Ah the world, oh the whale

I finished Philip Hoare’s The Whale this weekend, and I highly recommend it. It’s part memoir, part natural history, part literary criticism, part social and cultural analysis, and part mystical meditation.

Hoare traces our history with the whale, focusing on the high-tide of the American whaling industry in the 19th century, followed by the more industrial approach developed by Japan, Russia, and certain European nations in the 20th.

Along the way, we’re treated to fascinating facts about whales such as the elaborate sounding equipment of the sperm whale and the incredibly long life-spans (200+ years!) of the bowhead. We also get character sketches of whaling magnates, amateur scientists, and others whose lives became intertwined with these legendary creatures.

One of the key touchstones of the book, though, is Herman Melville and his epic Moby-Dick. Melville’s obsession with writing his magnum opus, which mirrors Ahab’s obsession with catching the white whale, is in turn mirrored by Hoare’s own growing fascination with the whale.

The climax is a heart-stopping first-person description of Hoare’s close encounter with a sperm whale off the Azores Islands. Which is a fitting capstone, since it’s a book as much about human understanding–and misunderstanding–of whales as it is about the animals themselves.

And, inescapably, it’s a story of tragedy. The ruthless hunting of the whales that was accelerated by the advent of 20th-century industrial technology has only recently been slowed and extinction averted.

However, other man-made dangers, such as noise that scrambles the whales’ ability to find their way, ships crossing the oceans, or the changing food supplies caused by global warming, may yet doom the whale.

While he avoids preaching, Hoare’s book is essentially a meditation on the “otherness” of the whale, a form of life that may be just as intelligent and sensitive as humanity, yet all-but-incomprehensible to us because it exists in such a radically different environment. The question before us is whether we will recognize these “other nations” or continue to treat them as resources for our consumption or expendable collateral damage in our war against nature.


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