Friday 18 August 2017

Cetaceans - the Other Intelligence

A Review of Philip Hoare, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

Probably one of the saddest contemporary books in natural history, The Whale relates how Homo sapiens, driven by a need to light his lamps and bulk out his womenfolk's skirts, hunted cetaceans. Despite the fact that cetaceans are possibly the nearest competitor to human intelligence in our world, the slaughter started with precious few attempts to understand them - except to understand how to kill them. 

If the UN Convention on the Crime of Genocide could be applied to cetaceans, as a species we'd pretty much stand guilty, for almost *all* of our knowledge of whales comes from hunting them to the brink of extinction and it has only been since the 1960s that this has more generally been agreed (Japanese and Norwegian whalers excepted) to be a rather bad idea. 

Whales are pretty weird by evolutionary standards, having walked out of the oceans at some point as smallish otter-like creatures, who at some point abandoned the shores and reverted to the waves, losing all but the vestiges of their newly-acquired limbs and fur. There are some sub-species of cetaceans that thankfully we have never even seen alive - knowing them only by the very rare washed-up corpse. Tragically, there is one whale that we know to be the last of its genus because its unique, haunting, lonesome whale-song has remained unanswered in the depths of the Bering Sea for decades. 

Amid this tragedy, however, Hoare brings a beautiful and intimate storytelling style that starts out as a exploration of why and how an unknown Yankee hack named Herman Melville (keen to challenge Nathaniel Hawthorne as author of "the great american novel" - a perennial obsession of obscure US writers, it seems) came to write Moby-Dick - along the way exploring how the tale of a real "great white whale" entranced and horrified 19th Century seafarers. 

Hoare spends time in Nantucket for which Basque whalers set out from the Bay of Biscay in at least the 16th Century - but by some early accounts way back in the 14th Century - to hunt their prey. I guess at least back then the whales had a better chance of survival than the whalers in their fragile boats. He tracks the development of whaling from a survivalist pursuit of meat to a vanity of scrimshawed teeth and whale-boned corsets, to a black-hearted massacre driven by the greed for oil, to a very belated turn to conscience and conservation.

Along the way, he also brushes up against some of the other denizens of the deep - in particular the arch nemesis (and tasty meal if its dinner-plate sized suckers come unstuck) of the sperm whale, the giant squid. This is the "kraken" of lore if at least one eyewitness account cited by Hoare is credible, of a giant squid running some 100ft long, alongside a ship under sail, though current scientific estimates put it at a mere 43ft maximum (or the larger females, that is). Then again, bear in mind that we know so little about them: the giant squid was photographed in the wild for the first time only in 2004.

It is often forgotten that whales are not only those monstrous leviathans of the abyss with car-sized hearts, but also include much smaller species including the "smiling" dolphin, the feared orca, and the narwhal - its tusk a single extruded tooth with thousands of nerve-endings that is more likely a navigational and mating tool than a weapon. Not that we should get all cute about cetaceans: Free Willie aside, even dolphin are smart, pack-hunting carnivores and are sometimes given to gang-banging (take that, you hippies!).

Yet for any of you who has held their breath as Sea Shepherd's vessels have clashed with Japanese whalers and factory ships, Hoare underlines that cetaceans are the transmitters of knowledge (if not "culture" as we narrowly understand it) to their their offspring, and the consummate navigators of the world beneath the waves that makes up most of our planet. When we are finally gone I hope that ours becomes a planet of the whales once again.