Bowhead whale skull (Balaena mysticetus) at the abandoned Kekerten Island whaling station, Nunavut, Canada, North America

By Theresa Soley

First it was a humpback whale, belly up, pleated throat inflated like a hot air balloon, giant and motionless on the beach. Then a skeleton at the high tide line, skull attached by just one furry flap of skin: a sea otter. And next two Steller sea lions on Chichagof Island, one overtaken by maggots and the other now washing ashore on the beach where I’m camping.

Kayaking through the riches of Icy Strait, a waterway in Southeast Alaska with an abundance of marine mammals, also means paddling amongst death. For every blowing whale, all the twirling sea otters and each bellowing sea lion will eventually meet its demise.

Paddling with these big and beautiful life forms, 40-ton humpback whales and 2-ton sea lions, is only possible due to death and decay.

These once majestic mammals now lay still, a bounty of nutrients that will be pumped through the ecosystem. The carcasses will be consumed by bacteria, maggots and bears, feeding the sea from which they emerged, as well as the luscious forest that surrounds us.

Recycling the ocean. Fertilizing the rainforest.

And while our human hearts still beat, our shoulders reach and press paddle blades into the sea, pulsing and moving and flowing, we too will eventually lose mobility. Human blood flow will cease, movement and the mental capacity to appreciate this wild system, will become stillness.

To recognize beauty may be to recognize mortality.

And then paddle through it.

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