Web edition: June 4, 2010
Print edition: June 19, 2010; Vol.177 #13 (p. 30)
People impressed by the size of dinosaurs should be really enthralled by whales: These aquatic mammals include the heftiest creatures ever to have lived, and they still share the planet with us.
In his chronicle of the leviathans, British biographer Philip Hoare tells both of his childhood fascination with whales and his recent snorkeling among them. Part travelogue and part history lesson, the book is peppered with facts about all sorts of cetaceans, from diminutive porpoises and unicorn-horned narwhals to massive blue whales.
But the biggest slice of this literary and artistic tour of the cetacean world is dedicated to the sperm whale, the largest predator ever to have roamed the Earth, and to the whaling industry that pursued these beasts and inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. Before the discovery and widespread use of petroleum and natural gas, oil from sperm whales lit major cities from London to New York, making the whaling port of New Bedford, Mass., the richest city in America for a while.
By weaving literary threads with excerpts from the unpublished journals of 19th century whalers, Hoare takes readers on a virtual ride in whale boats of old. From there, he chronicles the birth of the conservation movement and humans’ shifting relationship
with whales. The creatures remain mysterious, he notes — after all, people saw Earth from space before underwater photography revealed whales in their habitat.