Last and First Whales (December 2021)
By Mike Adamson
The indigo waters of the Kuroshio Current flowed deep and clear by the streamlined body of submersible Echo IV, but the apparent peace of the hydrosphere was lost on Dr. Tess McGuire.
The dark-haired, handsome woman lay in the pilot’s couch in the optically perfect transparent aluminum shroud of the forward hull, and but for the small touchscreen panel before her, it seemed she was suspended in the ocean itself. A force-input grip in the right arm of the seat controlled rudders and dive-planes, a throttle was set in the left arm, and she handled the craft with the familiarity of many years. But her mission was too dire for the majesty of the sea to counterbalance the grief in her soul.
A tracking contact flashed silently in the display and she coaxed more power from the motors, sent the craft on through long light rays at forty meters depth, and was glad she was alone. Her grief was a personal thing in this moment, for she had spent her life fighting with every shred of her being to preserve cetacean life. And now it was all over.
Contact BW-1076 was not only the last living blue whale, he was the last living whale of any kind beneath the oceans.
Climate change had driven extinctions for a hundred years and now, in the closing decades of the 21st century, the myopia and cruelty of earlier times continued to reap a rich harvest. Average temperatures had passed 3.5 degrees increase over pre-industrial levels, and ocean acidification had destroyed the food web from the base upward.
Few organisms survived now, it seemed the ocean belonged to jellyfish: she had cruised through vast swarms on many occasions, for they were among the most primitive invertebrates, and resilient to even significant changes in their environment. They alone seemed to scavenge a living from the meager remaining elements of a once burgeoning ecosystem. More complex life forms which had evolved geological ages later had suffered extinction as the conditions to which they were adapted simply vanished.
Tess let the tears come, a hand at her mouth. Her breath sounded too loud in the cramped cockpit of the submersible, and she was wracked with sobs for the pathos and futility of it all. She mopped her eyes, made herself relax, and thought back on her career as a whale biologist.
How many lives had she saved with her genius as a cetacean surgeon? How many whales had she genetically sampled, to build a database of enormous variability? They had known over thirty years ago that preserving the genomes of species was the only hope those species had of reawakening when the catastrophe had gone by. When — not if, for it was imperative people believe with all their hearts that some solution lay out there, ahead in time.
Yet the tragedy was multiplied, for one of the great cosmic realities laid bare when quantum computing got into its stride was that human beings had never been alone in the universe in the power of sentient thought. Many creatures were capable of the mental processes defined as sentience, and none more so than cetaceans. Their languages, long surmised to exist, were at last found, decoded, and interspecies dialog had become the norm in the middle decades of the century. Thus, among the casualties of the human agenda of the last few hundred years, was an entire multivariate culture which had lasted millions of years.
Her mission was sad and desperate, but one she had performed many times, and she steeled herself for what she would see as she closed on the contact. BW-1076 was a sixty-year old blue, she had operated on him twice in his later years, done everything she could to keep the species alive in him. But blues, like fins, were solitary whales, they shunned all others of their sort except perhaps for a mate, and in the liquid universe of the dying sea they had even passed beyond their phenomenal mutual hearing. Each whale became more and more isolated, never knowing another cetacean, and as the ocean grew more and more poor of the krill and plankton that was their food source, baleen whales starved to death.
In the last half century, a database had been created of the sampled genetic blueprint of every living whale, but as no whale had been born in over fifteen years, the database was complete. BW-1076’s DNA was already on file, the data stored redundantly in many places, even in the last-refuge global databases established in space, which contained the genetic blueprint not simply of every species that could be sampled, but of as many individuals as could be reached. Tess’s mission was merely one of mercy, albeit of the bitterest sort.
She could not call it murder, though the debate had raged for decades. The cetacean nation was gone, all that remained was a purgatory of hunger and disease, in an ocean gone to hell, and she had heard the whispered words of the last of a species, the last of a race .... A lament for the lost, for all that might have been had the world not changed around them. Skies once blue had faded to the black of storms and the murk from terrestrial fires that dumped dust and ash into the sea over vast areas. The whales despaired, and their grief was the equal of any a human might ever feel.
Today the sun was shining up there and she found 1076 moments later. He was a heartbreaking sight, a whale without the sleek roundness of health, for his fat reserves were exhausted from prolonged malnourishment, and he had developed the sores and parasitic infestations of an old, sick being. Her scans penetrated his body in soft patterns of sound and she saw a dozen maladies, from worms in his aorta to crustaceans in his skin, creatures which usually made their homes on slower-swimming species. He was emaciated, swimming feebly, and his vocalizations were a deep rumble of distress.
She put a hand out to touch the cold metal of the canopy. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, tears coming again. “We failed you. We failed you all. The only promise I can make you is the future, and swear to bring your kind back into a new Earth. I don’t know when that will be, but I swear .... I swear.”
The whale was dying. His heart beat barely five times per minute, his flukes undulated gently and it seemed he was merely marking time to his passing. With a surge of the deepest pity, Tess uncovered an arming switch. She marked a point on his long, slaty-blue back where the big muscles that drove him lay in meshed tiers, and breathed a long and shaky sigh.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered again, and stroked a trigger.
A tiny dart sped from a launcher beneath the cockpit, slammed home and sent a penetrator head through thin blubber into vascular tissue below. It delivered a cocktail of compounds which flooded into the circulatory system and were carried to the brain in less than thirty seconds.
And he was gone.
The great body trembled, a shudder went through him, then he relaxed, his spiracle opened and his last breath bubbled away. Devoid of lift, the giant began a slow, gliding descent, and Tess cruised alongside for long moments as the play of light from the surface on his back marked his last journey. Fifty meters, sixty, seventy ... She followed him down, unable to tear herself from his side, as the last living whale settled away from the air and the light, and she found it her iron-bound duty to salute his passing.
Whales had been her life, fifty years of unremitting effort, and now her field of study and fascination had become the thing of history, gone the way of the dinosaur. Whales had been functionally extinct for decades, but now the word had taken on its grimmest and most literal meaning.
Pacific light reached beyond 400 meters and she followed him down into the twilight realm, where royal blue deepened to indigo, and she gave a shuddering sob as she at last lost the final glimmers upon his body. 1076 passed into the world of eternal night, and she sent Echo IV up in a smooth arc for the daylight layers far above.
But as surely as dinosaurs would be brought back into existence one day, so would whales. Already the genome had been composed for an incubator, the uterus of each cetacean species, equipped with a circulatory system, which would accept a synthetic egg, fertilized with synthetic sperm and bearing the DNA of whales like 1076: a machine which would bring forth life, one day, when the Earth was ready to receive it. Then the First Whales would be gifted the language of their forebears, and their recorded oral heritage, the very stuff of their bodies and the archive of their culture having passed through the custodianship of the terrestrial bipeds who had brought about their downfall.
Yet nothing was certain. For all their finest projections, all their best intentions, success could not be guaranteed. To bring life back to this broken sphere would take centuries, and the possibility of failure must be acknowledged. For the moment all they really knew was that the gene banks of an entire ecosystem had been gathered, transcribed and stored in redundant backups all over colonized space, and they were the most profound treasure of the future.
These things Tess reaffirmed to herself as she returned to the blue daylight where the jellyfish wandered, the stigmata of a broken ocean, and surfaced in the Kuroshio, a few hundred kilometers east of Japan. These were the very waters in which, 223 years ago, Verne’s adventurers had begun their last circumnavigation of the world, and it was fitting that another great journey should end — and begin — here.
Tess lay on the gently rolling surface and indulged her grief. The tears were for the past, for the present, for the whales she had loved, and for every creature lost from the world in the Great Dying of the 21st century. After a while, she signaled the transporter that would scoop her craft from the sea, and knew her future lay only upward, to the space cities being assembled out by the Moon. They were long-duration lifeboats for a minute fraction of human beings, rushed into construction in the expectation that the foul environment of Earth would no longer support even human life within twenty years.
But, as science had failed the whales, so biotechnology had won humans extended lifespan by the defeat of disease and the endemic causes of aging. Thus Tess had every expectation that, centuries hence, just as she had been psychopomp to the passing of the last whale, she would midwife at the birth of the first. And on that day, and not one moment sooner, she would believe that the human race, the planet Earth and all the life upon it, would have a second chance.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Mike Adamson (blog) holds a Doctoral degree from Flinders University of South Australia. After early aspirations in art and writing, Mike returned to study and secured qualifications in both marine biology and archaeology. Mike has been a university educator since 2006, has worked in the replication of convincing ancient fossils, is a passionate photographer, a master-level hobbyist, and a journalist for international magazines. Short fiction sales include to The Strand, Little Blue Marble, Weird Tales, Abyss and Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction and Nature Futures. Mike has placed nearly 150 stories to date.