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Saturday, June 5th, 2010
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The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

by Philip Hoare

Call Him Ishmael

A review by Nathan Weatherford

Philip Hoare's account of his "search [for] the giants of the sea" is part travelogue, part history, part scientific discourse, and part elegy, all blended into a wonderful melange. He travels to New England in order to walk around whaling towns that Herman Melville described in detail in Moby-Dick; discusses at great length the historical development of the whaling trade in both America and England; wanders about museums with various whale artifacts, taking in the immense grandeur of reconstructed whale skeletons dangling from ceilings; bemoans the massive destruction visited upon whale populations over the past century, threatening many species with utter extinction; and even goes into great detail about how ambergris -- that rarest of whale treasures used in countless colognes throughout the ages for its distinctive aromatic quality -- is actually created (it might lose a bit of its exotic luster when you find out).

All of this would be interesting enough on a strictly informational level, but it's made especially poignant through Hoare's eyes and fascination with his subject:

There is something about the sperm whale that leads me on, something that, even now, I find hard to describe. No matter how many pictures I might see, I cannot quite comprehend it. No matter how many times I might try to sketch it, its shape seems to elude me. None the less, my curiosity remains...

Hoare repeatedly mentions the mystical air surrounding these creatures that can dive deeper than any other mammal and who live so much of their lives hidden from our view despite their immense size. Theirs is a world ostensibly set apart from ours.

And yet scientific studies are yielding increasingly more substantive arguments for the similarities between whales and humans, both intellectually and emotionally. From a chapter on whale society:

"There is a growing recognition that culture is not an exclusive property of humans." Such research suggests entire communities of whales, ocean-wide clans moving in distinctive patterns and "speaking" in distinctive repertoires of clicks, like humans sharing the same language. Separate groups of the same species will act in different ways, foraging for food in different manners -- methods learned maternally, passed on from generation to generation.

Hoare reacts to these studies with simultaneous wonder and horror -- awe at the similarities between whales and humans and shock at how near we've come to wiping out these "cultural" groups. Restrictions on whaling have only been implemented relatively recently, and many countries cite their own cultural heritage of whaling as justification for the practice, while continuing to use modernized weapons and methods to collect more whales in a day than their ancestors did in months at sea. Hoare's lamentations over this fact are deeply felt.

But The Whale shouldn't be read only as a bitter screed against over-whaling, a damnation of humanity's unique aptitude for exhausting nature's resources. Instead, joy is the overwhelming sentiment evinced by Hoare's prose, a joy most keenly felt in the closing pages when he is at last able to swim with some of the creatures that have captivated him since he was a child:

The young whale moved alongside. Noiselessly, for minutes that seemed like hours, we swam together, eye to eye, fin to fin, fluke to fluke. His movements mirrored my own as we moved in parallel. Black neoprene and grey blubber. Scrawny human and muscled whale. I wasn't afraid any more.

It is passages like this that make The Whale such an absorbing read from start to finish. Hoare describes his love, amazement, and respect in such intense detail that we, too, get to catch a glimpse of these seemingly otherworldly creatures, gliding effortlessly through the depths -- at once removed from our daily landlocked enterprises and yet dependent on the actions we take to sustain or devastate their populations.

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