The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea - Philip Hoare (2010)

Chapter 14. The Ends of the Earth

The inhabitants are mainly of Portuguese descent, indolent and devoid of enterprise. Principal exports: wine and brandy, oranges, maize, beans, pineapples, cattle. The climate is recommended as suitable for consumptive patients.

The British Encyclopædia, 1933

Fifteen hundred miles due east of Cape Cod and a thousand miles from Lisbon, the Azores lie in the middle of the Atlantic, scattered arbitrarily in the ocean. Portugal claimed these islands in the fifteenth century; Columbus called here to hear Mass on his way home from America. Most people would be hard pressed to find them on a map, falling as they do between the gutter of an atlas’s pages. Yet these nine dots represent vast sea mounts greater than the Himalayas, a spine running the length of the earth in an invisible geography.

There are no friendly beaches of golden sand, only black rocks of bubbling lava arrested by the ocean. This is where the world is coming apart. Three islands lie on the Eurasian plate, three on the African, and the rest on the American plate; an act of perpetual tectonic division in which the westernmost isles inch closer to America and further from Europe each year. The youngest island, Pico, appeared only a quarter of a million years ago; its volcano is still active, and earthquakes occur here with fatal regularity. Sharply triangular against the sky, for Melville’s Pierre, mourning the loss of his mother, it was an immemorial sight:

Pierre hath ringed himself in with the grief of Eternity. Pierre is a peak inflexible in the heart of Time, as the isle-peak, Piko, stands unassaultable in the midst of the waves.

There is something foreboding about its outline, as though the entire archipelago were one enormous mirage. It was in Azorean waters that the Mary Celeste, Our Lady of the Heavens, was last seen in 1872, before being found abandoned with no trace of her captain or crew.

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Each morning the ferry leaves from Faial, loaded with crates of supplies and passengers’ luggage, borne across the narrow straits by waves that have travelled from the other side of the Atlantic. They crash furiously over the rocks, rising in four-storey spouts and creating clouds of their own. But it is not the ocean’s temper that fills me with trepidation; it is the fact that within a hundred yards it drops to a depth of one mile, and then far deeper.

It is a fear I feel as I walk through the dark streets of Lajes, past plane trees so severely pollarded that they look as though they are growing the wrong way up, stuck stump-down with their roots in the air. In the half light before dawn, the volcano blots out the stars, and somewhere over my shoulder the surf tears at the shore. This biblical little town is the oldest on Pico, perched on the island’s southernmost shore and governed by two irresistible forces: the roaring sea and the restless earth.

At one end of Lajes is the tiny chapel of São Pedro, founded in 1460 and built into and of the basalt; at the other is a monumental eighteenth-century Franciscan monastery, its angles black-edged in mourning. Lajes is buttressed by belief, constrained by it. Its inhabitants are stocky, dark-eyed, yet also strangely familiar: they are the same handsome faces and the same names I know from Provincetown: Costa, Motta, Silvera. Even the taxi driver speaks English with a New Bedford accent.

Here too, whales are never far away. You see them in mosaics on the pavement, on souvenirs in shop windows, on the wooden fascias of cafés; one bar even boasts the toothless lower jaw of a sperm whale, suspended over its brandy bottles. Under the twin towers of the Santissima Trinidade, where Sunday-best children recite their catechism as their black-clad grandmothers sing, a glass cabinet holds scrimshaw models of harpoons pointing towards a crucified Christ set beside a little votive whale; a bone plaque dedicates these relics to Our Lady of Lourdes, whose miraculous appearance in a French cave in 1858 coincided with the commencement of whaling in the Azores.

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Homagere a Nossa Senhora de Lourdes dos baleiros dos Lajes do Pico.

If whales evolved long before humans then it seems fitting that they should still haunt these protean islands. The whales were here before the islands; and the islanders have lived off whales ever since the Americans came here in the mid-eighteenth century, sailing on the trade winds. Many ships–among them, the Charles W. Morgan–anchored in these waters, takingon fresh food and fresh crews. In turn, Azoreans worked their passage on a ‘bridge of whale-ships’ to the New World, as the same prevailing winds bypassed the islands on the voyage home, stranding Azoreans in America, where many made their homes; it has been calculated than half the population of the Massachusetts seaboard has Portuguese or Azorean blood. The islands themselves became architectural echoes of New Bedford and Nantucket, their narrow cobbled streets overlooked by rooftop lan-terns and clapboard; New England towns, only with palm trees.

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Contrary to the claims of the British Encyclopædia, Azoreans are nothing if not resourceful, and in 1850 they began their own whal-ing. Soon one hundred Azorean crews were hunting whales, using techniques learned from their former masters. However, theirs is not a preserved memory of some distant past, for here, on these beautiful, diabolical islands, whaling did not end until 1986.

In a converted boathouse on the quayside, Serge Viallelle shows me film of Azorean whaling from the 1970s. It is like watching colour footage from the nineteenth century; as though Ishmael had a camcorder. The islanders used the same boats as the Yankee whalers, although latterly their double-prowed canoas, complete with whalebone cleats and trim, were taken out to sea by motor boats; and rather than spotting whales from the lofty crosstrees of a ship, they relied on vigias, towers perched on clifftop promontories where they still stand, just as wartime pillboxes still stud the southern coast of England.

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Every morning the watcher would trudge up the narrow, flower-strewn path, his lunch packed in a neat wicker basket. Sitting on a wooden stool, peering through field glasses strapped to a swivelling stand, he would spend all day scanning the waves through the slit-like window, waiting for the blows that announced the whales.

At that sign the hunt began. The vigia would send up a rocket–lit by his cigarette–the signal for the crew to stop what they were doing. They might be digging in the fields or fishing at sea, but they were required by law to attend the call and liable to be fined if they did not. Like lifeboat men leaving their day jobs, they ran down to the harbour where their canoas stood ready. Once at sea, the men might spend all day and all night waiting for the whale. When it surfaced, they put up their sails and rowed silently towards the blow. This was the crucial moment. Unable to dive again until it had replenished the oxygen in its blood, the animal was at its most vulnerable in these, the last few minutes of its peaceable life. And all this was happening while I was going to nightclubs in London.

In the film, the irons find their target. The harpooned animal makes a forlorn dash, but, soon exhausted, it lies at the surface, where the lance is plunged again and again into its side; bent by the whale’s struggles, the shaft is beaten straight on the canoa’s boards before being used again. Blood swirls in the water, gouts of it; the whale shudders, and dies. Interviewed hunters testify to the excitement of the chase–‘Harpooning a whale is like scoring a goal’–a heroism worthy of the matador.

By the late 1970s each whale was worth £500; little wonder that subsistence farmers and fishermen were so eager to capture them. Yet whaling was truly a dying art. There was only one blacksmith left who could forge the harpoons and lances in their time-honoured shape. Even so, in 1979 one hundred and fifty sperm whales were caught off the Azores, and in the last ten years of whaling, the price of their teeth rose from three to eighty dollars a kilo.

Soon the islanders found better work elsewhere, and the world lost its taste for the products of the whale. The final blow came when the Azores joined the European Union, within which whaling was illegal. When Serge Viallelle came here from France in the 1980s, a drop-out delivering a yacht who discovered the whales and stayed, he had to persuade the islanders that people would pay just to look at whales. As in Provincetown, whale watching replaced whale hunting; in a neat twist of fate, the Azoreans were taught their new trade by Al Avellar, a Provincetowner of Portuguese descent.

In the nearby restaurant, the proprietor shows me through a mirrored door behind the bar, and into his sitting room. Its walls are lined with posters and photographs commemorating his years as a whaler. One shows him standing by a sperm whale, pointing to its huge teeth. He tells me that he killed twenty-two whales that year. As if to fill the silence as we stand in front of the picture, he says, ‘People cry for the whales, but they do not cry for Iraq.’

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Antonio Domingos Avila

For some reason, I pat him on the back. He says that whale flour was good for the crops, how they never had any insects when they were thus fertilized; no need for pesticides. Such useful things, whales.

Outside the restaurant, on the quayside overlooked by the volcano and the setting sun, an engine revs. Serge says it is the original motor boat that once towed the canoas out to sea. Whenever it starts up, he tells me, the sound scares the whales away for miles around.

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On the north side of Pico lies São Roque. It has its own version of New Bedford’s bronze harpooneer, posed with his weapon like an ancient Greek. Behind it a grey concrete ramp rises out of the sea, leading to a white-painted building with art deco lettering advertising its function:

VITAMINAS OLEOS FARINHAS ADUBOS ARMAÇÕES BALEEIRAS REUNIDAS L.DA

It might as well be a factory on the outskirts of some Midlands town. But behind this façade lie blackened stone chimneys and abandoned outhouses; and in what appears to be an overgrown playground are the remains of a beached canoa, its splintered wood and fragments of whale bone held together by copper nails.

The main building is now a museum, although it is unlike any other I have seen. It is almost entirely empty: its exhibits are its fittings themselves. On the wooden walls are roughly chalked measurements and calculations. Under the high roof, vaulted with rusting girders, stand iron autoclaves as tall as a house. Buckets hang on hoists. The clang of metal doors all but echoes through this factory founded in 1942, as other factories were being built across Europe.

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The men who operated these ovens left long ago. For half a century, sperm whales were taken from the seas around the island and towed here, sliding on their own blood and slime as they were winched up out of the water by machinery made in Tyneside.

At a cistern at the top of the ramp the head was drained of oil; the jaws were torn away and taken to one side. Then, in front of what looks like a garage forecourt with huge double doors ready to admit the beast, the rest of the whale was dissected.

Forty or fifty men in leather aprons and espadrilles went to work, slicing and sawing. Unlike their ancestors, they had the benefit of twentieth-century machinery. The blubber was wheeled in buckets to the ovens and rendered down in giant, hermetically sealed versions of try-pots. Spermaceti was kept cool in a concrete chamber, chilled by enormous refrigerated pipes.

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‘Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.’

In another part of the compound, whale meat was ground into flour for use as animal food. European cattle fed on whales. Nothing was wasted. This was the truly industrial, logical epitome of whaling. The whale’s liver produced vitamin extracts. The teeth were used to create scrimshaw, destined to gather dust on tourists’ shelves at home.

You could smell São Roque miles away, Serge’s wife, Alexandra, remembers; it was a disgusting memory from her childhood. For the Englishman Malcolm Clarke, it was the stench of blood that hit you first. Then the sight of the severed jaws laid out to rot: ‘The ground was literally alive with maggots.’

None of this is in the distant past. Men still bear the scars here, the teeth marks of whales on their bodies. Bones still lie on beaches.

A little way out of Lajes is a newly painted mural and a sign above what looks like the door of a garage: Museu do Cachalotes e Lulas. Inside is an eccentric collection, the product of one man’s passion. Malcolm Clarke was born in Birmingham, grew up by the Thames, and spent his National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, driving ambulances from Aldershot to the military hospital at Netley on the shores of Southampton Water. In the 1950s he joined the whaling fleets of the South Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. His memory of that time is still vivid, and the numbers defy the imagination. In one season alone he saw thirty thousand whales taken. ‘We were at full cook the whole time,’ he says. Sometimes they caught twenty-four whales a day.

Malcolm became fascinated by what the whales ate. As we pass buckets filled with squid beaks, he tells me how the contents of sperm whales’ stomachs would yield dozens of unidentified species; in one he found no fewer than 18,000 beaks. In fact, he now professes to find whales annoying, because they eat so many of the animals he studies.

The most impressive display in Malcolm’s museum is a life-size cross-section of a female sperm whale painted directly onto the plaster, a mural so large that it carries on around the corner and onto the next wall. It is a lurid lesson in cetacean anatomy, but its bright blue and red organs cannot rival what lies on the table below. Swimming in a Tupperware dish is a sample of the spermaceti sac, glistening like tripe. I prod it, gingerly; the oil has crystallized like old honey.

Next to it is a square chunk of blubber. I am taken aback at how hard it feels, more like wood than fat. I squeeze a piece between my finger and thumb; the intricate mesh that runs through it barely yields. I imagine an armoured animal, tank-like. ‘They were tremendously difficult for the whalers to cut,’ says Malcolm. The blubber is also burrowed and wormed by parasites, a certain source of irritation for their unwilling host.

Something stranger lies in a third container: what looks like a lump of brownish-grey mud at the bottom of an old coffee jar. As I lift the lid, the smell hits my nostrils: pungent, musky, discernibly animal, its congealed, peaty texture reminds me of nothing so much as cannabis resin. Then Malcolm shows me on his diagram where this stuff came from: the whale’s rectum. I am holding a piece of ambergris the size of a small potato, the most precious product of any animal, a natural creation more elusive than any gold or diamond. But what I had hitherto assumed to be the result of some mysterious process, like grit in an oyster shell forming a pearl, is actually whale shit.

It was a marvellous irony, thought Thomas Beale, ‘that a resemblance to the smell of this drug, which is the most agreeable of all the perfumes, should be produced by a preparation of one of the most odious of all substances’. On his own researches into the interior of the whale, Beale cited the chemist Wilhelm Homberg, who found ‘that a vessel in which he had made a long digestion of human fæces, acquired a very strong and perfect smell of ambergris’. This somewhat unsavoury experiment–which swiftly led to the evacuation of Homberg’s laboratory by his assistants–brought Beale to the same conclusion: that ambergris was ‘nothing but the hardened fæces of the spermaceti whale, which is pretty well proved from its being mixed so intimately with the refuse of its food’. Indeed, his friend Samuel Enderby possessed ‘a fine specimen…about six or seven inches long, and which bears very evident marks of having been moulded by the lower portion of the rectum of the whale’. And during his own adventures in the North Pacific, Beale himself had collected some ‘semi-fluid fæces’ which had floated from the carcase of a whale, ‘and which on being dried in the sun bore all the properties of ambergris’.

The exact origins of ambergris remain obscure; but it is certainly the result of a remarkable process. The sperm whale swallows squid alive, taking its food into the first of four stomachs. It then passes into a second stomach to be broken down by strong acids, assisted by a writhing mass of nematode worms, ‘a disgusting sight’ according to Malcolm, who has seen it many times. When the waste moves through the lower intestine the brittle, shiny black squid beaks–along with other indigestible material such as nematode cuticles–prompt the whale’s digestive system to secrete bile and thereby ease their passage. Occasionally–in as few as one in a hundred whales–this chemical reaction produces ambergris. Once expelled, it may spend months or even years in the water, oxidizing and hardening into layered lumps, often still containing bits of squid beaks. Lighter than water, ambergris is occasionally cast up on beaches–hence its name, grey amber, an allusion to the fossilized tree resin also found on seashores.

Early authorities thought that ambergris was only produced by ailing whales. Frederick Bennett concluded that animals that displayed ‘a torpid and sickly appearance’ and which failed to ‘void liquid excrement’ when alarmed or harpooned were those most likely to yield the stuff. He reasoned that the sharp beaks could cause a cicatrix to form, a scarred wound which closed up the return, leaving the whale to waste away to its death, ‘a goose killed by the golden egg within’. Modern cetologists, however, think that ambergris comes from healthy whales.

I smell the lump again, trying to detect its complexity like a wine-taster–the qualities that make it so desirable to parfumiers: its ability to absorb, intensify and capture volatile fragrances, sometimes for years. It is as though its depth can encompass all aromas. As I hold it in my fingers, Malcolm warns that it will stay with me for days. I smear a little in my journal; months later, it is still there: the lingering scent of whale.

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Martin Rosenbaum

This romantic stuff–which reminded one scientist ‘of a cool English wood in spring, and the scent you smell when you tear up the moss to uncover the dark soil underneath’–had many strange and exotic uses. The ancient Chinese called it lung sien hiang, or ‘dragon’s spittle fragrance’, and spiced their wine with it. During the Black Death, ambergris was carried to ward off the plague. In the Renaissance it was moulded, dried, decorated and used as jewellery; it was also said to be efficacious as an aphrodisiac, as a medicine for the heart or brain, and for diseases such as epilepsy, typhoid and asthma. In Milton’s Paradise Regained, Satan tempts Christ with ‘Grisamber steamed’ and drawing on Thomas Beale’s researches, Ishmael notes that the Turks took it to Mecca, ‘for the same purpose that frankincense is carried to St Peter’s in Rome’. More prosaically, sailors used it as a laxative.

Although Ishmael declares that it was whale oil that was rubbed on the British sovereign’s head in the coronation service, this was in fact an ambergris-infused concoction, as I discovered on a visit to the Gormenghast-like library set in the eaves high above Westminster Abbey. Here the custodian of the panelled eyrie, reached by a door set in the gloomy corner of the cloister and at the top of a flight of narrow wooden spiral stairs, divulged to me the secret recipe, handed down over the centuries. ‘Oleaum Præscriptum Ad Ungendum in Coronatione Carolum I Britanniæ Regem’. Among oils of jasmine, rose, cinnamon, musk and civet was the all-important and precious ingredient, ‘Ambrægrisiæ 3iiij’, which created a fluid with ‘a rich and peculiar fragrance; it is amber coloured when freshly made, but time deepens the colour and the odour becomes mellow and rare’. In the most sacred part of the ceremony, shielded from the common gaze by a canopy of cloth of gold, the new monarch is marked on the head, heart, shoulders, hands and elbows with this oil, although Queen Victoria is said to have hated the stickiness and the smell and insisted on washing it off soon after, rather than allowing it to baste her imperial majesty with its whale-stink.

This amazing substance remained as rare and mysterious as the unicorn’s horn until the American whalers began to find it within the whale itself. In 1724, Beale records, Dr Boylston of Boston wrote to the Royal Society in London, having interviewed Nantucket whalers who ‘cutting up a spermaceti bull-whale…found accidentally in him about twenty pounds’ weight, more or less, of that drug; after which, they and other such fishermen became very curious in searching all such whales they killed, and it has been since found in lesser quantities in several male whales of that kind, and in no other…’

‘They add further,’ Boylston noted, ‘that it is contained in a syst or bag…nowhere to be found but near the genital parts of the fish. The ambergris is when first taken out moist, and of an exceedingly strong and offensive smell.’ The idea that this sac was situated at the root of the whale’s penis, along with the masculine smell as it ripened, contributed to the erroneous and perhaps chauvinist notion that only bull sperm whales could produce ambergris. Although males, being larger, produced bigger pieces, females were equally able to excrete their own perfume.

In 1783 Joseph Banks presented a paper to the Royal Society by Franz Xavier Schwedier, a German doctor, which conclusively identified the true origins of ambergris. The subject was even discussed in Parliament; and in January 1791 The Times noted that ‘a whale lately brought from the South Seas, in the Lord Hawkesbury, contained near four hundred ounces of amber-grease, which sold by the hammer at Lloyd’s Coffee-house at nineteen shillings and sixpence the ounce’, a great price to pay for this prize.

Like a precious metal, ambergris has retained its worth over time. In 1912 a Norwegian company was saved from bankruptcy by a one-thousand-pound lump found in a whale caught off Australia, and which sold in London for £23,000. In 1931–as a cutting stuck inside my edition of Frank Bullen’s The Cruise of the Cachalot notes–a seventy-foot male found dead on New Zealand’s South Island produced a quarter of a ton of ambergris worth over £10,000. In the 1950s four pounds of this ‘floating gold’ fetched £100,000. Meanwhile, Soviet fleets gathered so much ambergris–including sixty-three pieces found in one whale–that by 1963 the Communist state no longer had any need to import it.

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Modern chemical analysis would show that the active element of ambergris is ambrien, a crystalline, fatty cholesterol able to fix volatile oils by slowing evaporation. Despite synthetic substitutes, it remains an irreplaceable ingredient in perfume. All the grandest French houses still produce exquisite scents based on this most mysterious of components, from Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent to Givenchy and Christian Dior; if you happen to be wearing Dioressence today, you are wearing the scent of a sperm whale. One of the oldest perfumers, Creed’s of London, which guards its formulæ as jealously as the custodians of the coronation rite, has been patronized by George III, by the Prince Imperial, dandy son of Louis Napoleon, who was wearing Creed’s whale-infused fragrance when he met his death at the end of eighteen assegais in the Zulu Wars in 1879–and by Cary Grant, for whom the company designed a perfume all of his own, based on ambergris.

Having smelt the raw material, I can now identify the trace of ambergris in expensive scents that waft from the shoulders of party-goers. Like their clients, perfume makers are, of course, discerning in what they buy. The highest prized pieces are pale in colour, from white to gold to grey with sometimes a mauvish tint; dark brown or black lumps are of a lesser worth. Most ambergris comes from the Indian Ocean, but when Dorothy Ferreira of Montauk, Long Island, inherited a large piece from an elderly friend, she was told that her gnarled legacy–which prompted a headline in the New York Times, ‘PRECIOUS WHALE VOMIT, NOT JUST JUNK’–would fetch $18,000. And in a story which might have come from the pages of Roald Dahl, a ten-year-old girl found a yellowy lump of ‘whale sick’ on a Welsh beach, supposedly valued at £35,000. ‘We recently heard on the radio about ambergris,’ her mother told a tabloid newspaper, ‘but when Melissa found some I couldn’t believe it!’ Unfortunately for Melissa, such finds usually turn out to be industrial plastic, or surfboard wax, or, as Richard Sabin reports, ‘something even less pleasant’.

Yet even scientists have been known to become childlike when faced with the prospect of this elusive stuff. One told me how, when dissecting a sperm whale washed up on the island of Malta–a week-long process which began with some twenty-six cheerful helpers on the first day, but which had dwindled to a mere handful of hardy souls by the last, such was the stench–he squeezed through two hundred metres of malodorous guts in a determined but ultimately unsuccessful search for ambergris.

Light-giving wax, lubricating oil, scented fæces: sometimes it seems as though the whales are cetacean Magi, bringing offerings that presage their own sacrifice. Such is the whales’ abiding paradox that they should secrete such precious substances from the profundities of their bodies, places as unknown as the seas in which they swim, even as our own interiors are a mystery to us.

Like Melville writing about Nantucket, an island he had never visited, I write about animals I have never seen, for all that I can smell them and handle their most intimate secrets. The closer I get, the further away they seem; and the more I learn, the less I know about these strange cetaceans, mammals like us, yet so separated in scale in our microcosms of greater unknowns, from the sea to infinity.

Even their most basic mechanics have a functional, fatal beauty. In Malcolm’s museum, a diagram shows how a sperm whale’s trachea and œsophagus share the same internal space, the one able to shut off the other to prevent the lungs filling with water as the whale feeds. Another charts the spectrum visible to deep-diving whales, which have blue-shifted eye pigments–being the most useful colour to discern in waters which turn from turquoise to black as they recede from the sun. A hinged wooden model demonstrates Malcolm’s theory of how the sperm whale adjusts its buoyancy by altering the temperature of the oil in its head, although he allows rival scientific interpretations: pre-eminently, that the spermaceti functions as a focus for the whale’s sonar clicks. A piece of bone cut in half shows honeycomb cells which in life would be filled with oil; filled with air, they would expand with changing water pressure as the animal dived.

So many occupational hazards for the whale.

There is something atavistic about these objects. The smallest comes from the whale’s inner ear, the same shell-like bone found in the bilges of the Morgan. These are the parts of the whale that survive the longest: otoliths, the fossilized ears of fifteen-million-year-old whales, have been found in South Carolina, their strange curling chambers evocative of ancient oceans and prehistoric sounds, as if by holding them to your own ear you might hear extinct animals singing in long-vanished seas.

Outside his museum, on a rocky ledge overlooking the ocean, Malcolm has built a life-size model whale out of tubular grey scaffolding. It resembles a cross between Ishmael’s Arsacidean temple and a children’s climbing frame. As buzzards hover overhead, we talk about Malcolm’s years at sea. At my urging, he even speaks of monsters: of the giant squid that one fisherman saw alongside his boat, its tentacles longer than the hundred-foot vessel, making the entire animal twice its length; and of the pilot of a whale-spotting plane flying over the Indian Ocean off Durban who saw a wrecked plane’s fuselage sticking out of the water, only to watch the shape animate itself into a long neck and slip silently into the ocean.

Such stories seem to suit this infernal island, a half-formed place of fire and water; I could imagine Melville and Hawthorne meeting here. Even the cliffs on which we stand are undermined by hidden caves. Due south from here lies Antarctica. And somewhere down in the fathomless, gathering darkness, sperm whales swim, eternally aware, their lives one waking dream, moving through valleys that run thirty thousand miles along the ocean floor, through lakes that lie stilly in the abyss, separated by temperature like pools of mercury, past jellyfish pulsating as ghostly Victorian brides in ectoplasmic crinolines.

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