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  • The Ecology of Falling Whales
  • Anya Groner (bio)

Visiting my twin sister Maya at Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island, Washington, July 2014

i.women in jeans record numbers

At the Ocean Acidification Lab they speak in tomorrows— when waves leech the shells

off of bivalves, and salmon no longer spawn. Plastic tubes tentacle to bubbling

coolers filled with coralline algae, oysters, and shrimp. Maya studies eelgrass, watery

meadows where new fish shelter and slugs do-si-do. In the beds in the bays, between tangled

tendrils, snails glue donuts— rubbery egg sacks—onto wide blades. This is the nursery

and the ocean here’s murky where tender fry dart and anemones flower. [End Page 159]


At a biology potluck, I put down my beer   and point toward the sea—a puff of white water.     “The spray from a blowhole?” I say to my sister.       “Shallows,” she says. “Not whales, but waves.”         All night, I sip and watch for the pods.           Thousands swim by. I can’t see their shapes,         just synchronized splashes. “Whitecaps,” says Maya.       I shake my head no. I’m surrounded     by skeptics. Science demands that.   Writers, I say, are professional liars, gullible dreamers, fanciful prey.

iii.studies underway:

1. How Clams Pee 2. Sexual Selection Among the Spineless 3. Tunicate Hearts 4. Sea Cucumbers Squirt Battery Acid 5. Eelgrass Wasting Disease 6. The Ecology of Falling Whales 7. De-extinction

iv. necropsy

Between the back flippers,   a student saws blubber with serrated ivory.   For mimicking predation, the girl’s only tool is the jaw   of a shark. A TA takes photos. Below a gloved hand,   intestines are nesting. Biomechanics   is the study of triumph, how bones can break   bones, how teeth puncture windpipes, how pressure   cracks ribs. Carcharodoncarcharias—the great [End Page 160]   white shark—has detachable chops, five rows of teeth—   built-in replacements— and a throat made to swallow   skeletons whole. Some fat from the seal   drips through the dock. What hungers will gather   beneath sneakered students. What schools will flash silver,   splash tail, and snap—

v. friday at friday harbor labs

A morning PowerPoint describes the lifespan of larvae, which, through a scope, appear like small portraits: three-eyed men in ski caps with tassels.

Invitation: Stop by Lab Eight and pet a young shark.

Maya leans over and shows me her phone. Across the screen, a dozen fried eggs spin, bumper, and crash. Oyster spats set to Vivaldi. To run all her tests, she’ll need a cool thousand.

At TGIFHL, a rumor goes round about a transient orca. During dissection, they found in its belly the remains of a moose!

Rusted tanks hold peach-feathered fuzzies, ghost fish so thin we see grooves in their spines, blob fish disguised as piles of rocks. In a tall plastic tube, matchstick fish spiral. We glide through Lab 8, preparing ourselves, but the shark we have come for is no longer there.

So how did the orca swallow the moose?

On the docks after dark, students lower light bulbs into the sea. The glow attracts schools, young cod, [End Page 161] blinking jellies, a crooked flash and a hook for a tail, slithery bristles in purples and reds. A plastic bag bubbles. Anemones vogue as if cauliflowers.


Sea stars aren’t thriving. Their arms slither off, away from their bodies. A zombie pandemic, my sister’s friend whispers. Giant pink star and sun star. Leather star. Bat star. Blinked out by a virus. On a rented kayak in Griffin Bay, I float past a sunflower sucking a rock. Two weeks I look, and this one hungry burst, oozing with petals and an extruded stomach, is all I see. Across the black waters, eelgrass withers. Lesions break blades and blanch out the green. First go the seedlings and then go the beds. The finfish. The small fry. The dolphins. Chinook. sea, the dead sink

      In the black of deep ocean, there is       no horizon. The moon does not visit,       and creatures grow strange

        as the drawings of children. Lamps         leech from bones that curl over fins.         Mouth suckers blink. The newly

    deceased drift like leaves     in an ongoing autumn...