A four foot hypodermic needle isn’t a harpoon, but I’ll allow that the optics aren’t good. It is more delicate than a harpoon, though, and harder to get in and out of a Coast Guard helicopter. On a good-weather day we could travel to the small island by boat, but today we have to dart over in a break between storm clouds.
We’re getting ready to land. The pilot shouts over the noise, “You sure you don’t want me to round up some guys and roll her back into the ocean?”
I force a grin and shake my head. He’s joking, but it’s a variation on what people often ask in earnest. By the time a whale ends up on land, though, land is the least of its problems. By the time I get called in, the whale is so broken or sick that even if we could get her back into the water, she would just drift, injured, until the sharks came.
The propeller blades slow and the sand settles, making way for hazy gray sunlight. “We got about 15 minutes,” the pilot tells me, “before the rest of that storm system rolls through.” 15 won’t be enough but I might be able to get 20 or 25 out of him.
Even if pushing the whale back into the ocean would do her any good, it’s very difficult to move something so heavy and so fragile.
I climb down but the wet metal is slick and I lose my grip, then suddenly am breathless on my back staring at the gray-white sky. Worse, my medical kit has bounced off a rock and snapped open, its contents spread across the sand.
The pilot leans out the doorway. “You OK?” he calls.
“Yes,” I say, “but I definitely need more than 15 minutes now.” I roll over to my hands and knees. “You should head back. Just come get me next time it clears up for long enough.”
Truthfully, I expect him to protest, say he’ll stay and wait it out with me, but he just nods and disappears back inside the helicopter. He reemerges briefly, tosses down a bundle of tarps and pole and rope, I suppose so I can rig up a kind of shelter. Then the blades spin into motion again and I huddle down with my eyes clenched and arms over my ears against the sound and sting.
When he’s gone I stand up and start gathering up my supplies: the standard vet stuff and then my special accessories for such an occasion. The needle in its sheath. The garden sprayer that’s been retrofitted to deliver the drugs through the needle. The one thing I can’t find is the glass bottle of the main ingredient, potassium chloride, hidden somewhere in the sand the propeller kicked up.
I want to get to the whale and at least administer a sedative, though, so I start up the beach. This island is a narrow strip, a glorified sandbar, not connected to any other part of North Carolina with bridges or ferries. At most a sea kayaker may have ventured out and camped, but today I don’t see any evidence of humans. The rain starts again, soft at first, then sharper. It gets hard to tell the ocean from the sand from the sky. They mix into each other, blurring.
The whale is a dark shape in the blur.
The call requesting my particular expertise only comes maybe once a year, maybe less. Most of the time I am a zoology professor with a specialization in aquatic veterinary medicine. Most of the time all of this is abstract. I teach. I spend time with my family. We hike. I go to conferences. I write papers that say, “Euthanasia of stranded large whales poses logistic, safety, pharmaceutical, delivery, public relations, and disposal challenges.”
But then I am here. Not the particular here, not this island where I’ve never been before. But some east coast beach, looking into an eye. The muscles ripple under the skin. The eye tells me about pain. The gulls have already started to pick. They don’t bother waiting for death. At least the rain has kept her skin from blistering in the sun. I am so close that I can’t consider more than one piece at a time: the fin, the eye, a barnacle, a blowhole. The barbiturates I inject are enough to dull any pain, I hope, but not enough to kill her. I head back to where I landed to look for the missing bottle.
Some Australian authorities prefer implosion of the brain stem. No one really explodes a whale, not on purpose. That is a myth. Think of the cleanup. We used to use phenobarbital but then the gulls and the wild dogs that ate the whale meat would die, and if the tide did draw the whale back into the ocean, all the water she touched would be poisoned.
I like to think of myself as a man of science, but sometimes I can feel the call before it comes, like an aura announcing a migraine. The skin of the world gets looser, a pressure bubbles up behind it. I have a thought that recurs at such times, that all people are born with a certain amount of death inside them. I have a thought that I ended up in this line of work because I have a bigger share of death inside me than most. I look at my daughter, asleep on her flowered bedsheets, and wonder what size of death she holds inside. How she will choose to behold it.
Once the call comes, though, mostly there’s just motion. There’s me, squinting, pawing at lumps that might be my bottle but are shells, pieces of hurricane-wrecked pier. Then there is a crunch of glass under my boot, the soundless loss of potassium chloride into the damp sand. Shit.
Exsanguination of a whale is not preferred, but it’s a last humane resort.
I head back toward her dark shape. I try to hold her in my gaze as a whole creature, not as pieces, not an artery that I need to locate. It will all be over soon: words euthanists find themselves whispering. It’s almost over, but I’ll be here again. Another eye will see me.
I brace myself for the mess. You have to get the blood on you. There isn’t another way.