The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea
By Philip Hoare
Ecco: Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
I’ve always been fascinated by whales — the size, intelligence, and grace of such large animals. As a child I wanted to be a marine biologist, a dream I’m sure that was prompted by a childhood trip to Sea World but that’s a story for another time.
Philip Hoare is an interesting writer. He’s clearly a man in love with his subject and that I can appreciate. He has the same childlike fascination I have with whales and that’s what drove me to this book. Hoare’s also a man obsessed with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, something I am not. Following Ishmael’s footsteps — yes, the infamous “Call me Ishmael” character of the named book — he takes the reader on a journey to quench a lifelong interest and come to an understanding with an animal we humans only understand through their death.
Interweaving a lot of Melville throughout the first part of the book, it feels a bit like a literature lecture of sorts. While I found Melville’s relationship with Nathanial Hawthorne during his years of writing his famous tome to be somewhat relevant, I also felt like I wanted him to get on with the whale talk. Maybe I was expecting something more scientific but I can’t say that the first part intrigued me as much as the last.
He does get into whaling and what it meant for the world in general and I have to admit that I didn’t really know there were so many uses for a single whale. It’s so much more than just the oil and meat but the skins for shoes, intestines for laces, ambergris for perfume. If you don’t know what ambergris is, well, it’s whale poo. Anyway, I was somewhat aware of the enormous carnage whaling created but when put in terms of lighting Victorian England, the need for whale oil seemed so much more destructive. For a species with no natural enemies, man managed to become the death of these creatures.
I wanted to be blown away by this book and in many ways I was but it also felt like I was left wanting more. It’s a travelogue of sorts and you follow Hoare on his quest to find the meaning of the whale to him. While I found it interesting, I felt it didn’t do much for my quest.
There are some very good facts and he has done his research well casting himself far and wide to discover everything he can from early whaling to the modern day culling to the science of whales. At one point he even communes with a few trying to understand them better.
It’s a good book and a great look at creatures we know so little about. I’m glad to have read it. Hoare has an evocative style that makes you want to turn and ask him a question while reading. This style, even if you have no interest in whales, is enough reason to read this book.