Whale watcher, enthusiast and writer Philip Hoare unpacks his love for the ‘barnacled angels’, and gives some insight into how they are presented in literature. The text below is an edited transcript of a podcast with journalist Georgina Godwin.
Where did your journey with whales begin?
I have been accused of being a whale stalker. I owe my obsession with the creatures to my friend John Waters, a film director, who has in the past (falsely) accused me of circulating ‘whale porn’. He reviewed my first book, a biography of [British socialite] Stephen Tennant, for the New York Times. When visiting him on the coast of New England, I discovered whales for the first time. Like all children are, I was interested in whales and dolphins. I love the idea of the sea being animated by these live, playful and incredibly intelligent animals.
This obsession was sparked by my first confrontation with a whale. It was off Cape Cod, and I had paid $12 to go on a boat, where I initially stood defiantly, saying ‘show me what you’ve got.’ Half an hour later, a 50-tonne, 50-foot humpback whale breached right in front of me – it was the most astonishing experience. The animal’s physical presence was enormous, yet it was also exquisitely beautiful. It hung there like a barnacled angel surrounded by a halo of diamond sea spray. There are no words to close the distance between ourselves and something like that – that sheer, extraordinary confrontation.
Tell me about Moby Dick
When you are arrogant enough to start to think about writing about whales, you always find yourself in the slipstream of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Published in 1851, Moby Dick is the be-all and end-all of books about whales. It created a myth of the whale, and made us all quite scared of this toothed animal, which bites off Captain Ahab’s leg before he goes on to pursue, harpoon and kill it.
The book is about so many other things, though, and is freighted with symbolism. It is no coincidence the whale is a great white whale, appearing at a time during a big debate about slavery. There’s also a great deal of homo-eroticism, subversion and humour. Principally, the problem with Moby Dick is that, like the whale, it’s enormous. There are 136 chapters of apparently impenetrable prose.
Where did the idea of the Big Read come from?
With the Moby Dick Big Read, an initiative which I created with a friend of mine, artist Angela Cockayne, the idea was to read the book to audiences. It became like a bedtime story, but with all sorts of people reading it, from David Attenborough, Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry, to school boys, sailors and fishermen. It was a great egalitarian sort of project, rather like the ship of fools that goes in pursuit of Moby Dick itself.
There is something cultish about the book. It’s unique and took me three attempts before I was actually able to finish it, but, when I did, it almost became a holy book for me. I read a chapter a day. The reason it works as an online reading is that each of the chapters is, in itself, a story. D. H. Lawrence wrote in 1921 that Melville was 'a futurist before futurism' and his book is still exploding with effect and power now.
Tell me about your book Leviathan, or the Whale
It came from my search for the story behind the whale itself, and what it means to us. What interests me is the relationship between human and natural history, and the worrying ground in between where the two forces meet.
In the 20th century, three million whales were killed for human consumption – their bones ground up for rose fertiliser, into dog food, and their oil used to run watches. The scale of whale exploitation was and continues to be large, and the biomass that we took out of the ocean in the last century is beyond compare. Now, we tend to look at whales as benevolent, benign emblems of a threatened earth, in a time when the earth is ironically threatened by the huge consumption of mineral oil.
Tell me about your latest book, The Sea Inside
In truth, it’s an exploration of islands. I leap from the Isle of White to the Azores, Tasmania, Sri Lanka, and New Zealand. I talk about the myths and legends that the story conjures up. Melville spoke about the ocean’s skin and what lies beneath it, and this ties into a great Freudian fear that we all have of the ocean and what’s below the surface. I didn’t learn to swim until I was 25, because I was terrified of the sea, of drowning, and the big creatures below the surface that could get me. Now, I swim every day, even this morning, in the dark, at 05.00.
What a lot of people don’t think of is that sperm whales are the world’s biggest predators. They’re not like blue whales with baleen in their mouths. They have the biggest teeth in the animal kingdom, and have occasionally gone after human beings. I have swum with them off the Azores, and it was scary. In those same waters, there are also great white sharks and giant squid – it’s a very different world under the sea.
In The Sea Inside, I talk about the notion that we, as humans, have the arrogance to believe that we control the world, and that the earth is our domain. Think about it, though: how slender a covering of the earth’s surface do we occupy on land, compared to the depth and sheer volume of the ocean? Three quarters of the world’s surface is water, and in some places, it is as deep as 12 kilometres. It’s this other universe that is one of the last frontiers. It’s believed that we have only discovered a quarter of the species in the ocean. It’s amazing when you think about it. It provides the oxygen we breathe, a lot of the food we eat, and a conduit for our trade.
At the same time, the ocean is becoming a sink for our sins, covered in a skin that we can’t look through. The reason global warming isn’t completely rampaging its way through our climate is that the ocean has become a sink for that heat, it absorbs it. We can dump nuclear fission, over-fish and ignore it in a way that, if we fly above it in a plane, we barely look out the window at the magnificent expanse below.
Where have you watched whales before, and what makes them so special?
I've seen whales in many oceans from the Atlantic, to the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and it's extraordinary–there are 85 different species. I have become the whale-watching equivalent of a train spotter, collecting species and ticking them off. I can also appreciate the remarkability of the way that these animals occupy the universe. Sperm whales, among others, communicate with sonar clicks, which can travel up to thousands of miles. A whale can make a sound on one side of the Atlantic, and be heard by another whale on the other side of the ocean.
We have no idea what kind of existence they are living. They have huge brains and are socially highly developed, sentient and emotional animals. Scientists now agree that whales have a culture, which is passed down through the matrilineal line, as most whales are matriarchal. Aside from humans, they are the only animals that go through menopause. Whales are extraordinary animals, whose complexity we have still not encompassed.
Philip Hoare is part of a delegation of UK writers attending the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico from 28 November to 6 December 2015, sent by the British Council as part of the UK Mexico Year of Cultural Exchange.