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

Chapter 1. Soundings

Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity.

Loomings, Moby-Dick

It was my first visit to America. It was January, and I knew no one in New York. Freezing winds funnelled down the midtown canyons. Feeling homesick and lost, I took the subway as far as it would go. Outside the station at Coney Island, strange shapes stood in silhouette, skeletal versions of the Manhattan skyline I had left behind: a sinuous, hibernating roller coaster, and another instrument of amusement which looked like some giant gynæcological tool. I found my way to the aquarium and wandered through its empty interior, shuddering as I passed tanks filled with fish. There was something pathetic about this out-of-season place, a sense of abandonment blown in from the forlorn boardwalk and the suburban sea.

Let into the white walls was an observation window, thick enough to withstand tons of water. It reminded me of the portholes in Southampton’s baths where children pressed their pasty flesh to the glass; but this murky pane presented something entirely more spectral. Beckoning at the window, vertical and full length as if rising to greet me, was a beluga whale. It must have been twelve feet long, from its bulbous head to its stubby flukes; a huge ghostly baby fixing me with its stare.

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As out of place as it seemed, this New York whale had an historical precedent. In 1861 Phineas T. Barnum had imported a pair of belugas to his American Museum on Broadway. Fished out of the waters off Labrador and brought south in hermetically sealed boxes lined with seaweed, the whales were twenty-three and eighteen feet long respectively. Their basement tank measured fifty-eight by twenty-five feet, but it was barely seven feet deep, and was filled with fresh water. In it they swam like lovers, although even their owner believed they would have only brief careers. ‘Here is a real “sensation”,’ the New York Tribune marvelled, imagining that ‘the enterprise of Mr. Barnum will not stop at white whales. It will embrace sperm whales and mermaids, and all strange things that swim or fly or crawl, until the Museum will become one vast microcosm of the animal creation.’

This fascination with the whale, like Philip Brannon’s report from Southampton Water, was an expression of Victorian fashion, a characteristic marriage of ingenious science and human curiosity. In England, live whales were delivered to aquaria in Manchester and Blackpool (although one porpoise show was closed, for fear the flagrant activities of its performers should offend genteel dispositions), and in September 1877 a beluga whale arrived in Westminster, in the centre of the world’s greatest city. The nine-foot, six-inch specimen had also been caught–along with ten others–off Labrador, where it had stranded at high tide and was netted by Zack Coup and his men. From there it began its long journey to London.

Taken in a narrow box by sloop to Montreal, the whale was put on a train to New York–a trip that took two weeks. The animal spent seven months at Coney Island’s Summer Aquarium where ‘he contracted his habit of swimming in a circle’, before being taken out of its tank and put on a North German Lloyd steamship, the Oder, bound for Southampton. During the voyage, it was kept on deck in a rough wooden box lined with seaweed, and was wetted with salt water every three minutes. Despite such intensive care, the whale had already begun to live off its own blubber.

At Southampton the beluga was transferred to the South-Western Railway, travelling on an open truck to Waterloo Station and to its final home, an iron tank forty-four feet long, twenty feet wide, and six feet deep, at the Royal Aquarium, a grand gothic structure recently built opposite the Houses of Parliament. The whale waited as the tank took two hours to fill. ‘He had been lying still in the box breathing once every 23 seconds. He flapped feebly with his tail when he felt them moving the box. He fell out of it sidelong into the water and went down to the bottom like lead.’ The animal was allowed three hours of privacy before the public, ‘in great numbers’, were admitted to view it from a specially built grandstand.

The Times did not feel this was the right way to treat a whale. ‘It is not likely he will live long in fresh water, although he comes up at intervals from ten to 100 seconds to breathe, and sometimes spouts the water up through the wide nostril which he has in the middle of his forehead. Noise or jarring caused by the workmen occasionally makes him stay beneath the water for two minutes at a time.’ The beluga was fed live eels, but it was noted that its high dorsal ridge, ‘which should be rounded with fat’, stood up ‘precipitously on his back’.

‘Should he succumb to the unfavourable conditions of life in this city, no whalebone will be extracted from this monster,’ the newspaper added. ‘Nor is the white whale very rich in blubber. But his coat will make porpoise-skin boots.’

The Times’s suspicions were correct, even if its assignation of gender was not. In what appeared to be delirious behaviour, the whale–which was in fact a female–swam up and down the tank rapidly, hitting its head on the wall. Then, ‘having somewhat recovered, it again swam several times round the tank, again came into collision with the end of the tank, turned over, and died.’

Nor was the indignity over, for the body was taken out of the tank and exhibited to the public the next day. A plaster cast was made, and a necropsy performed by eminent naturalists and physicians. They discovered that far from starving, the whale had a full stomach–but also highly congested lungs. The fact that the animal had been kept on open deck on its way over the Atlantic, and, rather than keeping it alive, the regular dousing it had received, had resulted in rapid evaporation between soakings, causing it to catch cold.

The Westminster whale’s public demise prompted correspondence from persons in high places. Bishop Claughton of St Albans, a poet in his own right, complained that it was ‘the creature of which the Psalmist speaks as placed in its element by the Great Creator’, and it was not man’s right to take him out of it. William Flower of the Royal College of Surgeons–later to become the first director of the Natural History Museum–had attended the necropsy, and countered that the ‘supposed marks of ill-usage’ on its body ‘were the consequences of the eels in the tanks having after its death nibbled the edges of its fins’. Professor Flower claimed the entire process was justified for ‘the advantage to scientific and general knowledge to be gained’. But then, his own institution had benefited from the donation of the internal organs, which would ‘make very interesting preparations’.

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THE DEAD WHALE AT THE ROYAL AQUARIUM.

Back in New York, Barnum’s whales met with their predicted fate. Victims of equally inappropriate conditions, like fairground fish brought home in plastic bags, they too had died within days–only to be replaced by successive specimens until a fire destroyed the museum in 1865. Futile attempts were made to rescue the last beluga, until a compassionate fireman smashed the tank with a hook, ‘So the whale merely roasted to death instead of undergoing the distress of being poached.’

Faced with this modern captive on Coney Island, I felt a mixture of fascination and pity. It was as out of place as a tiger in a Manhattan apartment. The animal ought to have been swimming free in Arctic waters. Instead its pure white skin was soiled by its civic capture, as if the green algæ that covered the prismatic glass had contaminated it, too. It was struck dumb by the silence of that afternoon, and all the afternoons that stretched ahead. The beluga is the most vocal of all whales, known by sailors as the canary of the sea; here it was as caged as any tame songbird. As it hung there, this shrouded convict imprisoned for someone else’s sins, I dared to touch it through the thick glass, as if something might pass between us. I waited for it to raise a flipper. But it didn’t, so I turned away, unable to take its stare any longer.

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After years living in London, the city had begun to press down on me. I sometimes felt as if all the sky were sea, and we citizens mere bottom-feeders, held down by its great pressure as we moved around the caverns and boulders of the streets. I lived on the borders of the City, within sight of the Docklands; over the years I watched the replicating skyscrapers rise up from the London clay like crystal stalagmites in a schoolboy’s jam-jar experiment. At night I would dream that the tower block in which I lived was surrounded by water, inundated by the expected flood; that from my ninth-floor eyrie I could look down to see whales and sharks circling below. In other dreams, I saw a stone-walled harbour and a mass of marine animals caught within it, squirming and writhing to get out.

A place that had represented all my youthful aspirations now felt like a viral infection; and although, like a dose of malaria, I would never quite shake it, I was gradually, incrementally, leaving my old life behind. With the death of my father, and my mother living alone, I found myself spending more time back south. It was a kind of consolation, for grief and loss, for the severing of other emotional ties. I felt set adrift, anchorless–yet also a kind of convergence, a symmetry. It was the comfort of the old, but I saw it anew.

I replaced the treeless view from my ninth-floor flat with daily visits to the shore; the hard edges of the city with unconfined green and blue; stalking flea-bitten pigeons with black and white oystercatchers picking their way along the beach at low tide. My eyes stretched with the relief you feel when you look out over to the horizon from a train window, rather than onto the foreshortened visions of the street. Instead of superstitiously picking up pennies from the street, I combed the beach for stones with holes guaranteed to ward off witches, creating miniature avalanches as they piled up on my dressing table back home. And I stood looking out to sea, watching transatlantic ships sail by like Fitzgerald’s boats borne back ceaselessly into the past, waiting for a future that might never come, like the man who fell to earth. As consoling as the water was, it sometimes served only to make me restless in my suburban exile.

Five years after my first visit to America, I took a train to Boston from New York’s Penn Station. Having bought a map of New England from the bookstall, I began to trace my route along the coast. The name itself–a New England–seemed romantic, optimistic; both familiar and strange at the same time. The names on the map evoked the country I had left behind–Manchester, Norwich, Warwick–as Manhattan gave way to sharp sun and wide beaches and picnicking families, apparently unaware of the train hurtling past behind them. At the end of the line, I walked down to the harbour and boarded the ferry, watching Boston recede in a sequence of small islands, to the toll of a bell fixed to a buoy:

fuller of dirges for the past, than of monitions for the future; and no one can give ear to it, without thinking of the sailors who sleep far beneath it at the bottom of the deep.

Ahead lay mile after nautical mile of sea. I did not know what to expect when I reached the other side, but as the boat docked, everyone else seemed to know where they were going. So I followed them, into Provincetown.

Cape Cod curls out into the Atlantic like a scorpion’s tail. This is new land, carved out by mile-thick glaciers only fifteen thousand years ago. Its inner shores are still more recent, formed of sand carried from the far side of the Cape, an egg-timer adding even as it takes away. This is also the graveyard of the Atlantic. Its beaches bear witness to disaster: entire wrecks buried by the sand, their masts jutting from the dunes, along with human hands. Marconi, who established his radio station on this same shore, a forest of aerials among the marram grass, believed he could tune in to the voices of drowned men still hanging in the ether.

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Cape Cod is not so much the end of the land as the beginning of the sea. To Thoreau, who walked here a hundred and fifty years ago, it was a place where ‘everything seemed to be gently lapsing into futurity’. ‘A man may stand there and put all America behind him,’ he wrote; but this is where America began, too. Four centuries ago, the Pilgrim Fathers made first landfall on this sandy spit rather than at Plymouth Rock–just as they first left from Southampton, rather than Plymouth in Devon. In their search for utopia, the exiles found instead ‘a hideous and desolate wilderness’. They had little idea that its native inhabitants had lived on the Cape for millennia.

After a month trudging through its sands, the Pilgrims rejected Cape Cod as fit only for fish and heathens. Provincetown became an outlaw colony beyond their Puritan influence, a reputation embodied by its nickname: Hell Town. Prey to piracy, war and revolution, by the end of the eighteenth century there were still only a handful of houses here. But soon this disputatious, barely legitimate port had entered its greatest prosperity–one that it owed to the whale.

The Pilgrims had regretted their lack of weaponry when they saw how many broad-backed, slow-moving whales lay in Cape Cod Bay. It was as if the animals were anchored to it. There were hundreds ‘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’. Unlike the Indians who harvested whales for sustenance, Europeans sought profit in such animals, and had done so ever since the Basques had sailed to Labrador.

By the time the Mayflower set sail, other ships were leaving Dutch ports to carry out commercial whaling in the Arctic. Two of the crew of the Mayflower had whaled off Greenland, and reckoned they would have made £4,000 from the whales of Cape Cod Bay. Indeed, it was the whales that had first prompted the Pilgrims to consider Provincetown as a site, and as Cotton Mather recorded, whale oil became the staple commodity of their colony. The Mayflower herself was pressed into service as a whaler, sailing over the bay from Plymouth.

Provincetown, too, took to whaling with aplomb. By 1737, twelve whale-ships were leaving the port, bound for the Davis Straits. By 1846, Provincetown was home to dozens of vessels. Families such as the Cooks, who owned eight houses in a row in the town’s East End, could look out on their ships tied up in front of their properties much as modern cars are parked in driveways. The building that now houses a fashionable delicatessen was once the Cooks’ chandlery. Close by stood the blacksmith’s, forging harpoons and lances, while a blue plaque on another wall commemorates ‘David C. Stull, the Ambergris King’. Later, the Azoreans and Portuguese came to work in the town’s great salt cod trade. Their descendants still live here, incarnate in such names as Avellar, Costa, Oliveira and Motta, and in the annual Blessing of the Fleet, when their fishing boats are bedecked with flags and a dressed statue of St Peter is carried down to the harbour.

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In the late nineteenth century other visitors came too, ‘summer people’ brought by steamers from Boston and New York, artists and writers among them. They were attracted by the clear light that bounces around the peninsula as from a photographer’s reflecting shield, but also by its remoteness. Provincetown remained a tentative, if not dangerous place. The Portland gale of 1898 drowned five hundred people and demolished many wharves. Houses out on the sandy spit of Long Point, defeated by decades of storms, were floated wholesale across the bay on rafts of wrecking barrels to find shelter on calmer shores. As the radical journalist Mary Heaton Vorse wrote, ‘Provincetowners have spent so much of their time on the sea in ships that they look upon houses as a sort of land ship or a species of house-boat and therefore not subject to the laws of houses.’

Gradually, reluctantly, the town was tamed. Drainage was installed, pavements laid, roads allowed access to what was, in effect, an island. ‘Indeed, to an inlander, the Cape landscape is a constant mirage,’ as Thoreau wrote. Its sands collect and drift as the town twists and turns on itself, leaving you never quite sure which way is south or which way is west. This is still a place apart, a fold-out on the map; not so much part of America as apart from it. In the summer it babbles with life, its one busy street teeming with day-tripping families and drag queens, before petering out at town limits once marked by a whale’s jaw bone stuck in the ground, and now by Josh’s garage and a straggle of beach huts from an Edward Hopper painting. And out on the ocean, the clamour diminishes like a dying chord, to be replaced by the rise and fall of the sea.

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It wasn’t until the day before I was due to leave Provincetown that I went on my first whale watch. I remember how cold it was as the boat left the bay, the land’s warmth giving way to a chill sea breeze. As we sailed out of the harbour, our naturalist described the geography of Stellwagen Bank as it passed beneath us. He explained how fishermen had dredged up mastodon bones from the sea floor; how these were some of the most fertile waters on the planet; how they were crossed by the Atlantic’s busiest shipping routes. On a chart behind him, he pointed out the animals we might see. I looked at their unlikely shapes on the pamphlet he had handed out. They seemed as unreal as the dinosaurs I’d memorized from my library books as a boy.

Then someone shouted,

Whale!

and in the mid-distance, a massive grey-black shape slid up out of the water and back down below. Before I knew it, there they were, off our bows, whales blowing noisily from their nostrils, rolling with the waves. Barely yards away a young humpback threw itself out of the water, showing off its white underbelly, ridged like some giant, rubbery shell. It was a jump-cut close-up of something impossible: a whale in flight.

Forgetting the children around me, I blurted out an inadvertent ‘fuck!’. Other whales were throwing their tails in the air, slapping their flippers as though signalling to each other, or to us. As I watched, more and more animals appeared, as if summoned by some unseen circus master. 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.

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Every summer, humpbacks come to the Gulf of Maine. For six months they have fasted, and mated, in the warm but sterile waters of the Caribbean, suckling their calves with milk so rich it resembles cottage cheese, until it is time to make the annual pilgrimage north. It is the greatest migration undertaken by any mammal. Following routes of colonization first undertaken by their ancestors millions of years ago, navigating up to eight thousand miles of ocean via age-old and invisible signs, they arrive off the north-eastern seaboard, where the warm Gulf Stream meets the chill Labrador currents and stirs up nutrients from the ocean floor in a process called upwelling.

Here, in the grey-green waters, a vast food chain is set in motion. The whales fatten themselves on sand lances and herring, growing fat with the seasonal glut. And here, less than two hours’ sail from one of America’s great cities, these gigantic animals–‘the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales’–besport themselves, ‘making more gay foam and white water generally than any other’. Even their hunters acknowledged this playfulness in their nickname for the humpback, the merry whale, although its scientific name is hardly less glamorous: Megaptera novæangliæ, big-winged New Englander, barnacled angel.

Launching fifty tons of blubber, flesh and bone into the air, the leviathan leaves its domain, its fifteen-foot flippers like gnarled wings, the tips of its tail, three times as wide as a man is long, barely in contact with the water.

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Seen in the slow motion of recall–the after-image it leaves in your head–a breaching whale seems to be trying to escape its environment, the element that, even as it breaks the surface, is pulling it back down. No one really knows why whales leap. Almost every species does it–from the smallest dolphin to the greatest blue whale–in their own style: backward breaches, belly-flops, half-hearted lunges or full-blown somersaults. It may be that the animals are trying to dislodge parasites–the force is enough for breaching whales to slough off skin, convenient samples to be gathered for genetic tests. There is no knowing when they will breach, although when they do, they may do so repeatedly, often when the wind picks up, as if, like some cetacean Mary Poppins, a change in the weather summons their magical appearance. One scientist reasons that the gymnasts may find it ‘more pleasurable or satisfying, or less painful, to slam the body on rough, rather than smooth, water’.

It seems likely that their aerobatics are an energetic means of communication–advertisements of physical power and presence, telling other whales, ‘Here I am,’ and ‘Aren’t I splendid?’ But when you see a whale leap out of the water like a giant penguin, your first thought is that it looks fun. The fact that calves and young whales are more prone to breach reinforces this idea. The whales may be merely playing, like the boys who dive off Provincetown’s Macmillan Wharf, placing implicit trust in their immortality as they hurl themselves from one medium to the other. Or perhaps they pity us for our enslavement to gravity, allowing us a glimpse of their true nature by rising out of the ocean to reveal their majesty.

Seeing whales in the wild seemed to turn me back into a boy. I remembered what it was that fascinated me about these outlandish animals: their sheer variety, their wildly differing shapes and sizes; a satisfying set to be collected like bubble-gum cards, a catalogue of complexity and colour: from the tiny harbour porpoise to the great rorquals–from the Scandinavian for reed or furrowed whale, a reference to their ridged bellies–and the mysterious sperm whale, a tiny model of which I found in my sister’s toy box, still perched on its own plastic wave. It was as if the watery world I feared was restocked with friendly creatures, an international tribe of global roamers; as discrete and wide-ranging as birds, yet all of a type. This was what appealed to me: their completeness, as opposed to our separateness, for all that we are mammals together. They are a tidy whole; we are in disarray.

Cetaceans–from the Greek ketos for sea monster–fall neatly into two suborders. The toothed odontocetes–seventy-one species of porpoises, river and ocean dolphins, beaked whales, orcas and sperm whales–feed on fish and squid. The mysticetes or moustached whales–of which there are at least fourteen species–filter their diet of plankton and smaller fish through their baleen.

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The bizarre nature of baleen seems to underline the otherness of the whale–one that begins in the womb. Although mysticete fœtuses have teeth buds, these are resorbed into their jaws before being born, to be replaced by sprouts of fibrous protein called keratin, the same material that furnishes humans with their fingernails. These long flat slats form pliable plates which line their gums in a great horseshoe shape, smooth edges outwards. They are continually growing, and are teased into fringes at their extremities by the constant play of the animal’s tongue. Swallowing swimming pools of water–so greedily that they actually disarticulate their jaws to maximize their intake–baleen whales expand the ventral pleats in their bellies, then contract them to expel the surplus water and thereby catch their food in the bristles.

Toothed whales pursue their quarry through the ocean, fish by fish. Baleen whales are grazers and gulp mouthfuls at a time, from herring and sand eels to the tiny zooplankton which drift through the seas like animated dust. Here in the fertile waters of Cape Cod, it is the mysticetes that reign: from the elusive, relatively diminutive minke and the performing humpback, to the rotund right whale and the sleek fin whale–the second largest animal in the world, known as the greyhound of the sea, able to reach twenty knots or more.

After the blue whale, the finback, Balænoptera physalus, is also the loudest of any animal; and since sound travels further and faster through water, an American fin whale (if it cared about such things as nationalities) could be heard by its European counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic. Its mating call registers below the lowest level of human hearing; when it was first detected by scientists, they thought it was the noise of the ocean floor creaking. And in a few seconds, this immense creature–larger than any dinosaur–will pass beneath me. Lowering its broad, flattened snout, the whale dips below the keel in one imperceptible motion, as if powered by an invisible, silent motor.

There you stand…while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes.

The Mast-Head, Moby Dick

In that one motion, my entire presence is undermined. I feel, rather than see, this eighty-foot animal swimming below. Knowing it is there tugs at my gut, and something inside makes me want to plunge in and dive with it to some unfathomable depth where no one would ever find us.

The finback completes its manœuvre, emerging on the larboard side to breathe; unlike humans, whales must make a conscious decision to respire, otherwise their dives would be impossible. With all the force of its massive lungs, it expels exhausted air with the pneumatic sound of a finger held over a bicycle pump. It is a profound exhalation, rather than a spout of sea water; a visible condensation, like human breath on a frosty morning.

From its organ valve nostrils, the whale shoots out one hundred gallons of air in a second, each cloudy discharge creating its own rainbow in the sun; then it repeats the process again and again, charging its body with oxygen until it is ready to dive once more, an act of internal transformation. Collapsing its lungs–a special mucus prevents the organs sticking together–and folding in its ribs along joints on the sides of the body, all remaining air is driven into ‘dead spaces’ within the whale’s skull. This technique, and the lack of nitrogen in its bloodstream and air in its bones, prevents the animal from suffering the bends. More subtle than any sub-marine, the whale is a miracle of marine engineering.

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With a last plosive whoosh as it fills its lungs, the finback shoots out a mixture of air and salt water and a little whale phlegm, its shiny blowholes closing in an airlock as it prepares to dive. The spume hits my face like a fishy atomizer. I have been breathed upon, and it feels like a baptism.

It is difficult not to address whales in romantic terms. I have seen grown men cry when they see their first whale. And while it is a mistake to anthropomorphize animals merely because they are big or small or cute or clever, it is only human to do so, because we are human, and they are not. It is sometimes the only way we can come to an understanding of them.

Nothing else represents life on such a scale. Seeing a whale is not like seeing a sparrow in a city tree, or a cat crossing the street. It is not even like seeing a giraffe, dawdling on the African veldt, batting its glamorous eyes in the dust. Whales exist beyond the normal, beyond what we expect to see in our daily lives. They are not so much animal as geographical; if they did not move, it would be difficult to believe they were alive at all. In their size–their very construction–they are antidotes to our lives lived in uncompromising cities. Perhaps that’s why I was so affected by seeing them at this point in my life: I was ready to witness whales, to believe in them. I had come looking for something, and I had found it.

Here was an animal close to me as a living creature–one that shared my heart and lungs, my mammalian qualities–but which at the same time was possessed of a supernatural physicality. Whales are visible markers of the ocean life we cannot see; without them, the sea might as well be empty for all we know. Yet they are entirely mutable, dreamlike because they exist in another world, because they look like we feel as we float in our dreams. Perhaps, without our projections, they would be merely another species, another of God’s creation (although, of course, some might say that’s just another projection in itself). Nevertheless, we imbue whales with the improbability of their continued existence, and ours. We are terrestrial, earthbound, dependent on limited senses. Whales defy gravity, occupy other dimensions; they live in a medium that would overwhelm us, and which far exceeds our own earthly sway. They are Linnæan-classified aliens following invisible magnetic fields, seeing through sound and hearing through their bodies, moving through a world we know nothing about. They are animals before the Fall, innocent of sin.

But they also have bad breath, and shit reddish water. They eat day and night without discretion. They are super-sized animals, ‘charismatic megafauna’ in the zoologists’ dismissive phrase. They cannot, like the old joke, be weighed at a whale weigh-station, although they once were placed on scales in pieces, like legs of lamb. Out of their element, they collapse under their own weight, lacking limbs to support themselves, pathetically incapable of self-preservation despite, or because of, their great size. (One soon runs out of superlatives when writing about whales.) For all their physical reality, they cannot be encompassed, or even easily described. We may stand around in awe and pick apart their carcases, but in the end all we are left with to show for our curiosity are bones which give little clue to the true shape of their living owners.

Whales existed before man, but they have been known to us only for two or three generations: until the invention of underwater photography, we hardly knew what they looked like. It was only after we had seen the Earth from orbiting spaceships that the first free-swimming whale was photographed underwater. The first underwater film of sperm whales, off the coast of Sri Lanka, was not taken until 1984; our images of these huge placid creatures moving gracefully and silently through the ocean are more recent than the use of personal computers. We knew what the world looked like before we knew what the whale looked like. Even now there are beaked whales, or ziphiids, known only from bones washed up on remote beaches–esoteric, deep-sea animals with strange markings which biologists have never seen alive or dead, so little studied that their status is ‘data deficient’. New cetaceans are still being identified in the twenty-first century, and we would do well to remember that the world harbours animals bigger than ourselves, which we have yet to see; that not everything is catalogued and claimed and digitalized. That in the oceans great whales swim unnamed by man.

In December 2004, the New York Times reported on the publication of an obscure scientific paper. Twelve Years of Tracking 52-Hz Whale Calls From a Unique Source in the North Pacific was the result of research on a whale cruising from California to the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, ‘calling out with a voice unlike any other whale’s, and getting no response’.

‘The call, possibly a mating signal, suggests that the animal lives in total, and undesired, isolation.’ The sound had been tracked for more than a decade, and in that time its timbre deepened, suggesting that the whale was still maturing. One scientist thought it might be ‘miswired, broadcasting on the wrong frequency but listening on the right one’ another considered that the caller could be the miscegenic result of a liaison between a blue whale and another species, ‘and hence truly alone of its kind’.

Such stories seem to tug at our hearts because we cannot help but invest emotion in these paradoxical animals. They feed on the tiniest organisms–whales have to be big to swallow such huge quantities–yet they need to eat large amounts to sustain their size. Humpbacks, for instance, eat a ton of fish a day, mostly sand eels which, with their salt-excreting glands, are full of fresh water and therefore sate the animals’ thirst. Whales might live in the world’s great bodies of water, but they can never drink.

Delicately attuned to their surroundings, whales announce their presence in sonar pulses; seeing in sound, they diagnose the condition of a world from which we are insulated by our ignorance. As products of a different branch of evolutionary selection, they appear to have arrived at a superior way of being. The open ocean, without barriers and with a ready supply of food, is an excellent medium for the evolution of such huge, long-lived and intelligent animals; an environment in which communication and socializing take the place of material culture. Theirs is a landless race, free from mortgages and fossil fuel, unconstrained by borders or want, content merely to sing and sleep and eat and die.

It has taken us almost all our existence to come close to the true nature of the whale; only in the last few decades have we come to realize what the whale might be. In the long view of history, it will seem a remarkable turn-around: that a century that began by actively hunting whales ended by passively watching them. Animals, too, have a history–although one we can know only a tiny part of–and while modern science has demystified the whale whilst revealing its true wonders, our attitudes to whales also changed when we came to see them close-up. When, in effect, they became mediated, in photographs, on film, on television, part of our public discourse.

For the modern world, the whale is a symbol of innocence in an age of threat. It is an animal out of Genesis, a ‘myth of the fifth morning’, in Mary Oliver’s poem, both childlike and reproving. History, on the other hand, saw peril in the great fish that swallowed Jonah, or on which Sinbad found himself, a gigantic whale ‘on whose back the sands have settled and trees have grown since the world was young!’ The ancient writer Lucian told of a whale one hundred and fifty miles long in which was contained an entire nation and men who believed themselves to be dead, years after they were first engulfed. The beast that attacked Andromeda, and which was slain by Perseus, was believed to be a whale. Cetus was sent by Poseidon to consume the young of Ethiopia, only to be turned into a huge rock when it looked at the Medusa–a celestial myth re-enacted each autumn as the whale constellation rears over the southern horizon.

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Although D.H. Lawrence would declare that ‘Jesus, the Redeemer, was Cetus, Leviathan. And all the Christians all his little fishes’, to the Christian era, the whale was the very shape of the Beast of Revelation. In the sixteenth century the metaphysical poet John Donne wrote of a monstrous animal,

His ribs are pillars, and his high arch’d roofe

Of barke that blunts best steele, is thunder-proofe

while a continent away in the New World, North-Western American Indians believed that the giant waves that carried away their villages were the backwash of battles between thunderbirds and whales. In the Hindu version of the flood, Vishnu assumes his first avatar in the shape of a great fish with a horn and tows Manu and his ark to safety, and followers of Islam contend that of the ten animals that will enter paradise, one is the whale that swallowed Jonah. Overwhelmingly, however, the modern whale exists in one great image, the looming shape of its most famous incarnation: Moby Dick.

And the angel of the LORD said to her, ‘Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael; because the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.’

Genesis 16:11–12

Like many people, I found the densely written chapters of Herman Melville’s book difficult to read. I was defeated by its size and scale, by its ambition. It was as incomprehensible as the whale itself. Over the years I’d pick up the book, become engrossed, only for my attention to wander. But after my first visit to New England, I looked at it again; just as I was ready to see whales, I was ready to read Moby-Dick.

Perhaps it was the solace I’d found in reading Billy Budd, Sailor, & Other Stories during the endless hours of a transatlantic flight when, despite the darkened cabin and everyone else around me cocooned like larvæ in thin airline blankets, my own eyes resolutely refused to remain shut. The yellowing pages of a 1970s Penguin edition–bought when I was at college in London, studying English literature–seemed somehow consoling with their tales of travel in less constrained times, especially the elegiac story of the Handsome Sailor, a boy fated to die for sins not his own. Or perhaps it was the enigma of the author himself that intrigued me, a man who lived through an American century which he foretold, yet who died forgotten at its end.

Published in the middle of that century, in 1851–four years after Wuthering Heights, the only novel to rival its mysterious narrative power–Moby-Dick drew on Melville’s own experiences of a whaling voyage ten years before. The book begins with a startling, modern abruptness, launching itself on the reader like a rushing wave with the most evocative opening line of any work of fiction:

Call me Ishmael.

From this deliberately equivocal declaration–is this our hero’s real name, or merely a convenient disguise?–and its biblical overtones, we follow the rootless young man from Manhattan, where he has become so tired of life that he feels murderous, even suicidal, to his chosen refuge, the sea. From New Bedford, Ishmael sails around the world in pursuit of whales. His intentions are both poetic and prosaic: ‘I always go to sea as a sailor,’ he says wryly, ‘because they made a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay a passenger a single penny that I ever heard of.’

For his half-demented, peg-legged captain, Ahab, however, the voyage of the Pequod is an extended act of vengeance against a monstrous sperm whale: a terrifying, toothed creature of the deep ocean, rather than the placid baleen whale of coastal waters. This is the beast that dismasted Ahab, and which will in time take the rest of him, too. Even in this new industrial century, man still feared the elements of nature; and as the wild Yorkshire heath is itself a character in Emily Brontë’s book, so for Melville the whale was the unholy instrument of fate. Not for nothing is Ahab warned by the mad prophet Gabriel of the passing ship, Jeroboam, that the White Whale is ‘the Shaker God incarnate’. Jonah was saved by the whale for God’s work; Ahab is destroyed by the devil’s. Only Ishmael survives as ‘another orphan’, an emblem of martyrdom and rebirth, for a man must lose his life to save it.

Moby-Dick surpasses all other books because it is utterly unlike any other. It stands outside itself from the start, with its introductory list of historical quotations pertaining to the whale, as gathered by Ishmael’s ‘sub-sub-librarian’ and from there it moves through eccentric taxonomical descriptions as Melville attempts to capture his subject even as his hunters sought to harpoon it. Sidestepping his own narrative even as he delivers it, Ishmael almost wilfully and continually interrupts the reader with diversions and digressions, pulling him aside to address him with hell-fire sermons or musical interludes, with anatomical allegories or sensual dissertations on spermaceti oil.

In chapter after chapter, Melville teases out new legends to encircle the world and the whale. He creates a new family of men bent in pursuit of the whale, and a new kind of existence, culled from the lives he himself witnessed. Out of the oily, grimy labour of whaling, he forges a sterling heroism. In doing so, he melds his experience at sea with his dark view of the world and the nature of good and evil itself, seeing the future of his nation through his immaculate yet blasphemous creation, as if the whale were an American Sibyl of the new age.

Now, as I came to it again, I saw that Moby-Dick is a book made mythic by the whale, as much as it made a myth of the whale in turn. It is the literary mechanism by which we see the whale, the default evocation of anything whalish–from newspaper cartoons and children’s books to fish and chip shops and porn stars. Few could have predicted such an outcome for this eccentric work, least of all its author. Moby-Dick failed to sell out its first edition, and was almost entirely ignored in Melville’s lifetime. It took a new century for its qualities to be appreciated. In 1921 Viola Meynell declared that ‘to read it and absorb it is the crown of one’s reading life’, and wrote of its author, ‘His fame may still be restricted, but it is intense, for to know him is to be partly made of him for ever.’ (She also noted that J.M. Barrie invented Captain Hook out of Ahab, and his pursuant, time-ticking crocodile from the White Whale.) Two years later, in his extraordinary collection of rhetorical essays, D.H. Lawrence wrote: ‘He was a futurist long before futurism found paint…a mystic and an idealist’, author of ‘one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism’.

Moby-Dick became the great American novel retrospectively. It also became a kind of bible, a book to be read two pages at a time, a transcendental text. Each time I read it, it is as if I am reading it for the first time. I study my tiny edition as I ride on the Tube, as intently as the veiled woman next to me reads her Koran. Every day I am reminded that it is part of our collective imagination: from newspaper leaders that evoke Ahab in the pursuit of the war on terror, to the ubiquitous chain of coffee-shops named after the Pequod’s first mate, Starbuck, where customers sip to a soundtrack generated by a great-nephew of the author, Richard Melville Hall, better known as Moby.

Melville’s White Whale is far from the comforting anthropomorphism of the smiling dolphin and the performing orca, from Flipper to Free Willy, or the singing humpback and the ‘Save the Whale’ campaign–all carriers, in their own way, of our own guilt. Rather, Moby Dick’s ominous shape and uncanny pallor, as seen through Ahab’s eyes, represents the Leviathan of the Apocalypse, an avenging angel with a crooked jaw, hung with harpoons from the futile attempts of other hunters. This whale might as well be a dragon as a real animal, with Ahab as his would-be slayer.

The age of whaling brought man into close contact with these animals–never closer, before or since. The whale represented money, food, livelihood, trade. But it also meant something darker, more metaphysical, by virtue of the fact that men risked their lives to hunt it. The whale was the future, the present and the past, all in one; the destiny of man as much as the destiny of another species. It offered dominion, wealth and power, even as it represented death and disaster, as men met the monster eye to eye, flimsy boat to sinewy flukes, and often died in the process. More than anyone has realized, perhaps, the modern world was built upon the whale. What was at stake was the future of civilization, in the most brutal meeting of man and nature since history began. And as the animals paid for the encounter in their near extinction, so we must ask what price we paid in our souls. How have we moved so far from one notion of the whale to the other, in such a short space of time?

When I close my eyes, I see those massive animals swimming in and out of my vision, into the blue-black below; the same creatures that came to obsess Melville’s ambiguous narrator, ‘and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale’. 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. Like Ishmael, I was drawn back to the sea; wary of what lay below, yet forever intrigued by it, too.

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Berkshire Atheneum