Saltwater People Historical Society
The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea
Philip Hoare (HarperCollins, 2008)
Look around and you’ll find whales are everywhere, swimming through popular culture, in toys, in art, in books and movies. They support coastal communities that once depended on fishing and now put their boats to sea for whale watching charters; they symbolize the aspirations of environmentalists who fear for the integrity of the world’s ecosystems. We are still trying to agree whether it is acceptable to hunt whales, and, if so, by modern or only traditional methods. But even if most of us aren’t hunting whales, we continue to be obsessed by them.
This summer, hundreds of people ditched their cars along Highway 101, near where it crosses the Klamath River, to walk to the middle of the bridge and stand ogling over the side. What held their attention was a 45-foot female grey whale, circling and spouting in the shallow waters of the river, about three miles from its outlet to the Pacific.
|Female grey whale, Klamath River, California.|
Photo by Allison Hart Lengyel
Despite various attempts to help the whale leave, she remained below the bridge for several months. As reported by bluelivingideas.com, “She immediately became a tourist attraction and fascination of locals. Yurok tribal leaders viewed the whale’s presence as both a great gift and a sign our world is “out of balance” www.bluelivingideas.com. Finally, due to exhaustion, stress, an incomplete diet, too much time in freshwater—no one really knows, despite a subsequent autopsy—she began to fail and died, after beaching herself on the shore of the river. Thousands who had seen her or heard of her story grieved.
How can the whale be both a gift and a harbinger of environmental catastrophe, as the Yurok believe? Why do we care so much about whales, despite knowing so little?
Whales have existed for millions of years—long before humans—but they have been known to us in their own habitat for only a few generations. We still understand relatively little about them; the first whale was not photographed underwater until 1975. What we do know: all whales fall into two subclasses of cetaceans, the toothed whales (such as orcas, sperm whales, and dolphins) and baleen whales (including grey whales, humpbacks, and blues). Much as land-dwelling predators, toothed whales hunt their prey (fish, eels, seals, penguins, even other whales) one at a time, working alone or in packs. Baleen whales, on the other hand, scoop up vast mouthfuls of seawater, distending their jaws in the process, to strain out tiny particles of plant and animal life (phytoplankton and zooplankton)—the largest animals on earth subsist on a diet of some of the smallest, in other words. Whales have the longest migration of any mammal—up to 8,000 miles. The largest whales are far larger than the largest dinosaurs. Blue whales and finback whales are also the loudest of any animal, able to communicate across thousands of miles. And some kinds of whales may live to be more than 200 years old—but this is partly conjecture, based on the size of whales observed and what is understood about their rate of growth.
You can learn all this and more in The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, by Philip Hoare. In his investigation of the whale, however, Hoare was motivated as much by the mystery as the history of cetaceans. Not only scientific facts about whales, and whales’ influence on commerce and settlement patterns, but also the mystical associations people have had with whales and their sympathy—or lack thereof—for the giant sea mammals inform Hoare’s commentary. Running through his book is evidence of a lifelong fascination with whales, from early visits to aquariums to repeated readings of Moby Dick that became the inspiration for a pilgrimage to many of the places mentioned in its pages.
“Nothing else represents life on such a scale. Seeing a whale is not like seeing a sparrow in a city tree, or a cat crossing the street. It is not even like seeing a giraffe, dawdling on the African veldt, batting its glamorous eyes in the dust. Whales exist beyond the normal, beyond what we expect to see in our daily lives. They are not so much animal as geographical; if they did not move, it would be difficult to believe they were alive at all. In their size—their very construction—they are antidotes to our lives lived in uncompromising cities.” (Philip Hoare, The Whale, p. 29-30).
Leviathan or, the Whale, the British title to Hoare’s book (maybe the publishers didn’t believe Americans would know what “leviathan” means, even with the helpful second part of the title), was published in 2008. In 2009 it won England’s most prestigious award for nonfiction writing, the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize; the book became available in the United States in early 2010. Calling it “a classic of its kind,” Rachel Cooke wrote in 2008 in The Observer, that the book “cast a spell…begin[ning] as memoir, then mov[ing] deftly through biography, literary criticism, social history, and, finally, nature writing….” www.guardian.co.uk/books. Dozens of other positive reviews have followed, from the NYTimes and the Washington Post to independent booksellers and online readers’ forums.
Why read a book devoted to whales? Why write one? Whales are both ancient and modern, their lives largely unwitnessed though they reside in all oceans of the world. Whether we regard them as graceful or fearsome, without any natural enemy or vulnerable to a host of dangers—whaling, water pollution, sonar and other noise pollution, global warming—they are everywhere and nowhere. When we look for them, what will we find? Once hunted without mercy and harvested in the tens of thousands for their valuable oil, baleen (“whalebone”), and blubber, whales have now come to represent—at least for those of us who constitute the nonindigenous west—a sort of cosy nostalgia for simpler times. Whales occupy the part of memory where we also keep wooden sailing ships and oilskin overcoats. Whales are evoked to lend charm and credibility to products ranging from kitchenware to commercial watercraft to children’s toys. Take, for example, the Playmobil whale boat, a bathtub toy piloted by an androgynous sou’wester-wearing captain, its cargo a cute killer whale. It’s unclear whether the whale in this case is a product or a pet, but the whale, after all, sits right on deck without a holding tank. Though it looks like the two are out for a pleasure cruise, the brutal reality of what whaling really means has long been shielded from popular understanding.
Even a small whale presented a large logistical challenge for a whaler. Some towed their prizes home for processing, while, in the name of efficiency and to maximize the profitability of a single excursion, others stayed at sea and did their dirty business there. And it was a dirty business—a long, dangerous chase followed by carnage, blood, and slippery muck, and then a tedious and smelly process of reducing the mammals to strips of blubber, rendering the flesh for oil. Baleen was salvaged to be heated and molded into consumer goods such as umbrella and corset stays, Venetian blinds, and brushes. Whales could also be harried into shallow bays and inlets and forced to beach themselves, making their bodies more easily available for processing. Some people ate whale meat, but the greatest value was in the oil, which burned cleanly with minimal smoke. Whale bones were frequently turned into abstract monuments to the whalers’ gristly business—fences, arches, even whole buildings made of bone. Some still survive.
Ironically, the biggest beneficiaries of the murderous business of whaling in North America were the Quakers—otherwise known for their pacifism. The moral opposition to violence apparently did not extend to fellow mammals. Quaker businessmen owned most of the boats, hired the crews, and profited from the processing and sale of whale products, as well as from commercial development that arose to support the whaling industry. At one time, New Bedford, MA was the richest city in North America, due to whaling.
Whale Bone photo by Allison Hart Lengyel
Pressure on whales in the Atlantic, primarily from Basque, American, British, and Scandinavian whalers, pushed them ever north and south, extending the reach of Western whaling boats into the Arctic as well as into the Pacific; the Japanese had also long been whaling in these waters. Western whalers arrived in the Hawaiian Islands at about the same time as Protestant missionaries, in the mid-19th century.
|Whales for processing at Grays Harbor, WA.|
Original Wolfe Photo, inscribed 1912,
from the archives of S.P.H.S.©
The hardest part of the book to read is the long middle section devoted to whaling. We shake our heads at our benighted ancestors who seemed to have no compassion for whales, who were heedless of the rapidly diminishing numbers, other than noticing how scarcity led to longer excursions and lower catch rates. But there is hope after all this. Hoare wraps up his book with an examination of scientific efforts to learn more about whales as well as to save various whale species from extinction.
Commercial whaling continued throughout the west until the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on whaling in 1986. By the mid-1970s, saving the whales from extinction had become one of the central missions of Greenpeace (founded in 1971, arising from the peace and anti-nuclear movements). International treaties followed, along with an ongoing debate about what constitutes a fair and manageable approach to our relationship with whales. Despite the moratorium, whaling continues throughout the world, by countries including Japan, Norway, Iceland, and Indonesia. Pro-whaling countries cite the importance of whaling from a cultural as well as commercial point of view, and maintain that opposition to whaling is a hypocritical attempt to limit their economic development, among other things. Anti-whaling countries cite environmental concerns, apparent cetacean intelligence, and the value of whale watching (as opposed to killing) to local economies as reasons to extend the moratorium. Are whales a sustainable commodity or an endangered natural resource? Should we be hunting them, watching them, studying them, or just leaving them alone? We are still trying to agree what whales mean.
The above review introduces the writer Allison Hart Lengyel to our log. She's lived in the islands for ten years and sails with her family on the classic John Alden cutter JOHANNA.