Friday, March 19, 2010

a review of "The Whale" [19]

The Whale; In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare
(Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-06-197621-6)

Many of us find whales fascinating creatures. Their size, their power, their beauty alone are enough, but then add in their place in the eco-wars in modern times, and the huge place whaling has had in the history of so many places in the United States and much of the world, and you can see why Philip Hoare decided to devote this very interesting book to the subject.

Mr. Hoare always had a close relationship with the sea, thinking it might have been "Perhaps it is because I was nearly born underwater." Actually it was a great fear and a great fascination, perhaps taking to heart the words from Moby Dick that he quotes.
"Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure."
As a child, he feared the great monsters that his grandfather told him lived just below the surface, but as an adult he was so taken by his first sight of a young humpback breaching the water on a whale watching trip out of Cape Cod that he set, as he admits, almost obsessed, to learn about these creatures. He is guided in no small part by the the book Moby Dick and the history of it's author, Herman Melville and fans of that book will find a great deal of wonderful information about the book and Melville here.

Some might object that this book is more about whaling, in the past and present, than it is about whales. Perhaps that is true, but first, I think it is impossible to tell the story of whales without understanding the huge economic force that whaling was in this nation in past centuries. He visits places like New Bedford and Nantucket that made their fortunes from the killing, in huge numbers, of this very vulnerable animal.

Secondly, even in our modern age, there is so much we don't know about whales. So much of their lives take place so far out to sea, in water too deep for us to follow them, that in many ways they remain a mystery. Which, of course, is also part of their appeal.
"Whales existed before man, but they have been known to us only for two or three generations: until the invention of underwater photography, we hardly knew what they looked like. It was only after we had seen the Earth from orbiting spaceships that the first free-swimming whale was photographed underwater....Even now there are beaked whales, or ziphiids, known only from bones washed up on remote beaches- esoteric, deep-sea animals with strange markings which biologists have never seen alive or dead, so little studied that their status is 'data deficient'."
This book is part science, part history, part exploration of how the book Moby Dick became a part of national mind set but perhaps the book is at it's best when the author himself become a part of the story. At the end of the book he talks about the experience of swimming with whales off the Azores, an account that is simply beautiful and remarkable and a fitting end to this story. The boat he is in comes across a pod of huge sperm whales and the author slip into the water with mask and snorkel. Suddenly, less than 30 feet away was a huge female..
"I could not believe that something so big could be so silent. Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant and yet not quite...As the whale turned past me, I saw her eye, grey, veiled, sentient; set in her side, the centre of her consciousness. Behind it lay only muscle, moving without effort. The moment lasted for ever, and for seconds. Both of us in our naked entirety, nothing between us but illimitable ocean.
Then she was gone, plunging soundlessly into the black..."
If you are interested in whales, the history of whaling, the history of New England or a fan of Moby Dick, I would recommend this as a book that you will find entertaining and informative.

Winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

Photos are mine, from the Great Alaskan/Yukon Adventure.
Read on loan from my ever generous local public library.


  1. I almost didn't recognise this book. It is called Leviathan in the UK and has a very different cover. I haven't read it, but it has tempted me on several occasions. I think I'll have to see if the library has a copy.

  2. This book sounds very good for someday in the future. Just at the moment, however, after reading Moby Dick, I think I have had enough of whaling information to last me at least five years! :--)

  3. are right. I noticed it was released in the US with a different title and a different...and I think nicer...cover

    rhapsody..that is very, very

  4. I am fascinated by whales - it's amazing to me how a creature so huge can be so graceful. The book sounds wonderful.

  5. Kathy, you may be his ideal reading audience then.

  6. very nice review--I have a daughter that just loves reading these kind of informative books--I'll recommend it to her.

  7. Love your photos!

    And what an experience to swim with a whale! It saddens me that so many of this magnificent creatures are killed.

  8. I have this on my TBR. Great review. Now I'm looking forward to reading it even more.

  9. I have really been wanting to read this book. I'm not even entirely sure why....I'm not a whale fanatic nor do I come from a whaling community. Maybe it's the cover. I'm a sucker for intriguing cover art and will actually read an entire book on a subject I'm not that into just because I covet the cover.

    I know, I'm a little sick that way. ;)

  10. that is not sick! I totally understanding coveting a book for a lovely cover. and I agree this is a nice cover.


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