With more and more books on whales and dolphins appearing in the stores each year, there is a real need for a book which gives basic biological information about the cetaceans, in general, with a brief history of what the human whaling industry has done to them, and what modern science has learned about them and their prospects for survival. "So Remorseless a Havoc" by Robert McNally purports to fill this need, but the book is a partial success at best.
McNally's chapters on the history of whaling read like a good investigative reporter's account of one of man's most barbaric accomplishments -- the destruction of species after species of great whales, until some are close to extinction. He has little patience with the excuses men have used, whether economic or theological, to justify this slaughter.
Yet McNally's impatience does not end with whaling. He seems to have little regard for many of the scientists who are studying whales. He finds their research too narrow or too statistical -- even too unscientific. His treatment of Dr. John Lilly, the controversial neurophysiologist whose popular books on dolphins have done much to generate public sympathy for all marine mammals, pretends to be "balanced" but is rather shallow and mean. McNally would have us believe that Dr. Lilly is litlte more than an aging flower child who dropped out of the scientific community to pursue higher truth in the human potential movement. Has McNally read any more of Lilly's work than has been condensed into popular paperbacks? Is it possible that a man who has spent decades studying neurophysiology knows a f ew things that layman McNally does not? He even pans Dr. Lilly's prose.
Yet it is McNally's prose which lacks the subtlety his chosen task demands. He has the hurried newsman's knack for glib antithesis, and he is too quick to dismiss people and attitudes which annoy him personally. an all-round book on the cetaceans demands more subtlety and patience than Robert McNally has brought to his book.
"The Whale Called Killer" is Erich Hoyt's personal account of many seasons spent observing orcas, or killer whales, near Vancouver Island on the Pacific Coast of Canada. Hoyt is not a cetologist but a soundman by trade, and he knew little about whales when he joined a film crew sailing north to make a documentary for the University of Victoria. That first summer of 1973 Hoyt fell in love with killer whales. As the biologists he was working for filled in their sketchy knowledge of orcas, Hoyt learned along with them, studying the species and getting to know several different families, or pods of orcas and befriending individual family members. Over the next six years Hoyt returned to record and visit his orca friends as often as possible, and he seems to have done a lot of homework in the scientific literature for the pure love of his subject. Not that Hoyt shows off his knowledge; he shares it as easily as he shares his enthusiasm for orcas.
Indeed it is this enthusiasm, without a hint of cuteness or sentimentality, that makes "The whale Called Killer" such exciting reading. Having made the reader care about orcas, Hoyt brings us up to date on the status of the animals in the waters off Washington and British Columbia, the laws protecting them, and their fate in captivity. He takes us along on a killer whale hunt, and we see just how far some humans will go to capture a moneymaking marine circus act. There are several unwitting villains in the book, but Hoyt deals with them with a sense of humor which avoids distastefulness.
Both these books are aimed at the reading public's newfound sympathy and fascination with whales. McNally's attempts more and costs less. It has a better title (from Herman Melville) and a better dust jacket photograph. But "The Whale Called Killer" is by far the better book.