Sun, Jan 21, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Our ongoing fascination with whales

From Moby Dick to the Thames bottlenose, whales have captured the human imagination like almost no other animal

By Stephen Moss  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Monster flop

The book, now considered one of the greatest in the language, was a monster flop, and poor Melville was eventually forced to give up writing and become a customs inspector.

Melville recognized how much he had bitten off -- how uncontrollable in its extent his whale of a book was likely to be.

"From his mighty bulk the whale affords a most congenial theme whereon to enlarge, amplify, and generally expatiate," he wrote at the beginning of chapter 104. "Would you, you could not compress him."

In his 1988 book Whale Nation, Heathcote Williams attempted a different sort of epic -- a long love letter in poetry to the whale. He writes lyrically of their love of games -- "Whales play. For three times as long as they spend searching for food: Delicate, involved games, with floating seabirds' feathers, blown high into the air." -- and wittily of their delight in sex: "In whales the male member is erected voluntarily, unsheathed from within deep abdominal folds, erected, and then collapsed and concealed again, by an act of will. Unlike in man, where it has an unseasonal, disconnected life of its own. And the blue whale's penis is nine feet long, which may require additional self-control."

Whale Nation, however, is also a hate letter to humankind -- or at least that portion of it that sought (perhaps still seeks) the destruction of the whale. If, for Melville, writing in whaling's pre-industrial age, hunter and hunted are joined together in a dance of death that ends in a moment of tranquillity, a century later destruction had been mechanized. There is no beauty -- only brutality. Ahab's insane, quasi-religious pursuit had become, in Williams' words: "An essential component of our expanding economy."

His description of explosive harpoons explains why, in the 1970s, when whales were threatened with extinction, some conservationists risked their lives confronting whaling ships: "At the end of the 1.5m-long steel harpoon, a small serrated cup prevents ricochet. The tip strikes, followed by a time-fused charge exploding three seconds later, splintering and lacerating the harpoon's way into the whale's side. Next to the grenade, four barbed flanges pivot on hinges, and as the whale struggles, the strain on the rope snaps the barbs open: They fly out, ripping into the lungs and inner organs, embedding the harpoon inside the whale, anchoring her body."

Williams' lyricism and anger -- the sense of man usurping nature, anchoring this most mobile of creatures -- find an echo in the description on Canadian conservationist Paul Watson's Web site of how, in the mid 1970s, he came to found the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to wage war on the whalers.

"In 1975, Watson served as first officer under Captain John Cormack on the [Greenpeace] voyage to confront the Soviet whaling fleet ... During this confrontation with the Russian whaler, a harpooned and dying sperm whale loomed over Paul's small boat. Paul recognized a flicker of understanding in the dying whale's eye. He felt that the whale knew what they were trying to do. He watched as the magnificent leviathan heaved its body away from his boat, slipped beneath the waves and died. A few seconds of looking into this dying whale's eye changed his life for ever," the description says.

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