“The Whale”, Philip Hoare

Thanks to guest blogger, whale enthusiast, and author Philip Hoare for submitting the following post and photographs. He has written numerous books, among them “Leviathan or, The Whale” (Harper Collins) , and the “The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea” (Ecco), just released.

The whale is perhaps the most mysterious animal known to man.  For centuries it inspired awe and fear, and was hunted for its oil, blubber and whalebone.  Now it is seen as a symbol of an ecological threat, a barometer for a world out of kilter.  It is even more remarkable that the transition from an age of whale-hunting to an era of whale-watching has happened within living memory.

Humpback off Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania

Ancient myth regarded the whale as an uncanny monster, a creature beyond comprehension.  A whale might swallow a single human being, such as Jonah, or an entire city, as one Greek myth imagined.  The poet William Blake wrote of a terrifying vision, ‘the head of Leviathan, his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple like those on a tyger’s forehead…advancing towards us with all the fury of a spiritual existence’.

But ever since the early Basque fishermen travelled as far as the north-east coast of America to hunt whales, humans also saw these animals as a source of wealth.  When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed into Provincetown harbour in 1620, they saw  hundreds of whales ‘playing hard by us, of which in that place, if we had instruments and means to take them, we might have made a rich return’.  By the early 1800s, Provincetown was a profitable whaling port with a fleet of 70 ships, almost rivalling New Bedford – then the richest city in America, wealthy on whale oil – in what was, in effect, a New England version of a Texan oil boom.

Feeding humpback and shearwater, Stellwagen Bank, October 2009

Initially the hunt concentrated on coastal right whales and Greenland or common whale (bowheads) that supplied not only oil from their blubber, but huge pieces of baleen or whalebone that, in the days before plastic, were used for everyday objects from corset stays to carriage suspension, umbrellas and even Venetian blinds.  But the development of onboard tryworks – largely an American innovation – enabled ships to go further afield in the hunt for the sperm whale, whose pugnacious head contained spermaceti oil – the purest known to man, and prized for its light-creating and lubricating properties.  Whale oil, rather than mineral oil, lit and lubricated the Industrial Revolution.  The result for the whale was disaster.

Yet the 19th century culls paled in comparison with those of the 20th century.  With the invention of steam ships and grenade harpoons, even the faster, rorqual whales – such as the blue and fin whales, the largest animals ever to live on Earth – came within range.  By now, America had turned to another oil in the fuelling of its empire, leaving British, Norwegian, and Russian factory ships to harvest this unsustainable resource.  By the 1960s, they were taking more whales in one year than the American whalers had taken in a century and a half of whaling.  The declaration of an international moratorium on whaling in 1986 came only just in time for the blue whale, now reduced to just 15,000 animals.

The sprawling, idiosyncratic work of genius that is Moby-Dick, published in 1851, was extraordinarily prophetic.  Not only did Melville foresee the threat to the whale in chapters such as ‘Does The Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? – Will He Perish?’, but he  also used the whaling industry as an allegory of American imperial power.  Melville configured the crazed Captain Ahab – who goes in pursuit of the eerie White Whale which scythed off his leg, determined to wreak his revenge – as a symbol of obsessive evil.

If you had any doubt about its prescience, just read the last page of the first chapter of Moby-Dick, in which the writer satirises his own narrator’s self-importance in mock newspaper headlines:

Grand contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.’



Indeed, modern political commentators have compared the ‘war on terror’ to Ahab’s impossible mission.  Only days after the 9/11 attacks, Edward Said wrote, ‘Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time…’  Such madness is seen as one which endangers the hunter more than it does his prey.  After all, as anyone who had made it to the end of Melville’s long and digressive novel knows, it is the whale that wins.

Humpback off Cape Cod

Yet this is not a story with a happy ending.  This past December, in Hobart harbour, I watched as Sea Shepherd’s ‘Ady Gil’, eco-warrior Paul Watson’s latest weapon in his war against Japanese whaling readied itself for departure.  The black-painted and futuristic trimaran – a former racing vessel looking more like a watery version of the Batmobile– was about to do battle with a whaling fleet that persistently breaches Australian waters to hunt for whales under the guise of ‘scientific research’.

As I looked on from the quayside, the dreadlocked and tattooed crew – who would have looked more at home at rock festival than on an ocean-going vessel – got ready for the fight.  It occurred to me, even then, that for all its apparent power, their craft would prove flimsy in the face of ocean waves – let alone Japanese resistance.  Yet its crew are undoubtedly committed.  Later, fresh from watching humpback whales off the Tasman Peninsula, I met one shaven-headed former Sea Shepherd acolyte, who spoke with a passionate devotion to Paul Watson – a modern Ahab if there ever was one – that was almost cultish in its intensity.  Last month, his friends met their foe in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean – and suffered a collision, the rights and wrongs of which are still unclear.

Perhaps what’s needed here is dialogue, not violence in return for violence.  More pragmatic whale conservationists even envisage allowing Japan a local quota for whaling – thereby curtailing their unregulated pelagic fleet – in return for some kind of control.  They reason that if the Japanese are pushed to anger any further, they may abandon all pretence of abiding by the IWC, and thus we (the largely Western nations devoted to anti-whaling) will lose all semblance of control over the issue.

There is political context to remember, too.  Post-war Japan, defeated and starving, was encouraged by Allied powers to convert their decommissioned naval fleet into a whaling fleet, in order to feed their nation.  Given this history, we might start to understand the greater political picture.  It is intriguing to note that American literary critics of Moby-Dick compared the atom bomb tests in the Pacific – itself the arena in which the novel’s dramatic narrative reaches its violent denouement – to the White Whale.  In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, published in 1949, Howard P. Vincent considered that Moby Dick was ‘ubiquitous in time and place.  Yesterday he sank the Pequod; within the past two years he has breached five times; from a New Mexico desert, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and most recently, at Bikini atoll.’

Japan also points out that IWC-sanctioned aboriginal whale hunts take place in American waters every year – what is the difference between that and their own claim to cultural precedence in coastal towns?  And since the Japanese were encouraged and even assisted in post-war whaling by the West, it irks to be lectured on the subject.  ‘It’s not because Japanese want to eat whale meat,’ Ayako Okubo told the New York Times in 2007.  ‘It’s because they don’t like being told not to eat it by foreigners.’

Indeed, some contest that it was America’s over-use of pressure on the Japanese – and the moral weight of the environmental lobby – which pushed Japan into its current and apparently intransigent position.  Although America was highly vocal in the anti-whaling campaign of the 1970s (presenting a proposal to a 1972 United Nations conference on the environment to ban all whaling for ten years), things might have been very different if, like Russia, Norway and Japan, the US had maintained a whaling presence in the post-war years.  If its industry had not withered in the late 19th century, there may not have been the political impetus to ban international whaling.  Perhaps this is the true legacy of Moby-Dick.

The Pacific bears an ironical name; for more than two centuries it has been an arena for imperial and economic appropriation, a truly fatal impact for its native peoples and animals.  The Australian government, under Kevin Rudd, is determined to end Japanese whaling in their waters.  But as more than one whale conservationist in Australia confided to me, Sea Shepherd’s antics may, for all their popular support in Australia and America (the Red Hot Chili Peppers are just one of the donors to their cause), be actively shackling the Australian government’s diplomatic efforts to end the slaughter.  One is left to wonder: is Paul Watson’s project a mere act of vanity?  Maybe – but the rebel in me still applauds his Ahabian madness.

Herman Melville was playing on ancient fears and myths of the whale.  My own mission was to discover the truth behind our relationship with the whale.  In the process, I came closer to the object of my pursuit than I had ever thought possible.  The encounter which provides the climax to my book was the single most exciting, terrifying moment of my life.  What I learned that day was that the vexed shared history between human and whale has yet to run its course.  Even now, in an age of science and domination, these creatures remain deeply mysterious animals, beyond our reach.  We still have a lot to learn about each other.

One response to ““The Whale”, Philip Hoare

  1. For an eclectic view of the whale in literature, see:

    And don’t forget the psyche is an ocean to be fished:

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