What Lies Beneath
By NATHANIEL PHILBRICK
In Search of the Giants of the Sea
By Philip Hoare
Illustrated. 453 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99
“Moby-Dick” is often viewed as a singularly American creation. Part of the beguiling genius of “The Whale,” a rhapsodic meditation on all things cetacean, is that Philip Hoare so suggestively explores the English origins of Herman Melville’s masterpiece while providing his own quirky, often revelatory take on the more familiar aspects of the novel. But “The Whale” is about much more than the literary sources of “Moby-Dick.” Always in the foreground of Hoare’s narrative is the whale itself, a creature that haunts and fascinates him as he travels to old whaling ports in both Britain and America, where he speaks with cetologists, naturalists, museum curators and former whalers on a quest to understand the whale, the cosmos and himself.
At least to the human eye, a sperm whale is a profoundly weird-looking animal, and Hoare makes the weirdness seem somehow familiar. The pale interior of the whale’s mouth “glows like a half-open fridge.” When the whale closes its mouth, the teeth of its lower jaw “fit,” Hoare informs us, “into its toothless upper mandible like pins in an electrical socket.” Hoare is always on the lookout for the revealing detail. When he visits the whaling museum in New Bedford, Mass., he notices that the recently installed skeleton of a whale “incontinently . . . drips oil, like sap from a newly cut conifer.” He also has a finely tuned sense of perspective and pacing. As we read about how the six-man crew of a 19th-century whaleboat pursued its prey, we suddenly find ourselves underwater. “A mile below, the whale might be scooping up squid in the silent depths,” Hoare writes, “unaware of the danger that lurked above, the shapes that sculled over the ceiling of its world.”
Hoare is particularly insightful about Melville’s relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author whose influence turned what might have been, in Hoare’s words, “an exercise in propaganda for the American whaling industry” into “a warning to all mankind of its own evil.” It is a fascinating process to contemplate, how a 31-year-old former teacher and whaleman came to write a book “that saw into the future even as it looked into the past.” For a few brief months, Melville was in that unsustainable zone of miraculous creation, channeling a text that is as close to scripture as an American novelist is likely to write. “Each time I read it,” Hoare insists, “it is as if I am reading it for the first time.”
In one of the more entertaining episodes of “The Whale,” Hoare ventures to Cape Cod to trace Henry David Thoreau’s engagement with that region’s wave-battered coast. In Provincetown, he finds himself in a boat with the redoubtable and magnificently named Stormy Mayo, a Cape Codder who has devoted his life to studying and protecting the 350 to 400 remaining Atlantic right whales. Hoare describes how Mayo — wearing a hockey mask and a helmet equipped with a video camera — tries to untangle right whales from fishing nets. When Hoare finally sees a right whale for the first time, he is overwhelmed not by wonder but by the smell, which he describes as “somewhere between a cow’s fart and a fishy wharf.”
It is near the British whaling port of Hull in East Yorkshire, on the banks of the Humber River, that Hoare’s pilgrimage leads him to the “English Anchor” of “Moby-Dick.” In the great hall of the expansive manor house Burton Constable, Hoare comes face to face with “the only physical relics of Melville’s book”: pieces of the skeleton described by Thomas Beale in “The Natural History of the Sperm Whale.” Melville quoted relentlessly from Beale’s treatise, providing his own book with the factual ballast that kept it from being overwhelmed by its many literary influences, which in addition to Hawthorne included Shakespeare, Thomas Browne and a host of others.
Hoare provides a graphic account of whaling’s “historical crescendo” during the second half of the 20th century, when more than 72,000 whales were killed in a single year. Elsewhere he evokes a possible future in which the rising sea levels associated with global warming will allow the whale to become the planet’s dominant species “with only distant memories of the time when they were persecuted by beings whose greed proved to be their downfall.” As it turns out, whales have already ventured beyond this paltry planet. Unlike any other known substance, sperm whale oil works as a lubricant in the extraordinarily cold temperatures of outer space. “The Hubble space telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti,” Hoare writes, “seeing six billion years into the past.” But that’s not all. The scientists who fitted out the Voyager probe decided that the song of the humpback was the best way to greet any possible aliens. This means that long after all of us are gone, the call of the whale will be traveling out into the distant reaches of the universe.
Hoare is to “The Whale” what Ishmael is to “Moby-Dick”: the genial, deceptively complex narrator who reveals only those personal details that are essential to his narrative. Since this is a book about deep divers, Hoare starts with an account of his near birth within a submarine. His parents had just begun a tour of a naval sub tied up to the docks in Portsmouth, England, when his very pregnant mother felt her first contraction. “For a moment,” Hoare writes, “it seemed as though I was about to appear below the waterline.” As it turned out, Hoare was born not beneath the waves but at his parents’ home in nearby Southampton, the famous port to which he returns near the conclusion of the book to discover that his mother is approaching the end. After a night on a cot beside her hospital bed, he awakens in the early morning just as she ceases to breathe, “leaving me,” he writes in an evocation of Ishmael’s fate in the epilogue of “Moby-Dick,” “another orphan.”
In the end Hoare plunges into the amniotic waters surrounding the Azores, where he sees his first living sperm whale. As he snorkels beside the huge creature he can feel its sonarlike clicks resonating through his body. “My rib cage had become a sound box,” he writes. “The whale was creating its own picture of me in its head; . . . an outline of an alien in its world.” Coupled with the recognition of his own inherent strangeness is the realization that this is a female sperm whale and that there is “an invisible umbilical between us.” And so “The Whale” finishes where it began, in the midst of a birth at the surface of a deep and mysterious sea.