How to See Whales

Picture a Saturday in February, a crisp walk for two on a Cape Cod salt marsh. Each step meant testing the ground in front of us, given the recent snowfall and thawing earth. The air was warm enough for mud to freeze, but only partially. We alternated between solid ground, breaking the ice, and occasionally falling through. If we couldn’t trust our feet, we also couldn’t trust our eyes, as the ice and snow often hid our path. 

In the distance, we saw what might have been a mass of salt hay, a handful of boulders, or maybe peat, my hiking partner suggested. Together, we approached the illegible mound on the landscape, and I dabbed a boot on something even softer than the ground. Suddenly taking in the mass, I realized it was a dead whale. 

The awe I experienced at the creature’s body has surely resounded for other humans who have also encountered whales in the wild. However, given the extractive histories that characterize human-whale relations, this depth of feeling hasn’t always been encouraged. Nineteenth-century whalemen, despite seeing these beings bleed, birth, and breathe like them, still killed them for profit—living in that gulf between knowledge and behavior that we environmental actors know all too well. 

Just down the road from the salt marsh, whaling industries helped build the harbors that today bustle with yachts, ferries, and whale watches. Along this same coast, Wampanoag people and white settlers initially found large whales ashore, and capitalist innovators later came to kill them at sea. Sailors on factory ships were steeped in blood and oil during the painful process of chasing, killing, towing, cutting, and boiling bodies into commodities. At port, they sold whale oil for illuminants and lubricants, as well as baleen—toothless whales’ flexible food filters—for corsets, whips, and umbrellas. Meanwhile, Cape Codders drove smaller species onto beaches to decapitate and drain them of their jaw oil, which was used to smooth the metal innards of clocks, watches and other delicate machinery. This labor of extraction was gruesome and dangerous, and placed exploited workers—often men of color—in positions of systematic precarity. 

After petroleum supplanted whale oil in the late nineteenth century, whales changed from material commodities to visual ones. For example, George Hathaway Nickerson created stereoviews of a blackfish hunt in Truro in 1874, capitalizing on the medium to create an illusion of shocking proximity to the animals. P.T. Barnum took advantage of the public’s fascination—perhaps the same awe I experienced in the marsh—when he exhibited beluga whales in Manhattan, both of whom perished there in a fire. From Provincetown, entrepreneurs towed giant finbacks to the mainland, where they touted them on docks and elsewhere for spectators to see and smell. Given how whales’ value moved so easily from oils to visuals, it is difficult to say whether their objectification can be reversed. Has the flow of cash permanently corrupted the possibility of empathic interrelationality between human and whale kind? 

Indigenous ontologies have certainly offered alternatives to these extractive relationships. For example, peoples in the Bering Sea practice reverence and reciprocity as part of their bowhead hunts, and on Cape Cod members of the Mashpee Wampanoag continue to make offerings to beached whales. Meanwhile, though, capitalist practices continue to consume whale bodies in aquaria, museums, and on whale watches. These sorts of spectacles carry mixed messages of fascination, conservation, and even a troubling nostalgia for whaling’s most gruesome days. At auction, sailor-carved scrimshaw climbs to six-figure prices, making explicit the value of this memory made material. These contemporary referents certainly have the ability to elucidate harmful histories; however, such experiences of viewing can, in fact, risk continuing to glorify their past of extinction-threatening violence. 

Turning a critical eye on spectacularization is one step toward weakening this accidental glorification, as well as the colonizing logics of documenting and collecting. Whales are exceptional in that they have long resisted representation, if only due to an aquatic inaccessibility and often impossible size. In February, my own impulse to snap photos of the stranded humpback yielded illegible files. The pictures show lines under the snow, indicating ventral folds, those ridges in a humpback throat that help it expand. Two giant bones appeared simply too large to be precisely what they were—larger than life (or, my life anyway). I choose not to include those photographs here because I’m not sure how to grapple with their renderings of death, as well as their implications of violence, indirect or otherwise. 

The questions that emerge here about representation and responsibility are as mushy as the mud under melting snow. When I contacted the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about the marsh whale, they told me they had performed a “limited exam” but knew little about the whale’s species, or his cause of death. They called my experience a “resight,” and they thanked me for my pictures. They concluded, “Thank you again for reporting! Let me know if you have any other questions!” 

As humans remain entangled in histories of interspecies violence, it becomes difficult to imagine how we can remove ourselves from practices of commodification, of visualization, or otherwise—practices that continue to harm these animals by reinforcing human domination. Instead, as whales persist in human cultural institutions, new ways of seeing them should emerge, that can attempt to transform their representations into vectors of appreciation, connection, or mourning. With whales, the emotions that strike humans can perhaps come to catalyze active reverence and collective resilience, as we move forward together in an increasingly uninhabitable world. 


Kelly P. Bushnell, “Looking at Leviathan: The First Live Cetaceans in Britain,” in Maura Coughlin and Emily Gephart, eds. Ecocriticism and the Anthropocene in Nineteenth-Century Art and Visual Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2020): 178-191.

Bathsheba Demuth, “On Mistaking Whales,” Granta 7 (November 18, 2021); and Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (New York: Norton, 2019).

Jamie Jones has done in-depth research in the area of whaling’s economic decline and cultural significance, as in her dissertation American Whaling in Culture and Memory, 1820-1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Dissertation, 2011); see also “Fish out of Water: The “Prince of Whales” Sideshow and the Environmental Humanities,” Configurations 25, no. 2 (2017): 189-214. 

Chie Sakakibara, Whale Snow: Iñupiat, Climate Change, and Multispecies Resilience in Arctic Alaska (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2020).

Nancy Shoemaker, Living with Whales: Documents and Oral Histories of Native New England Whaling History (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 6.

*Cover image: Nauset Marsh from Coast Guard Beach parking lot. The whale described here would have had to float through these tidal waters, becoming separated from the ocean depths, before being washed ashore. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: A wooden fence and snow covered path lead to a panoramic view of a wetland in the winter].

Edited by Evelyn Ramiel, reviewed by Emily Webster.

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