. The blades are like those ones you see in old photos, of men cutting down the kauri forest. They don’t have handles though, just a long stretch of triangle teeth, and they fit into a steam engine that moves them back and forth. The noise is a kind of grunting clanking, and with the billowing steam it’s very dark satanic mills, very Tess of the D’Urbervilles threshing machine. They cut the pieces of bone and fat and what I suppose is cartilage into suitcase-sized chunks, then use long metal-ended sticks to poke them down holes in the concrete.

As we leave, they’re cutting up the outer parts of the whale into neat squares. The top layer is ribbed in black and white, like some kind of rubber, and then there’s a creamy white layer, which I assume is the blubber, and then a thin, liquid-jelly of bright red flesh. The squares, each about the size of an oven door, look like huge pieces of Louise cake, with their neat layers.

I realise the asphalt is slick underneath my feet, and I can see I’m walking, not necessarily on blood, but on some kind of membranous slime. I know it’s my last chance to feel horrified and I take a deep, searching breath in through my nose, probing the air for something awful. I can smell blood, and fish. But it’s fine.

I had a dream about whales once. My feeling is that, by definition, any dream about whales is magnificent. This one certainly was. My dead friend and I were standing on the deck of a hillside building, looking out across the ocean towards the setting sun. As it went down, the waves became transparent, and in the apricot light we could see whales, surfing in towards the shore. At least, they had the huge, black bodies of whales, but in the light we could see they had the affectionate faces of dogs.

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