Whale Fall – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Who knew that zombie worms, aka bone-eating snot flower worms, could lead to something gloriously beautiful?

Melissa Stewart was doing research for her book called Ick! Delightfully, Disgusting Animal Dinners, Dwellings, and Defenses, when she came upon these critters. And the rest, as they say, turned into another book. Let’s take a moment to admire this first spread. The description of a sinking whale involves lovely poetic devices that create the feeling of depth and silence of the deep ocean. (apologies for my poor photos)

When a whale dies,
its massive body
silently sinks
through the inky darkness,
   finally coming to rest
on the soft, silty seafloor.

The question is this? What happens to that whale once it reaches the sea floor? Does it just sit in cold salty water—water that is devoid of light? While it is a bit like being suspended in fluid in a closed, refrigerator, the ocean floor comes to life with myriad species who’ve been waiting waiting waiting for this rare dining opportunity. Some can detect the smell of a dead whale for miles!

As creatures arrive, the reader learns that the whale carcass will sustain other life forms for half a century—so this book spans one l-o-n-g dinner party! But its spare text and gorgeous imagery keep the narrative flowing. The guests include hagfish, sleeper sharks, roughscale rattails, snubnose eelpouts, tanner crabs, sea pigs (yes, you read that correctly. And you’ll be happy to know that sea pigs breathe through their butts. Really, they do.), etc. The whale fall becomes an entire ecosystem in what is largely a vast space devoid of food.

The illustrator, Rob Dunlavey, using watercolor, mixed media, and digital finishing, does a phenomenal job of depicting the deep ocean and those who live in darkness. I find the images I’ve included in this post to be particularly beautiful in the use of light shining from above. But Dunlavey is also adept at drawing microscopic images and “dining” processes that are so new to scientists they have not yet appeared in academic journals. Talk about giving kids exposure to cutting edge STEM!

But what about zombie worms? Well, I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out what their role is.

Six pages of back matter show the “denizens of the deep” in colorful visual detail and include the common and scientific names, sizes, diets, life spans, etc., as well as places where readers can learn more. Great book!


Download the WHALE FALL read aloud guide.

Pair this book with Deep, Deep Down: The Secret Underwater Poetry of the Mariana Trench by Lydia Lukidis, illus. by Juan Velez.

Make an origami whale.

Watch this video from Nautilus Live Ocean Exploration Trust that explores a real whale fall.

Make anatomically INCORRECT, just for fun glow-in-the-dark zombie worms.

Title: Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean-Floor Ecosystem

Author: Melissa Stewart

Illustrator: Rob Dunlavey

Publisher: Random House Studio, 2023

Ages: Elementary School

Themes: Ocean, whales, ecosystems

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

4 thoughts on “Whale Fall – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Maria Marshall says:

    Jilanne, I love this book! It might be fun, for some, to pair it with Whale Fall Café by Jacquie Sewell, illustrated by Dan Tavis [which is a little more tounge-in-cheek]. Glad it’s getting book love.

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