What We’re Teaching Our Sons #603: Whales & #189: Geology



We’re teaching our sons about whales.

Their habits and habitats, their evolutionary history, their cultural and economic relevance, the many stories told about them.

An adult male sperm whale has washed up, dead, on a beach on the Norfolk coast, and we’re following the clean-up effort on TV and the radio and the internet. People are worried that the build up of gas inside the decomposing whale carcass may cause it to explode. Onlookers have been moved back to a safe distance.

Our sons are gripped by the unfolding drama.

We tell our sons about the long relationship between people and whales – about the whaling industry, and the historical uses of baleen and blubber and ambergris and whalebone. We tell them about the hunting of minke whales and pilot whales and bowhead whales and fin whales and sei whales and humpback whales and grey whales and so on.

We tell them the stories of Jonah and the whale, and Moby Dick, and what we can remember of the plot of the film ‘Orca The Killer Whale’, and about the whale that got lost and swam up the Thames in 2006.

“Did you see the whale?” Our sons ask, excitedly.

“Well no,” we say, “we were out of the country at the time, but-”

“What happened to the whale?” Our sons ask. “Was it rescued?”

We explain to our sons that, despite the best efforts of various organisations to save it, the Thames whale died two days after it was first spotted, from convulsions caused by dehydration and kidney failure. Everyone was very sad, we say. People had taken to calling the whale ‘Diana’. It was one of those moments when the whole nation comes together.

“Except you, because you were out of the country,” our sons say.

“Well that’s true, yes,” we admit.

On the TV, scientists and whale removal experts and members of the local council are reviewing their options. Dynamite is considered. Or burial. Apparently the smell is becoming unbearable. Luckily it’s winter, so the tourist trade hasn’t been too adversely affected. Nobody knows what caused the whale to wash up here – whether it was illness or a wrong turn or just old age.

“Maybe he was murdered,” our sons say. “Maybe sharks did it, or other whales. Maybe he had it coming. Maybe he was a bad whale.”

Eventually the experts decide to load the whale onto the back of an eighteen-wheel lorry. It takes two days to lay the temporary metal road across the beach, twelve hours to roll the corpse of the whale onto a cradle, hoist it up onto the trailer, tie it down under yards of tarpaulin and plastic sheeting.

Then, under cover of night, a police escort leads the lorry and its stinking cargo through the dark lanes of East Anglia.

At an undisclosed location, the television reports tell us, tissue samples will be taken and the whale will be cut up and incinerated.

And we will be left to explain to our sons what the whole thing means.


We’re teaching our sons about geology.

We’re teaching them about sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks, about plate tectonics, about continental drift. We’re teaching them about the history of the earth, and the fossil record, and deep time.

It’s making us feel old.

Our sons want to learn about volcanoes. We stand on the edge of the vast Holuhraun lava field in Iceland, staring down into the recently re-awoken inferno. Swarms of separate eruptions throw magma across the blackened, stinking landscape. Dressed in their silver heatproof suits, our sons look like an army of miniature henchmen.

We tell our sons about Eyjafjallajökull and Mount Saint Helens, about Krakatoa and Pompei. We tell them how the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 led to a year without summer around the globe. We tell them about the supervolcano under Yellowstone park that may one day wipe out half the continental United States.

The spectacularly beautiful Icelandic tour guides – who are called Hanna Gunnarsdottir and Solveig Gudrunsdottitr and Sigrun Eiðsdóttir – explain to our sons about Iceland’s geothermal energy infrastructure, how a quarter of the country’s electricity is generated using heat that comes directly from the centre of the earth.

Our sons try to get each other to run towards the lava flows, to see how close they can get before they burst into flames.

We are gently admonished by the spectacularly beautiful Icelandic tour guides for the behaviour of our sons. To be honest, we are all a little bit in love with the spectacularly beautiful Icelandic tour guides. During the journey back over the glacier we keep trying to imagine what it would be like to have affairs with them, to be invited to look inside their bedrooms, to meet their exciting young friends. We don’t know even where to begin.

In the thermal pools we drink incredibly expensive beers and watch the snow fall on our sons’ shoulders, settle on their hair. Our sons shiver in the brittle air, splash and jump on each other. They remind us of Japanese snow monkeys.

Hanna Gunnarsdottir and Solveig Gudrunsdottitr and Sigrun Eiðsdóttir explain to us about the geothermal systems that heat approximately eighty-five percent of the country’s buildings. They remind us that, geologically, Iceland is a young country: like our sons it is still being formed, as the mid Atlantic ridge that splits the island right down the middle slowly pushes the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates away from each other.

We tell Hanna Gunnarsdottir and Solveig Gudrunsdottitr and Sigrun Eiðsdóttir that we know how it must feel to be the western half of the county, helplessly watching the east speed toward the horizon at a rate of three centimetres a year. If only our sons were drifting away from us that slowly, we joke.

But they’ve already stopped listening.

– End –