'The Whale,' A Hunt For The Mysterious Beasts Of The Deep Philip Hoare's book, The Whale, is an exploration of the role that the great animals have played in human history, from Moby-Dick to lamp oil to the author's own close encounter with a curious female sperm whale.
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A Hunt For The Mysterious Beasts Of The Deep

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A Hunt For The Mysterious Beasts Of The Deep

A Hunt For The Mysterious Beasts Of The Deep

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GUY RAZ, host:

When he was a kid in the early 1970s, British writer Philip Hoare went to see Ramu the Whale perform at the Windsor Safari Park, just outside London. Ramu was an orca, captured a few years earlier, and by then trained to entertain.

Mr.�PHILIP HOARE (Author, "The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea"): The whale went through his routine, responding to his trainers' demands like a lapdog. When he leapt in the air and landed with a splash, soaking the thrilled, ringside audience at this orca circus, it was as if he's been beaten back by his captivity, even as his proud dorsal fin flopped impotently over his back.

RAZ: Though captive whales will later disturb Philip Hoare, that first encounter sparked a lifelong obsession with these mammals and with the book "Moby Dick." And for five years, Hoare traveled from New Bedford in Massachusetts to Nantucket on to Liverpool and beyond to trace the path taken by that book's narrator, Ishmael.

The result is "The Whale." It's a book that's part travelogue, part literary critique and part meditation on these extraordinary, and once-exploited, creatures.

Mr.�HOARE: When I was a boy, I ate whale oil margarine. My mother wore makeup made with whale oil. You know, people played tennis with rackets strung with whale guts, you know, wore shoes tanned with whale oil as well. So up until the '60s, certainly in Britain, whales were used as a resource.

RAZ: How did you decide to use the story of "Moby Dick" as a kind of a device to tell the story of whales?

Mr.�HOARE: Well, like many people, I tried to read "Moby Dick" and didn't get very far. I had to take two or three runs at it before I actually got through it, and really, I suppose, like Melville, I felt, you know, I just became so obsessed with the notion of the whale and the fact that it represents this huge paradox: It's the world's greatest animal, hugest animal, and yet, we hardly ever see it. When we do, we just see this kind of jigsaw component a fluke or a dorsal fin or a pectoral fin. We can never put this jigsaw puzzle together, and that's what I was trying to do.

RAZ: Philip Hoare, you start the narrative in this book in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which at one time was the center, or a center of global whaling.

Mr.�HOARE: Well, I mean, New Bedford I think is an amazing place. I mean, it was the richest city in America during the height of the whaling boom. You must remember that before the invention, or rather the discovery, of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859, the industrial revolution was lit and lubricated by the oil of whales.

So, you know, that's where street-lighting came from. That's where candles, you know, came from, that's where, you know, machines were lubricated from. So it had a tremendous importance in the early industrial world.

And that's why, also, whaling became important for America because it was the first sort of global economic reach of the new republic.

RAZ: I was struck by some of the facts in the book, that the heart of a blue whale is the size of a car, for example, that the humpback whale follows the longest I didn't know this the longest annual migration of any mammal, and yet, you write that we actually don't know a whole lot about whales.

Mr.�HOARE: Oh, you know, I mean, if you were to measure whale science on a scale of one to 10, we're at .11 percent, you know? We just are in our infancy of our understanding of these creatures, partly because up until very recently, you know, our relationship was entirely as a resource.

They were an industry. They fed and oiled our world. So, you know, the notion of, you know, seeing them as a natural wonder is a very recent thing in a way. I mean, it really started in the 1960s with the whole sort of humpback song, which was recorded by Roger Payne, the song of the humpback whale, which sort of made the album charts. And so, you know, we've moved very quickly in that way, from

RAZ: I mean, we walked on I mean, man walked on the moon before we actually photographed whales living underwater.

Mr.�HOARE: Well, certainly sperm whales, no one had filmed a sperm whale underwater at all until long after we'd landed on the moon. You know, we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the bottom of the sea.

It's so impossible to actually study a whale like the sperm whale, which is the deepest-diving whale. It dives for a mile. It can stay down for two hours. We don't even know how it feeds.

You know, sperm whales have huge teeth, canine, 42 different canine in its lowest jaw, but the females don't have those teeth. So those teeth aren't used for feeding. So, even something as simple as how a sperm whale feeds, we don't know the answer.

RAZ: How much do you think the way we think about, particularly about sperm whales today, comes from Melville's book?

Mr.�HOARE: We're kind of haunted by "Moby Dick," and it's odd because one of the themes of Melville's book is that Ahab is a demented man because he's impugning evil to an animal, which cannot possibly think in those terms.

And yet, you know, we live with this notion, you know, still of the whale as being a ferocious creature, of a sperm whale being a ferocious creature.

I've been in the water with sperm whales. They are the most timid animals. They are freaked out by a dolphin. They are not these leviathans of yore. They are an eternal paradox, and that's why for artists, for writers, scientists, everyone, they just sort of represent this extraordinary enigma.

RAZ: As you say, you actually swam with sperm whales in the Azores, and of course, this is the mythical whale described by Melville. What was it like to actually be in the water with these enormous mammals?

Mr.�HOARE: The single most extraordinary moment in my life. I was we I must hasten to add I was licensed by the Azorean government to do this. It's not something I would recommend.

But I was I got in the water. I was snorkeling towards this pod of 12 mostly female sperm whales. I mean, these are big creatures, get up to 50-foot long, and as I swam to them, one of them detached from the pod and came swimming toward me, at which point I lost control of my bodily functions.

RAZ: I mean, you were terrified.

Mr.�HOARE: I was utterly terrified, utterly terrified. It was like having a granite cliff swimming towards you. And I thought that the whale was going to either swallow me or swim into me because a sperm whale's vision is very limited.

At that moment, I felt, I didn't hear, I felt its echolocation moving through my skeleton, through my sternum, through my skull, creating a three-dimensional sound picture of me in its head. I physically felt that.

It was the most incredible feeling. And then at the last moment, as it came as close to me as, you know, this microphone is, it turned and looked at me directly in the eye, and then it dove from this blue into the black below - I mean, the waters there are three miles deep - and just vanished.

RAZ: That's an amazing culmination of a story that begins when you actually learn how to swim as an adult, to this moment, where you are in the water with these creatures.

Mr.�HOARE: Well, from my deep, childhood fear of water. I mean - as you say, I didn't learn to swim until I was 25, and, you know, I had recurring nightmares about sea monsters and whales and things. And so the writing of the book was a kind of confrontation of my own fears, in a way, and of the general fears and apprehensions and anxieties we have about water and about what it contains.

RAZ: Over the sort of the course of researching this book, the five years that you spent sort of following in the footsteps of Ishmael and learning about whales, did it sort of change some of your assumptions about both about the book and about the animal you were studying?

Mr.�HOARE: Oh definitely. I mean, I think I started out with quite an objective viewpoint. In fact, one of the things I wanted to do is portray exactly why sort of young men went on these extraordinary, five-long-year voyages off to sort of hunt these whales and try and explain something from the human side point of view.

But the more I was confronted with the physical reality of these creatures, the more I felt you know, I mean, it's like that moment when I got in the water with the sperm whale, I actually felt I wanted to apologize to it, which is not to come over all sort of new-agey and whatever, but it's you know, you just realize what these creatures have suffered at the hands of man, that they have always been the losers, you know, and, you know, whatever the political or, you know, economic circumstances, it's the whale that always loses out.

And, you know, and they are an ecological barometer, and I think we ignore their fate at our peril.

RAZ: That's Philip Hoare. His new book is called "The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Deep."

Philip Hoare, thank you so much.

Mr.�HOARE: Thank you.

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