Whence We Unmoor No More

Blue Water, White Death (1971)

National General Pictures

I lower my palms until they plip into salt water. I touch the Atlantic Ocean. I breathe.

Here is what happens when I touch the screen of the Atlantic: I am not all here anymore. I mean, I still am. I am the same lonely blurt of soul I was on sand, atop pavement, bent in car, stuffed through highway, trapped in house, drifting in rolly chair saying, “Does that make sense?” to a Zoom room of faces on another screen, faces that nod and respond with, “Does that make sense?” You can only travel so far right now. Today I am my me. Tomorrow I am my me. I am so infrequently anything but my me these days. Mostly I’d like to be anything other than this specific set of wanting and fearing.

But when I stand in the Atlantic, I am impossibly multitudinal. I am not all here anymore. I am bound by tarsal digits in sand, sure, but I am also over there in that fan of foam water just off the beach, a corsage of chipped sea shell. And I am there, where the floor gets farther away and a body can start to tread or sink. I am in reverie with this great big blue thing, this lunging flower, this life bowl. I am the life too. That horseshoe crab fizzing in the space between salt and sand has me in its hard brown shell. I am in the same place as cownose rays making their wing and way from down south father upward. I am shoal and school, a patch of shad or herring or who knows, spinning as the Atlantic opens up. I can be found among the bottlenoses jostling, the rogue marlin, the kicked up spot or scup or hard clam. Somewhere in a place I cannot imagine I am the saunter of the blue whale. I am the 400 pounds of the blue whale’s heart!

This last part I feel intrinsically; I am heavy and breaking. How do you keep doing, you know? Especially once you’ve done it for so long. What do you think about when the heave is closest, when you can’t breathe steady at all, when you feel like Ishmael, all “grim about the mouth”? And how much do I carry in my worry? Four hundred pounds for days, for evers.

And so the Atlantic scales me right. It breaks my me and spreads me particled across it all. Maybe that’s what baptism means to some bodies. Maybe it’s the evolutionary pang, the way the ooze is our oldest ancestor. Maybe it’s the way whenever I worry about answering the ultimate question, the waves don’t offer anything more than a giggle tsk and a sly embrace in response. 

Still: I’m just standing there. And eventually I walk away from that screen of Atlantic. It pulls its wave hands back in. I recede too; I flick the beads and grains from my feet. I put my socks and sneakers on. They protest. I’m back in the car. I’m back in the world of humanness. I have another day. I scrunch. I wonder, scared. Does that make sense?

Here is something that doesn’t make sense: the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death.

There are two possible ways that you’ve heard of Blue Water, White Death. One is that you have purchased literally any shark-related quadruple DVD set from a Walmart bargain cage. Two is that you or someone you know were a part of the film crew that made it. The latter point is perhaps more likely than it might seem, because it doesn’t seem like there were too many qualifications to get on that crew. Blue Water, White Death is an extravagant exercise in the sublimely stupid. 

Here is the pitch: ex-investment banker turned explorer Peter Gimbel—can’t tell if he’s consciously doing a knockoff Tyrone Power voice or if he’s just wealthy in the ‘70s—wants to film great white sharks in their natural habitat. This has not been accomplished to this point in history. Gimbel is not a marine biologist, though he has some experience filming the underwater unseen: he was the first to dive the wreck of the Andrea Doria and his photos appeared in Life in 1956. 

Gimbel recruits Stanton Waterman (a made-up name, I have to believe) to co-produce. Waterman helps with the underwater photography, and says things like “those brutes can’t stand that kind of rough treatment!” with regard to bopping a great white on the nose. Peter Matthiessen—a co-founder of The Paris Review and a winner of the National Book Award in both fiction and non-fiction—is on hand to lend an aura of gravitas. Australian wife and husband duo Valerie and Ron Taylor are on hand to break up that aura of gravitas. They loom their high-ponytail/40-inch sideburns over a sleeping seal at one point saying “wakey wakey little seal!” which is an unutterably terrifying situation to be in if you’re a seal. Tom Chapin, who is the less-renowned folk singer brother of renowned folk singer Harry Chapin, is billed as “assistant cameraman” which means “got us the pot.”

There’s a film crew and a co-director for surface shots in James Lipscomb. There’s a still photographer named Peter Lake doing Lester Bangs cosplay and there is Rodney Fox, an Australian dive-master who survived a violent encounter with a great white years earlier. Rodney is more Robert Shaw than Robert Shaw is. There is the rusty steamboat called the Terrier VIIII and the way someone brought an actual terrier onboard and there is the way the crew spends five months on that boat, burning through cash and time and celluloid and pairs of denim short shorts.

And while I confess that it is frankly surprising that nobody died on this shag-rug odyssey that might best be summed up by Stanton Waterman (again, it bears mentioning, this is his name) waxing poetic about how swimming with sharks is better than dancing in clubs any old day, what’s more surprising is that the film is wonderful. It seizes on some bonkers bold choices—a psychedelic opening credits sequence where sharks move impossibly through overlaying edits, the distortion of Dr. Roger Payne’s Songs of the Humpback Whales until it sounds more like a Hendrix solo—and slips them in among flatout gobsmacking underwater photography. There’s no narration overlaying these sequences, just human bodies spinning, rendered foreign by this alienest of environments. These frames are stuffed full of wonder. Most of the best philosophies spouted here by a human body aren’t articulated language, just a wave of a hand at a barracuda’s brightness or sprig of seagull. The philosophies are, Are you seeing this? Are you believing this?

The principal Homeric venture of Blue Water, White Death is that there is still worth in seeing the unseen things in the world. There is still worth in testifying to the idiot spirit of human inquiry. At one point the divers leave the relative safety of their shark cages and swim in open waters inside a frenzying ball of oceanic whitetip sharks. It is somehow not vulgar to dare. It is somehow not vulgar to imagine being the first humans to film great white sharks with cameras. It is somehow not vulgar to be a human.

This last part is difficult to reconcile. In order to find and follow its great whites, the crew of the Terrier begins its venture by trailing a whaling vessel off the coast of South Africa—no better way to attract sharks than to unloose whalefuls of blood in the water. The Terrier waits a few hundred feet away. The water harpoon cannons bellow off the side of the whaling ship. The screen of ocean is ruptured. The tear is traumatic. A massive frame of sperm whale is dragged up into the limbo between water and air. It struggles to stay alive. These palpitations are impossible to misinterpret: you can sense something wanting to be alive, even on the edges of life and documentary, even between 2021 and 1971. It is not vulgar to want to be alive.

The sperm whale will not survive this sequence. More harpoons are loaded, howitzered in disarming tempo. Blue water reds, first in ribbons and then spilled-paint gallons. Blood spurts from a blowhole. It is grisly beyond grisly.

This is difficult to watch. It’s difficult to shove into words, which are useless to whales and even more useless to death. Matthiessen tries: “They’re extraordinary creatures, marvelously intelligent. At the rate they’re being hunted now, they’ll be extinct before we can really understand them.” The whale’s corpse, now a line in a day’s catch, is tied up and hauled back to Durban. The camera follows; we see the cutting and slicing, the sliding of flesh off blubber, the parts that get kept and the parts that don’t. This is hard to watch too, a different kind of human imposition. The whale body has been reduced to commodity but so has the human one: Black workers cut and sweat and stand. White bosses tick marks on clipboards. “Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty,” Melville writes, before proceeding to write a run-on sentence three pages long that describes various white objects and their varying beauties (“milk-white steeds”) and purity (“the innocence of brides”) and holinesses (“white forked flame”). It’s the conclusion of this marathon sentence though, that curdles: “yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet and honorable and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

Moby Dick isn’t about racism any more than Blue Water, White Death is about labor exploitation. Which is to say: book and movie swim in both. You can’t tell a story about the whaling industry in the Global South and ignore the gnarl of racial capitalism. You can’t film the way waters move in aching nonhuman contortions without a camera suggesting the human seeing it, dreaming of containers. You can’t film the natural world and ignore the unnaturally cruel things we introduce to it.

Neither Moby Dick nor Blue Water, White Death are about the way humans cut and slice humanness up into the ugliest shapes. But I do think they’re both shaped by our shaping, wild excursions into the liquid space where all the reckless and hateful things humanness has built might melt away. I think both admit that there may be an ultimate question in the water while knowing that if there is, that question is fundamentally unanswerable. And it’s not about the futility of trying so much as it’s about the infinity of half-satisfying possibilities. There is the cownose ray, there is a horseshoe crab. A spit of beached kelp, an unseen piping plover’s sooo-weeet soo-twee cheeeruup. Here we all are, you know?

Herman Melville died penniless and unlauded. People like to mention that, I’ve found. He wrote Moby Dick and some other things. I hope he was happy some of the time.

Gimbel and his crew have better luck, in the space between credit sequences at least. They find their great whites at the end of it all, off Dangerous Reef in Australia. The final sequence is celebratory and terrifying and cathartic. I am certain some of the still photos my fingers used to brush in books are reprinted from this specific encounter. The sharks are immense and unsayable, a kind of paleolithic zen machining through the haze of sea. Even watching one tangle itself up in a diving cage line and respond all jaws, seeing the terrified photographer trying to cut the line and free them both, the camera never implicates the great white as murderous, evil, monstrous. This is some of the language of sharks. We don’t speak it, and like most languages care must be taken or someone’s liable to get hurt.

Of all the ocean movies I might be reminded of when I watch Blue Water, White Death, the one I think of most is a short film excerpted from a longer feed of footage taken on October 16, 2019. Expedition Vessel Nautilus is a research ship operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust, a non-profit founded by Dr. Robert Ballard in 2008 that broadcasts footage of their expeditions—captured using remote-operated underwater cameras—for educational and research purposes.

The 5-minute clip in question is from the tail-end of the final dive of the Nautilus’ 2019 dive season, a research expedition in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in the Davidson Seamount habitat. The camera moves through the lamp-lit murk and drifting marine snow, a poetic-sounding figuration that in actuality refers to any organic material that floats down from the shallower, more life-filled zones of the ocean. Marine snow accounts for the majority of sustenance here at the bottom, where life and light are scarce and organisms have adapted to survive without much of either.

The camera keeps moving, tracking, and a figure comes into focus. It’s briefly unidentifiable, an unhomely architecture, until it’s so unavoidably clear that it’s the carcass of a baleen whale. Most times a whale dies, any number of oceanic scavengers make short work of it. Every now and then, the carcass sinks mostly undetected, maybe just the odd bite or hunk taken. Every now and then, the carcass finds its way to the very bottom and becomes—as the unison and reverently excited voices on the Nautilus broadcast whisper—“a whale fall.”

In the abyssal space well-accommodated to nothing, the appearance of a whale corpse is a surprise bonanza, a body buffet in a place used to shards of scraps; whalefall is the vulgarity of decay being rendered as dinner forever. As the Nautilus robot camera cruises, deep sea octopus and eel pouts scavenge the still-too-flesh parts of baleen and inner organ, as bone-eating Osedax worms (“zombie worms” in some circles) are boring into the skeleton itself to consume lipids from the bones. In 1988, researchers in Hawai’i hypothesized that the sedimentation of a decomposing 40-ton whale carcass could equal about 2,000 years worth of marine snow. A whale fall isn’t grisly and it isn’t gruesome, human words that barely mean anything to oceans. A whale fall is the spontaneous creation of a new ecosystem, at the bottom of the ocean. We wouldn’t see it if a camera’s light didn’t illuminate it, but it would happen regardless of us seeing.

The 2019 dive footage is almost a one-shot movie—the pan and scan of a remote-operated camera eye—but there’s one cut back to the rig a few hundred feet up aboard Argus, the remote robo vessel itself. The shift is startling. Illuminated by the ghost glow of a few white-blue lights there is the shape of a whale on the ocean floor. But it is not a whale, really. It’s a thing in the shape of whale. Melville knows, I think: “The skeleton of the whale furnishes but little clue to the shape of his fully invested body.”

I like to imagine this whale shape belonged to the sperm whale that died such a graphic, useless death in Blue Water, White Death. I know it doesn’t. We’re decades too late for that. It’s not even the same kind of whale. But that sperm whale—the one who ran up against those whalers in 1971—deserved so much more than to be ground up in our human systems of product. It isn’t parts. It is whale until it’s something-else. And I don’t know what we deserve anymore or if any thing deserves anything other than to be alive and to care about other things.

Still: how do you keep doing, you know? And then what?

Somewhere, right now—and this is true of whenever human eyes read these words—a whale fall is feeding bodies we can’t see. I still don’t think the ultimate question is answerable in any language, human or otherwise. But I know this is the good death, if only because it helps other bodies live. It is not vulgar to want to be alive.

When I was a littler thing but still with flamingoed limbs, I’d sit in library aisles and look for books about the ocean, about sharks. I’d sit folded up and flip through a book. Sometimes I was nervous about what would be on the next page. Because sometimes I’d turn the page and my fingers would already be touching a picture they didn’t want to be touching. I don’t like touching some pictures.

Today I can’t get to the Atlantic. I can’t get my me near the salt water. I have all the human barriers in the way. I heave a little. I am unsteady. And so I move my palm and put my fingers on the whale fall. The pressure is immense. A hackfish squirrels away. A sprig of burgundy sea worm wiggles. That’s me, I think. And so I breathe.