The Lovable Leviathan

Whales hold a special place in our imagination, but their situation is dire


The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, by Philip Hoare, Ecco/HarperCollins, 453  pp., $27.99

When I saw my first wild whale—a humpback visible from the deck of a whale-watch boat off Provincetown, Massachusetts—my first inclination was to jump overboard to join it. Though companions dissuaded me, the urge seemed almost irresistible. “Nothing else represents life on such a scale,” writes British author Philip Hoare in his magnificent The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea. “Whales,” he continues, “exist beyond the normal, beyond what we expect to see in our daily lives.” The very word whale, he writes, “evokes poetic wholeness.” But no poetry spouts from Hoare when he spots his first whale. Instead, at the sight of the humpback, seen, like mine, off Provincetown, he involuntarily cries, oblivious to the children around him, “F——!”

Who can blame him? Whales are the largest, loudest, most long-lived family of creatures ever to exist on earth. The very sight of one can make you lose control. Whales sweep you away if you let them—as, happily for us, Hoare was. His book, published here after winning the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction in Britain, is his voyage of discovery—across seas, history, literature, science, and myths. In his research, Hoare travels from his native England to New England, from Andalusia to the Azores. He visits belugas in aquariums. He combs beaches to examine beached carcasses. He haunts museums where the skeletons still drip whale oil on visitors’ heads.

Hoare undertakes his literary voyage in the wake of Moby-Dick. Melville is a hero of his (Hoare makes a wintry pilgrimage to Woodland Cemetery to visit Melville’s grave and fashions a snow whale, with an acorn eye and twig mouth, as a memorial). Hoare devotes an unexpected but delightful chapter to Melville’s friendship with Nathaniel Haw­thorne, to whom Moby-Dick was dedicated. He quotes liberally from Melville’s masterpiece—in all its blood, guts, and spermaceti.

Because of the likes of Ahab, Hoare tells us, by the middle of the 19th century most of the world’s right and sperm whales were dead. Things got worse in 1868, with the Norwegian  invention of a harpoon bomb that explodes in a whale’s head. In 1951 alone—100 years after Moby-Dick—more whales were killed worldwide than all of New Bedford’s whale ships took in 150 years. Today the situation for whales is dire. Military sonar and seismic soundings for gas exploration make whales’ brains hemorrhage. Ships hit them. And whaling continues. As you read this, whalers from Japan and a few other nations are relentlessly tracking the beasts from airplanes and with sonic submarine devices, killing them with cannons and bombs.

At times, Hoare’s chronicle of carnage is almost unbearable to read. But then he revives us with astonishing facts, amazing scenes, and dazzling language. There is an entertaining section on sea monsters (the word cetacean comes from the Greek ketos for sea monster) and another on squid; there are lively tales of people swallowed by whales, and accounts of avenging whales who turned (finally!) on their tormentors. We learn that the narwhal’s spiraling tusk, once mistaken for a unicorn horn, may be an organ measuring temperature and pressure, so sensitive that a whale with a broken one suffers terribly. Thoughtfully, another narwhal will insert the tip of its own tusk into a companion’s broken one to plug the aching gap.

Hoare’s words can be Dylan Thomasesque in their fishing-boat-bobbing beauty, even when describing the most ordinary scenes. “The road descends to Whitby,” he writes, “another half-hidden place, with its ancient red roofs and its steep streets and snickleways coursing down to its horseshoe harbor.” (Snickleways are alleys, by the way.)

Unfortunately, a handful of Hoare’s amazing facts turn out to be wrong. Squids do not have two hearts, but three. Whales are no longer thought to be descended from mesonychids, extinct hoofed predators, though this theory was in scientific vogue 15 years ago. An 1852 account of a 103-foot-long sea monster was proven a fraud shortly after its publication in The New York Tribune.

But these errors are minor. Hoare captures deep truths about whales. One of them is why whales are so important to the human spirit, especially today. They are, he tells us, “the antidotes to our lives lived in uncompromising cities.” When, later on that first whale watch, Hoare is hit in the face with the fishy spume of exhaled breath from a fin whale’s blowhole, he writes, “it feels like a baptism.” The very existence of whales is a holy mystery.

In the final pages of Hoare’s book, he does what I longed for on my first whale watch: from the deck of a boat off the Azores, he dives overboard, to swim with a whale. It’s a sperm whale, the same as Moby-Dick—a species hunted to near extinction for the fluid in the head. We used it to light lanterns; whales use it, it is now thought, to focus and process the echoes from a series of clicks, allowing them to “see” with sound, like ultrasound. Underwater, Hoare feels himself being sounded by the whale.

“Recreated in her own dimension, in the dimension of the sea,” he writes, “I was taken into her otherness, my image in her head.” Then she vanished. But luckily for us, her image will linger.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sy Montgomery is the author of 30 books, including The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.


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