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Whale Fall by Melissa Stewart

Melissa Stewart shares Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean-Floor Ecosystem (Random House Studio), a fascinating nonfiction picture book filled with stunning illustrations by Robert Dunlavey detailing the end of life for a whale, also known as a whale fall, when its body sinks to the ocean floor and becomes an energy-rich food source for organisms living in the deep sea.

Listen along:

About the book: Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean-Floor Ecosystem by Melissa Stewart; illustrated by Robert Dunlavey. Published by Random House Studio.

This fascinating nonfiction picture book filled with stunning illustrations details the end of life for a whale, also known as a whale fall, when its body sinks to the ocean floor and becomes an energy-rich food source for organisms living in the deep sea.

When a whale dies, its massive body silently sinks down, down, through the inky darkness, finally coming to rest on the silty seafloor. For the whale, it's the end of a 70-year-long life. But for a little-known community of deep-sea dwellers, it's a new beginning. First come the hungry hagfish, which can smell the whale from miles around. Then the sleeper sharks begin their prowl, feasting on skin and blubber. After about six months, the meat is gone. Year after year, decade after decade, the whale nourishes all kinds of organisms from zombie worms to squat lobsters to deep-sea microbes.

This completely fascinating real-life phenomenon is brought to vivid and poetic life by nonfiction master Melissa Stewart and acclaimed illustrator Rob Dunlavey.

Episode Transcript:


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.

I am a teacher, a librarian, a writer, and a fan of kids. 

Today I welcome Melissa Stewart back to the podcast.

Melissa’s picture book, Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean-Floor Ecosystem (Random House Studio), is a fascinating nonfiction picture book filled with stunning illustrations by Robert Dunlavey detailing the end of life for a whale, also known as a whale fall, when its body sinks to the ocean floor and becomes an energy-rich food source for organisms living in the deep sea.

Let’s step into my conversation with Melissa Stewart. Ready? Here we go.


Melissa: Okay. Hi, my name is Melissa Stewart. I am a children's book author. I write science books for kids, and I am excited to talk about the book, Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean-Floor Ecosystem tonight. 

Matthew: Melissa, on behalf of your readers, what is a whale fall? 

Melissa: A whale fall is refers to a whale.

So whales, especially the gray whale, which is in my lives a 70 year long life, but when it dies, its body falls to the ocean floor. And for another 50 years, while it breaks down, a thriving community of creatures comes to feed on it, to live among it. And so hundreds of species, millions of individual creatures, all are able to come and live here and kind of create this thriving oasis of life on the ocean floor.

Matthew: It's such a cool thing because whales are gigantic. I know that there are lots of animals that, I'll get into this later, uh, that help to decompose, but because these whales are giants, to have, to have essentially a second life. in the decomposing of your body is really poetic. So all living things die.

What I wrote in the next question is, is a whale fall similar to what happens to other animals that die on land or in the ocean? I, it certainly is. That's like, it's partly rhetorical, but, uh, anticipating, uh, what readers will ask. Is it similar, Melissa? 

Melissa: It, the answer to that is yes and no. It's similar when no matter where an animal dies, it will, its body will break down.

But the deep ocean is so cold that the process is drawn out for many, many years, which is why this ecosystem is able to survive for so long. It would, you know, even a large animal on land would break down much more quickly. So there is that difference.

Matthew: It's wild. I mean, animals die. It's like this weird thing is, as I reflect on it, like, no, everything dies. It's just funny to think that, like, the right temperature, it's not just the animals that are helping to decompose the bacteria and all those things, but also the, the, the wear that it happens plays such a big role.

So, um, I would love to ask you how we humans know that. about whale falls because they happen deep in the ocean. I wrote to you. I don't remember hearing about him as a kid and I was definitely a kid that read a lot of science stuff and watched a lot of science stuff. I know that those whale falls have existed ever since basically whales have existed.

How do we, did you research at all how we know about this phenomenon? 

Melissa: Yeah, so the first whale fall was discovered off the coast of California in 1987. So we haven't known about them for very long. Um, and in that case, they just sort of, they were doing some ocean floor exploration and they just stumbled upon it.

And so now even a long time has passed since 1987, but scientists have only discovered 20 natural whale falls. in the whole world. So most of them have been discovered in the Pacific Ocean, but they more recently they have started to find a couple in the Atlantic Ocean as well. But it's so what they have also sunk whales on purpose to so that they know exactly where they are and they can study them.

Um, but natural whale falls, even though something like 70, 000 whales die per year, the ocean is immense. It's gigantic. And, and we don't tend to explore large areas of the ocean floor. So just stumbling upon them. is quite a coincidence. So even though there, there are theoretically a lot of them, and they do last a long time, um, only, only a small number have been found naturally.

And so as I was saying, a lot of the studies that have been done on them are whales that are beached for other reasons, And then they, they sync them and that then they're able to go down and study them over a period of time. 

Matthew: 70,000. That's wild. That is not a number I have heard before, but 20 that we've found happened upon.

I wonder too, just, this is just an aside, wondering with you when whaling was such a massive and destructive industry. I wonder how that affected. the ecosystem, because, you know, one thing affects the other, affects the other. You're just making me wonder now. I didn't know it was only 20, Melissa. My goodness gracious.

Okay, well, let me ask you, let me backtrack, because I know that you find inspiration from so many different places. What moment or idea or event inspired you writing this book? So 

Melissa: this book actually stems from another book that I wrote, um, back in 2019 called Ink. Delightfully Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses.

And so that book is a compilation of about 50 animals that either eat gross things, live in gross places, have gross defenses that they use, um, with to combat their enemies. And so zombie worms, which are also known as bone eating snot flower worms, were in that other book and, uh, in that book, I could only write about 400 words about each of the different animals.

And I just, I wanted to say much more. There's so much to be said about zombie worms and also the incredible ecosystem that they live in. So zombie worms is where I started out. And I, I really wanted to write a book about this ecosystem, but the problem was that because there's so little information about them and I couldn't really, it was very difficult to kind of get a big picture, um, understanding by reading the scientific papers, I really needed to talk to the scientists.

And so it was the pandemic that allowed me to write this book because just like all of us, like there was a lockdown for schools, there was a lockdown for everyone. the scientists weren't able to go out to sea for their season, their summer season, they were stuck at home just like everyone else and they had lots of time on their hands to talk to me, um, and so I was able to talk to some scientists from Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute and they were very, they were instrumental to writing the book.

I really couldn't have written it without them and Rob Dunlavey, the illustrator, also worked very closely with them because Many of the things that are shown in this book have never been shown anywhere before. And so he, we both needed the feedback of those scientists.

Matthew: Well, that's a wonderful opportunity that came to you because of that. I guess I wouldn't have connected that. Yeah. You would have greater access to those folks because they, they weren't out doing their, their, their, their other typical rhythms. Huh. I, um, I remember you and I talking about Iqbalissa. I remember that.

That was pre pandemic in 2019. Oh my gosh. Oh, great. Well, um, would you mind sharing an excerpt from Whale Fall with us? 

Melissa: Sure. I'd be happy to. So I thought I would read the very beginning of the book, which sort of leads into. what's happening with all the cool critters that are down there. So the critters that are down there, they have some of the most amazing names.

They have, um, the, there's black hagfish, there's, um, snub nosed eel pouts, there's rough tailed ragfish, there's, um, sea pigs. But before we can meet any of those cool critters, we start out at the beginning. So here's the beginning of the book. When a whale dies, its massive body silently sinks down, down through the inky darkness, finally coming to rest on the soft, silty sea floor.

For the whale, it's the end of a 70 year life. But for a little known community of deep sea denizens, it's a new beginning. The whale fall is a bountiful gift that can sustain life for another 50 years. And then we meet all of these amazing creatures. 

Matthew: I, I, I delight at the names of the animals of the creatures.

It also like in the weirdest way, and this I'm sure I'll cut from the episode, but it So I'm playing this new video game that came out. I'm playing the new Zelda game, Tears of the Kingdom, which was very similar to Breath of the Wild, the game that came before it. And I'm connecting that to, all you do is just walk and walk and walk and then you like, happen upon stuff that, oh, had I not walked that way, I never would have found it.

And I'm like, oh my word, you're describing scientists finding whale fall, that there's, there's gotta be plenty out there, but I walked this path and it was right over here and I just missed it. And it's dark down there. So of course they missed that. 

Melissa: That's exactly right. So you can't see out to the sides of where you are because it's so dark and you, they have their, um, submersibles that they're down there and they have this little kind of headlights that just look a very, you know, small area in front of them and whatever's to the side, they have no idea. I 

Matthew: mean, it almost makes it miraculous that we found 20 when you think of it that way that you're, you're shining a flashlight in this great field, if you will, where it appears that nothing is in this field because you can't see anything in front of you.

And yet you find Uh, this phenomenon, that's gotta be, it's just gotta be a cool feeling. That feels wondrous to me. 

Melissa: Well, can, can you imagine how exciting it must have been for them to stumble upon the first one? They must've been like, wow, what is this? 

Matthew: Right. Must have not only for your brain to process, what are these in whatever state it was, what are these giant bones?

What is this giant skeletal structure or whatever? What are all these animals feeding on? And then to work it out that that's what this is. That's what I'm looking at. And then once you're able to. Tag the location to be able to revisit. I mean, imagine to be able to go, Oh my word, there's 50 years, 70 years of these animals working on this body.

And not only that, I remember in some of the research I was doing that it said, um, that there are species, um, that they believe are only found on whale fall, the move from one fall to the next, to the next, just incredible. It's just incredible. What a wondrous thing. The more we find out, this is. Me telling the science author this, but the more we find out about nature, the more we're like Yeah, but it's so wild, isn't it?

We couldn't have planned it. We couldn't have designed it. It's incredible. Uh, Melissa, is there anything else? I love our conversations. Um, but I also know I don't always ask you all the questions. Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about before we go? There doesn't need to be.

Anything I didn't ask you, though, that you wanted to make sure we said? 

Melissa: Well, I would, I would like to talk a little bit about Ron Dublaby's beautiful illustrations that are in this book. I really think he outdid himself with them. And as I was saying before, the scientists were chucking, there were, there were many rounds of sketches with this book.

There, there aren't always Um, but in this case, it was not, everyone agreed right off the bat that that was going to be necessary, um, especially when you get down to looking at the insides of the body of the zombie worms and explaining how their bodies work, because it's a very unusual situation, and also showing some of these little known creatures and exactly how they're interacting with each other and what the sea floor looks like.

And he really, I just think that he knocked it out of the park with his illustrations and the way that he's representing all these creatures that almost all of us will never see with our own eyes. 

Matthew: It's so incredible to depict, as you said, something that we, we almost certainly won't ever see and to have Not just your book editors, but, but to have scientists go, no, we want to make sure this is, this is what we feel like is the accurate representation, because we know that kids are going to look at this and study it.

And it's going to inspire some kids to go into this field. It has to be correct. We owe that. We owe that to science and we owe that to your readers. I love that. 

Melissa: And I also, I love that at the end, They were allowed, they allowed us to include some videos. I'm already hearing from teachers and classrooms that the kids are actually taking the opportunity to go and look at those videos so that they can see them with their own eyes and they can see the scientists down there in the submersible and, and the thing that's wonderful about the videos is you can actually hear the excitement of the scientists as they're seeing each new creature as, you know, as the vehicle moves forward and the light goes a little bit farther.

And suddenly a new group of creatures or something spectacular is suddenly revealed to them. They're just as excited as a kid in a candy shop. 

Matthew: I had watched one of the videos and it was that you had linked and it was them reacting and they were on, they were on, I guess, like a research boat that was, that was traveling.

And so they only had, Oh my word, look what we're catching in our camera. And we're just going to keep going. And you could just hear the wonder and the taking it all in as this site passed. It was for me, not unlike all the car trips I ever went on as a kid. And you're just, the car's still going, but oh my, do you see that thing in the distance that we're passing?

Yeah. Very, very cool. Uh, I'll make sure I, I link in the show notes to, uh, a number of those videos as well, just to, to give quick access, but that's wonderful, Melissa. Well, um, The way, as you know, that I wrap every conversation is to ask you this, I will see. a library full of children tomorrow morning.

Melissa, is there a message I can bring to them from you? 

Melissa: Yeah, I would just, I would like to let them know that if they haven't had an opportunity to read much nonfiction, that really, these books, they can bring the world right into your, living room, into your bedroom, into the classroom, and they can answer any question that you have.

So stay curious and ask questions and go out and search the answers. 


Matthew: Thank you to Melissa Stewart for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 

You can pick up your own copy of Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean-Floor Ecosystem (Random House Studio) wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes.

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And on that note…

Be well. And read on.

End of Episode

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1 comentário

Thanks for this wonderful interview. Your love for books and energy is infectious! I chuckled when you mentioned having recently played the Zelda games. A little-known fact about me, the illustrator of Whale Fall: I was a major contributor to the early and correctly much maligned versions of Zelda for Philips CD-i platform in the early 90's. Truly cult classics. :)

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