I wasn’t sure how I’d come to get such a central view, but there I was, leaning over the railings with my hood up, redundant and frustrated, watching the pilot whale die. It was smaller than I thought it was going to be – 12 foot long, perhaps, and pressed right up close to the sea wall. It was covered with a great red sheet, smooth and sodden from the seawater that volunteers had been pouring over it for several hours. Water was scooped up in big containers from rock pools and passed along a human chain to a man who poured these offerings into a dustbin serving as a water butt. From there, a further team collected the water in smaller pots and tin watering cans, distributing it across the whale’s body. Sometimes, when one of the team stepped out of the way, you could see the gentle curve of its shiny black head peeping out of the sheet. Whenever this happened, there was an ‘ahh look,’ from someone nearby.
Thirty people were on the beach: coastguard rescue, the local policeman, vets, a photographer, marine biologists from Tremough campus, and an assortment of volunteers without any uniform at all. Everything that could be done was being done. A windbreak had been set up to fend off the wind as it tore across the beach to dry the animal out. One woman stood ankle deep in a rock pool. I have no idea how long she had been in that position, bending down to scoop water and pass it along the chain.
The crowd up above on the promenade, and the rescue team down on the beach all at some point stared at the tide. The whale had been stranded about 11 am, and by the time I heard the news and drove up at 2pm, with some vague notion in my head of being useful and helping out, I was of course far too late to be of any use. High tide was expected around 6pm. Though the waves seemed to press towards the land, they made little difference to it and came no closer to the pilot whale whether we willed it to or not. I wished them on, nevertheless, as if this was one way in which I could help. I stared at the sea in a way that I had not stared for a long time.
Sometimes there were things said in the crowd: that the vet was coming to put the animal to sleep; that there was something wrong with its muscles which had resulted in it being beached in the first place. I couldn’t believe that it would end like this. I stood there for over half an hour, waiting for good news to trickle through via text messages between the audience and the stage.
From time to time, the exposed tail would flap up and down, each movement a burst of saved-up energy, a will to live. It made many of us ache with our own uselessness. ‘I’m not standing here to watch it die,’ a young girl said to her friend as they put their cameras away and walked from the scene.
I was angry about the cameras at the start. As well as smartphones, there was expensive kit that hung around craned necks as the crowd swelled, absorbing passers by. But as time went on, and I realised that the animal was indeed going to be put to sleep, I found myself taking my own phone out of my pocket. I still do not understand why I did it: a combination of bearing witness, of effecting an action, of willing it to live. I do not know whether or not to delete it.
I looked at it later, when I was home and it was over. The image was of thirty people, shivering brazenly into the April wind on a rocky slip of a quiet beach, working to ease suffering in whatever way they could.