Reflections on a Dead Whale

The sound of surf; the scratch of sand on feet;
The sight of distant ships; the taste of salt;
And on the gentle springtime ocean breeze
The putrid, pungent, rotting stench of death.

A behemoth, a California Gray,
A biblical leviathan, as still as stone.
A girl, she was, and thirty-eight feet long,
I know, because I paced it off myself.

Marine biologists from Portland State
Were finishing a full necropsy which
Had disemboweled the whale and left a large
Entangled pile of entrails on the beach.

One eye excised, her uterus exposed;
Her liver splayed upon the blood-soaked shore,
Her stomach opened up for all to see,
And skin as thin and soft as Naugahyde.

Her body pierced, her flesh and blubber flayed,
Her blowhole left atop her head unscathed.
Her gaping maw and still-intact baleen
Forced open by her massive, swollen tongue.

I asked if they had found the cause of death.
“No human interaction,” they replied.
“We think there may have been a hemorrhage,
And malnutrition could have played a part.”

And then they left, a caravan of trucks,
Returning to their lab to do more tests.
The stranded whale was left behind to rot;
Too large to bury, burn, or haul away.

Three whales were washed up on the shore that day,
The other two, ten miles to the north;
Too isolated to attract a team
Of scientists to find out why they died.

At least one whale or two wash up each year
And most are Grays, although a Humpback and
A Sperm once came ashore within a week
Of one another, not too long ago.

The long migration of the Grays each spring
Is arduous enough to cull the herd
Of weaker whales who fall behind and die,
And float ashore along the Northwest coast.

The strongest make it to the Bering Sea
Where calves are birthed and nursed by mothers who
Engorge themselves on krill until they start
Their Fall migration back to Mexico.

To see such animals that large up close
Is quite impressive, even when they’re dead.
But even more impressive is to see
Them in the ocean when they are alive.

Death is a most impressive mystery.
But more so, life. Or so it seems to me.



Whale Watch

At first, a single whale (a humpback stray)
Was acting crazy half a mile off-shore.
I watched it bobbing up and down at play
In ways I’d never seen one act before.

But she (or he) was clearly not alone,
For as she danced upon that unseen shoal
I counted at least five whales, fully grown,
All breaching like a game of Whack-A-Mole.

And on it went for more than half-an hour,
With splashes, spouts, jetés, and pirouettes
Exquisitely performed with grace and pow’r.
It was as good as nature ever gets.

Perhaps a feeding frenzy . . . nothing more.
But what a thrill to see the humpbacks soar!



James A. Tweedie is a recently retired pastor living in Long Beach, Washington. He likes to walk on the beach with his wife. He has written and self-published four novels and a collection of short stories. He has several hundred unpublished poems tucked away in drawers.

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21 Responses

  1. Leo Zoutewelle

    Hi James,
    I loved the sonnet, but I could literally see neither rhyme nor reason for the first poem. I’d like to learn more about that.

    • James A. Tweedie


      Good comment. Here’s my response.

      1. No rhyme? Because (except for the closing couplet) it is blank verse.
      2. No reason? None, really. I simply journaled my experience and thoughts in verse. It is a narrative, descriptive poem self-consciously designed to read as much like prose as possible. It is intended more as a curiosity than as an example of anything profound or elegant. I expect that some will embrace it as being poetry and others will be more skeptical. It is what it is.

      Also, sometimes I get tired of writing sonnets.

      • Monty

        What? So you could see “no reason” for the first poem, Leo? I believe that that’s the first time on these pages that I’ve ever noticed someone questioning an author’s ‘reason’ for writing a poem.

        Surely it’s the case that there is only ever ONE ‘reason’ for writing a poem: the author is sufficiently struck by an image/feeling/happening . . that they feel impelled to convey/share that sentiment to/with others by means of verse. That alone should always justify an author’s “reason” for such an act . . should it not?

  2. Robert Cooperman

    “Whale Watch” was quite charming. It seemed quite effortless in its adherence to rhyme and meter, which is usually the result of sweating blood over the poem.

  3. Peter Hartley

    James – Unlike Leo I didn’t even notice the lack of rhyme in the first poem at a first reading, as I was rapidly becoming embroiled in a splanchnic slurry. A sombre subject indeed, well handled and informative, and I’m glad to hear that the whale is thought to have died of natural causes. One of the most crowded moments of my life was the sight of a Humpback whale breaching a mere ten feet away from our flimsy inflatable, its piggy little eye on a level with our own and full of an alien intelligence. So this poem brought back vivid memories too.

    • Jim Tweedie



      “Splanchnic slurry.” I had to look up the word “splanchnic” in order to make sense out the phrase. Not surprisingly, it did. Coincidentally, I have recently submitted another poem with a splanchnic reference . . . so . . . you will need to find another word to use in your future comment lest you be caught repeating yourself!

  4. David Paul Behrens

    Poetry (2013)

    Poetry that rhymes
    Is out of fashion.
    Unfortunately for me,
    It is my passion.

    So just like a king
    Must wear his crown,
    If it does not rhyme,
    I don’t write it down.

    Okay, so Reflections on a Dead Whale doesn’t rhyme. So what? It is interesting, nonetheless. The couplet at the end, which does rhyme, sums it all up with some deep meaning.

    I enjoyed both poems. (And who doesn’t like whales?)

    • James A. Tweedie

      From what I have read, approximately 1/2 of whales (of all species) that wash up dead on the Pacific Northwest coast from San Francisco up die from some form of human contact (usually with a ship). The other half from natural causes—in recent years often related to malnourishment caused by greater-than-historic grey whale populations overwhelming the winter food supply off of Baja. Climate change is most certainly also playing a role in such things. The less-common deaths of Blue, sperm, orca and humpback whales is not so much from malnourishment but primarily from human contact followed by complications from age/disease.

    • D Robin

      In Chinese ‘shàn’, with a fourth, downward tone, 善, is benevolence or compassion. Not sure that fits with your drift here, Cap’n James, but the spellchecker could do with some – as could we all …

      • James A. Tweedie

        Lol! The SCP knowledge base never fails to amaze me! And, apparently, my cell phone is bi-lingual!

  5. C.B. Anderson

    I like whales. They are impressive beasts, and I wish I were personally acquainted with a few of them, or at least had had a close encounter or two (though not so much in the manner described in the first poem. There’s nothing wrong with blank verse. Milton liked it, and I should probably write more of it, but, like Mr. Behrens, I am addicted to rhyme.

  6. Lannie David Brockstein

    Hello James A. Tweedie,

    Might it have been a whale orgy that the speaker in your “Whale Watch” did witness?

    That same phenomenon might also have been what did beach the whale of your “Reflections on a Dead Whale” work.

    Whale Orgy Documentary:

    Despite their slutty ways, I will always be grateful to whales for their having saved the Earth in 1986, along with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, as chronicled in “Star Trek VI: The Voyage Home”.

    From Lannie.

  7. James Sale

    Both excellent poems, James. Blank verse plus the stanzaic form holds the structure together as you itemise ‘death’ and cannot really come to an understanding of it, for all the parts that make it up; but it is the concluding couplet when the rhyme strikes that brings the whole poem alive. It is analogous to our own lives which often make little sense as we live it, but at the point of death, then the story is complete and it makes sense backwards. So the rhyme (especially of mystery/me) is very potent, very powerful. Well done.

    • James A. Tweedie

      Thank you, James. Your thoughts echo my own and my intent in the closing couplet was very much as you describe. As Monty hints at above, I would not have bothered to write the first poem if the experience it describes had not touched me in some profound and vulnerable place, one that I felt worthy of exploration. As you well know from your own experience, situations concerning life and death are where we are most starkly confronted by the mystery and meaning of our human existence.

  8. Anna J. Arredondo

    I enjoyed these two contrasting poems on the same subject. The first is powerfully descriptive and thought-provoking. The second, playful and entertaining as the whales themselves. I love the Whack-A-Mole line!

  9. David Watt

    James, both of your poems got me thinking about the annual trek of humpback whales along the East coast of Australia. They are a magnificent, awe-inspiring creature. The whales also support an increasing number of whale watching ventures.

    The Whack-A-Mole line also struck me as being a delightfully playful rhyme. Well done!

  10. W. S. "Eel" Bericuda

    In reading “Reflections on a Dead Whale”, I noticed the absence of rhyme, until the final couplet, which reminded me of a Shakespearean scene-closure; but what was most remarkable to me was how the lines ignited verbal sparks. Perhaps it was the stanzaic structure, or the poem’s imagery; I don’t know; but whatever the case, I thought the blank verse nicely done. The poem has that same clear-sighted vision seen in PostModernist Ted Hughes’ stanzaic “View of a Pig”. In looking at the couplet of “Whale Watch”, the first line gives greater impetus to the second. The single phrase “feeding frenzy” sent me back to a tennos I wrote four years ago on whale watching in the Columbia River.

  11. Anissa Gage

    In your second poem I especially loved your eloquent use of “jetes, and pirouettes”.


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