The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare
A shocker in the Top Five, I know! When first published in England, The Whale (originally, Leviathan, or the Whale) was awarded the UK’s most prestigious nonfiction award, the Samuel Johnson Prize – sort of like the Booker Prize of nonfiction – yet it has received almost no attention in the States that I’ve seen. Ah, but I noticed – and what wonders I found within!
Did you know that whales in recent years have been found – well over 150 years old – with 19-century harpoon heads still lodged in their blubber? Or that some scientists think that whales may have developed complex “emotions, abstract concepts and, perhaps, religion?” Hoare, although born with an innate fear of deep water, has had a lifelong obsession with the family Cetacean & has compiled a riveting account of what is, essentially, the human history of the whale. The Whale is filled with (disgusting) tales of ambergris, hefty literary allusions to Melville & his white whale, accounts of humanity’s ongoing, (mostly) unhealthy whale mania, and a breath-taking first-hand account of Hoare’s own experience of swimming in open ocean with the world’s largest, loudest animal.
Personally, I was kept sated by passages about amazing whale facts:
A sperm whale can create a two-hundred decibel boom able to travel one hundred miles along the “sofar” channel, a layer of deep water that readily conducts noise. It seems strange that such a physically enormous creature should rely on something so intangible; but bull sperm whales, by virtue of their larger heads, generate sounds so powerful that they may stun or even kill their prey. These directional acoustic bursts, focused through their foreheads and likened to gunshots, are the equivalent, as one writer notes, of the whale killing its quarry by shouting very loudly at it.
I grew up in Connecticut – a San Diego County-sized piece of real estate – where the sperm whale is the state animal, the defunct NHL team is the Whalers, and where thousands of whaling families made their homes in the whale oil crazy 1800’s. Twenty pages into The Whale, the author is on a whale watch off Provincetown, MA, off the north end of Cape Cod – something I did almost every summer as a vacationing kid. With the exception of four years of college, I have never lived far from the sea, so, like the author, I have a healthy fascination with the creatures who populate its depths. I offer this information as sort of a disclaimer: I like to read books about fish and other sorted ocean dwellers. Cod, Tuna, A Fish Caught in Time, The Whale – these are comfort reads for me, but I realize that the subject of slimy underwater creatures may not be for everyone.
That said, The Whale is very much a volume of history and Hoare never pretends to be a scientist, or a cetologist (a whale scientist), or an ichthyologist, but rather a curious historian interested in the long-standing & complex relationship between humans and these giant creatures who roam the depths of our world’s seas. He uses Herman Melville as a centerpiece of sorts, as the author of Moby Dick researched his masterwork by venturing out as a hand on a whaleship and spent several years on the docks of New Bedford, Massachusetts learning the trade. (He also was BFF with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who helped him form his writing style, which is interesting in and of itself, I thought.) Using this literary angle, Hoare is able to bring the history around to practical purposes – to put things into perspective in relation to the history of humans and the whale. Melville was like the Jon Krakauer of the 1840’s, climbing Mount Everest for the story of a lifetime. Somehow, learning that Herman spent so much time around the culture of the whale before putting his story down on paper lent something more to the romance of his novel.
Either way you look at it, whatever your reasons for reading it are, this is a fascinating, highly readable history, an amazing exploration of a majestic animal, and quite a funny volume of personal discovery that comes in swimming strong at Number Four on the countdown.