A tender look at a (mostly) gentle giant.
Their ranks include some of the largest animals in the world and the loudest – if only we had the capacity to hear mating calls that can travel across the entire Atlantic Ocean.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Their brains are huge, their devotion to each other unmistakable, and their fate uncertain.
That’s interesting, sort of. Throw in “Thar she blows,” “Moby-Dick” and Shamu, and you know what you need to know about whales, right? What more is there?
British author Philip Hoare knows the answer: Majesty, mystery, and tragedy.
In The Whale, Hoare transforms his obsession with these mammoth creatures into an intricate exploration of history, literature, and science. It’s not a stretch to say he’s on a spiritual voyage to understand the whale’s place – and his– in the world.
Like the narrator of “Moby-Dick,” Hoare writes, “On my own uncertain journey, I sought to discover why I too felt haunted by the whale, by the forlorn expression on the beluga’s face, by the orca’s impotent fin, by the insistent images in my head.”
Hoare, who’s written six books on topics from Noël Coward to a Victorian-era utopia, wouldn’t deny that he has a love affair with the ocean and the largest animals in it. He long ago conquered his fear of the water and became an ocean aficionado. Now he feels claustrophobic and seems to develop what a poet called land-sickness when he’s away from the sea.
So it surprises no one when he travels in search of whales. He finds them, among other places, in the sea off Cape Cod: “I was amazed by the exuberant mastery of their own bodies, and the element in which they moved so elegantly. I envied them the fact that they were always swimming; that they were always free.”
As his book shows, however, whales are hardly free, and they haven’t been for hundreds of years. They’ve long been an object of human desire, a kind of precious metal on the hoof. Prized for their bounty, they found a formidable foe in man, although the whales found ways to fight back and kill whalers on occasion. (The book’s title in Britain is “Leviathan,” invoking the whale’s size and threat.)
As far back as the 1600s, Europeans knew the value of the whale: An epic painting shows dozens of Dutchmen clustering around (and on top of) a whale that had beached itself. Even a prince is on the scene, deploying a handkerchief “to protect his aristocratic nose from the stench.”