Author's note: This story contains depictions of parasites. The parasites themselves are real.
If you look on the internet there is very little information about Placentonima gigantissima and honestly that’s probably for the best. No one wants to think about giant worms that grow inside the placenta of whales, especially since that then means you’re thinking about whale placenta, which is gross on a whole other level. I stumbled onto their existence thanks to one of those today I learned type aggregator websites, with the only source cited being a wikipedia article that itself cites a paper from the ‘50s.
It’s in Russian first and English second, which makes sense given it was apparently found in the Kuril Islands Zone in the Russian Far East by some whaling boats. For most people that’s probably where their research ends--a sparse wikipedia article, a pdf, and a link that’s now been taken over by a Japanese porn site--but I’m lucky because I’m actually a second generation Russian immigrant.
My grandfather fled to the US in the 1950s with my grandmother and my aunt and uncle (my dad would be their first kid born in the states) but before that he’d worked on a Soviet whaling/research vessel. The “golden age” of Russian whaling was the 1960s, but he was active in the ‘50s until something meant that he would rather flee to an enemy country than ever work in his industry again.
Russia whaled for the same reasons everyone hunted whales on an industrial scale: blubber, oil, meat, everything you can get from those gigantic beasts in our ocean. There’s a reason the practice is mostly banned now, after all, and it’s because we almost drove whales to extinction. Now the whales my grandfather and his boat were pursuing around the Kuril Islands were mostly sperm whales, which are about mid-sized when it comes to cetaceans. This wasn’t when the stock had gotten depleted either, so they weren’t killing undersized whales with not a lot on them. These were monsters, still, not as big as blue whales but still awe-inspiringly huge.
I knew most of this because I’d done a project on whales as a kid and dad had sent me to ask him questions, imagining his dad still had some of his old knowledge. Mostly, my grandfather seemed very adamant that it was a good thing that most countries had banned whaling, because it wasn’t something humans should be doing on any scale greater than basic subsistence feeding. He wouldn’t elaborate more than that, except to describe in vague terms what it was like to see a whale in the water.
It was when I read that these worms--nematodes, really, but I’ll just call them worms for simplicity’s sake--were found around the Kuril Islands Zone that I went to my grandfather, who was by that point getting pretty old. I had to know if he’d ever seen one.
I showed him the PDF. I’ll never forget the look on his face. All the blood seemed to drain out of his expression, and he both closed his eyes and turned his head away from the screen.
“I thought they had destroyed all records of its existence,” he said, finally. I had never heard him sound like that before, just completely haunted. Grabbing my phone from my hands, he scrolled through the whole PDF. This didn’t take long, as it’s only a few pages. Finally, he put the phone down on the table and laughed, a look of sheer disbelief on his face. He looked me dead in the face and asked, “Do you want to know the truth behind these drawings?”
I nodded. I knew the USSR hid things, and I was desperate to know, and a little freaked out by whatever had given my grandfather that reaction.
“Sit down,” he said. “This will be a long story.”
He poured himself a class of seltzer water--my grandfather has been sober my whole life--and sat with his hands clutching the side of the table, staring over my shoulder and at the wall.
“You see much of the whales when you kill them. They are huge things, and we sailed huge boats to fit them. You lay the whale out and cut it up, so that you can store the pieces more easily. It is impossible to know the sex of a whale from a distance, or whether the cows are pregnant. You only know there is a whale, and so you hunt it and take it down. That was the way of things.
We were already cutting the whale open when we found the stillborn calf. This was sad, but in the grim practicality of those days it was also just more flesh to take back to land and sell. Where there was a calf however--and you know this because you asked me to tell you about the worms--there is a placenta. They do not tell you this in class, but whales are full of parasites. Huge things that burrow inside them, and they can survive easily because they are themselves as big as gods. The placenta, which is a temporary organ in whales like with all mammals, is no different.
Usually if the parasites cause trouble we simply kill them, but the creatures that burrowed into the sunlight from the warm flesh of the dead whale were not like anything we had ever seen before. The drawings do not capture what it means to have a seven meter worm crawl out onto the deck, its wide, hungry mouths sucking at air. It was not narrow like an earth worm. Instead, its body bulged outwards at the center, before culminating in a pair of holes that looked almost like lips, though the drawing in what you showed me does not do their oddly human-like quality justice.
The first man we sent to kill it was instead its first meal. The mouth distended, and the worm collapsed itself on top of him, trapping him under its weight. We tried to drive it off with fire, but to no avail. Its body was a wet, soft sponge, and would not burn.
There was no blood. I do not know if this was truly a mercy, as it means he was brought within it whole and digested there. Instead, it distended around him, its mouth now wide enough to fit an adult man.
Had we been in our right minds, we would have remembered the blades we used that were strong enough to cut whale hide, but we were panicked, and we tried to pull it off our comrade with our hands. I remember my fingers sunk into its flesh and I sprang back, panicked from the sensation on my skin. It was this act of cowardice that saved my life, as its body began to absorb my fellows, trapping them.
At first, I thought its body would open further mouths or they would be fully absorbed into its skin, but instead it slammed the full weight of its body on the deck, as though trying to knock its victims out. Moments later, it was clear to me that this was in fact a signal to its fellows. These swarmed out of the body of the whale onto the deck and began picking off the crew members suck to the first worm, before retreating back into the beast. There was no sign the consumed crew had ever existed, except for the odd muffled scream.
“Overboard!” came the order from our captain. “Overboard!”
He wanted us to push the whole carcass overboard, and damn the consequences.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you must move a whale by hand, leave. No matter the consequences, leave. Nothing in the world is worth the sensation of hauling that much flesh overboard with your hands. We were diminished, but we were also determined.
I took your grandmother and your aunt and uncle and fled the moment I arrived home. I did not know what the government would do to protect the secret of these worms, and I did not want to find out.”
There his story ended. I have not been able to find much in the way of confirmation of his stories, but I believe him. He has never lied to me, and I can’t imagine he would begin now.