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Page last updated at 11:52 GMT, Thursday, 18 September 2008 12:52 UK

In search of Moby-Dick

Humpback whale with gulls

From a commodity hunted for its bone and blubber to a potent symbol of the environment, the whale has long held value. And the 150-year-old novel Moby-Dick is remarkably prescient about its fate, says writer Philip Hoare.

The whale is perhaps the most mysterious animal known to man. For centuries it inspired awe and fear, and was hunted for its oil, blubber and whalebone. Now it is a symbol of an ecological threat, a barometer for a world out of kilter.

It is even more remarkable that the transition from an age of whale-hunting to an era of whale-watching has happened within living memory.

Ancient myth regarded the whale as an uncanny monster, a creature beyond comprehension. A whale might swallow a single human being, such as Jonah, or an entire city, as one Greek myth imagined. The poet William Blake wrote of a terrifying vision, "the head of Leviathan, his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple like those on a tyger's forehead... advancing towards us with all the fury of a spiritual existence".

Arena: The Hunt for Moby-Dick is on BBC Two on 20 September at 2230 BST
And Whale Night is on BBC Four on 21 Sept at 1930 BST
Or catch up on the BBC iPlayer

But ever since the early Basque fishermen travelled as far as the coast of North America to hunt whales, humans also saw these animals as a source of wealth. When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed into Provincetown harbour, Cape Cod, in 1620, they saw hundreds of whales "playing hard by us, of which in that place, if we had instruments and means to take them, we might have made a rich return".

By the early 19th Century, Provincetown had become a profitable whaling port, with a fleet of 70 whale-ships. Ironically, it is now one of the world's great whale-watching spots. It was here that I saw my first whales in the wild.

I've seen grown men cry when they see their first whale. Nothing prepares you for the sight of a 50 foot, 50 ton humpback whale leaping out of the water - in behaviour known as breaching. For a brief moment, it is as if the animal has freed itself from gravity, and seems to hang there in the air before plunging back into the ocean with an almighty splash.


Philip Hoare watches humpback whales

Returning year after year to Provincetown, I have since become a volunteer for the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, helping identify individual humpbacks from the unique patterns on their tails, or flukes. This data allows the naturalists to determine the sex, breeding and migration patterns of the animals. It's a kind of whale census.


The United States may lead the way in the latest whale research, but it was also in the US that modern whaling began, on the island of Nantucket, as recorded by Herman Melville's famous novel. In Moby-Dick, the writer fantasises that the hunters of Nantucket slept with walruses and whales as their pillows. The island's Quaker captains assembled enormous fortunes from the whale.

Whaling continues for Japan
Japanese fishermen cut up whale meat

Melville himself served as a whaleman. The port of New Bedford from which he sailed in 1849 may be almost unknown today, but it was then was the richest city in America, rich on whale oil, a New England version of a Texan boom town.

Meville's sprawling, idiosyncratic novel, published in 1851, was extraordinarily forward-looking. The book used the whaling industry as an allegory of imperial power. Melville configured the crazed Captain Ahab - who goes in pursuit of the eerie White Whale which scythed off his leg, determined to wreak his revenge - as a symbol of obsessive evil.

If you had any doubt about its prescience, just read the last page of the first chapter of Moby-Dick, in which the writer satirises his own narrator's self-importance in mock newspaper headlines:

Grand contested Election for the Presidency of the United States

Indeed, modern political commentators have compared the war on terror and George W Bush's hunt for Osama Bin Laden to Ahab's impossible mission.

Only a few days after the 9/11 attacks, Edward Said wrote, "Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby-Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time."

Such madness is seen as one which endangers the hunter more than it does his prey. After all, as anyone who had made it to the end of Melville's long and digressive novel knows, it is the whale that wins.

And 150 years ago, Melville addressed the immortality of the whale in a chapter entitled Does The Whale's Magnitude Diminish? Will He Perish?

His conclusion was that it would not. "We account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin.

"In Noah's flood he despised Noah's ark; and if ever the world is to be flooded again, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies."

Melville seemed to envision our threatened world of rising temperatures and rising seas. But he also thought that the whale would survive the punitive cull of his age.

It is ironic that the hunting of whales actually reached its peak in the 20th Century. More whales died in 1951 - a century after the publication of Moby-Dick - than perished in 150 years of Yankee whaling. Yet with the institution of the worldwide ban on whaling, whales appear to have recovered. Blue whales now swim through the Irish Sea, and over the summer, humpbacks were taken off the list of endangered species. It seems Melville may have been proved right.

Close encounter

Melville was playing on ancient fears and myths of the whale.

Sperm whales in the Azores
Philip's view of the whales

My own mission is to find the truth behind our relationship with the whale, and I came closer to the object of my pursuit than I had ever thought possible.

In waters three miles deep, I swam towards a school of sperm whales. I've never been so terrified in my life. I could feel my heart beating in my ribcage.

Suddenly, one of the whales began to swim towards me. A sperm whale's eyes are set low on the side of its head. I was sure it could not see me. And it was coming closer. Then I began to feel - rather than hear - its echo-locating sonar in my chest. It was akin to being in an MRI scanner. Just in time it turned, and for a moment, we came eye to eye. Then it dived, perpendicularly, into the profound blue-black, and was gone.

What I learned that day is the vexed shared history between human and whale has yet to run its course. Even now, these creatures remain deeply mysterious. We still have a lot to learn about each other.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Exactly one year ago today, I was hugely honoured to experience (in the wild) a pod of Orcas who appeared from nowhere. One of these magnificent creatures swam right under my kayak and peered up to investigate from just a few feet below the surface - it was a voluntary move by the whale and that alone made it the most amazing experience of my life. In spite of the tremendous size of the Orca compared with my relatively small kayak, I never once felt threatened. I cannot rationalise how or why human beings still continue to believe that we have the right to butcher these creatures. Our ecosystem is so fragile, one day we will pay heavily for our lack of regard for other species.
Lee-Anne, London

Whales are the most majestic creatures in the world and how anyone could harpoon one defies imagination. I was 18 when I caught sight of a huge white whale and I was overcome with awe and I have never lost that sense of wonder at these creatures.
Professor Jonathan, Marylebone

I was always in awe of the sea since I read Moby-Dick as a kid and although I ended up as a computer programmer, the sea and what's in it still inspires me. I would love to swim with these creatures. I can only dream of what the experience would be like to see them up close. Hopefully the great news that they are starting to make a comeback will continue and before I meet my maker, I can get the opportunity to live my dream.
Bernard Geraghty, Ballymun, Dublin

Yet another creature put in harms way by the all powerful human. At least as a marine biologist I won't ever be out of a job, it would seem. There is still a long way to go regarding the banning of so-called scientific whaling by nations such as Japan and Iceland. And let's not forget fishing nets that are the demise of thousands of these (and other) animals. Do you know where you seafood comes from?
Kit, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The ocean as an environment and the whales as the mysterious creatures inhabiting it are both a majestic symbol of the grandeur and power of nature and make humans (finally) think in relative terms. I hope the day will come on time - before it is too late - that we all realis that we are part of all this; that our very survival, our economy, our spiritual wellbeing are strictly linked to nature.
Gianluca Serra, Florence, Italy

Out of all the animals on this planet we seem to be the only species that is causing wholesale damage and destruction to the world we live in. We deem to consider ourselves of higher intelligence compared to other animals yet we are the only ones who cannot live in harmony. Are we really of a higher intelligence to all other life on our planet?
Yasmin, London

When we as a species were ignorant of the sentience and intelligence of these beautiful creatures I believe hunting them was justified - their carcasses provided many useful materials that could not be reproduced synthetically at the time. Now we are aware of their sentience and intelligence and most of not all whale products can be readily synthesised the cab for whaling cannot be justified. Tradition is no reason or excuse. Tradition results when people can't think of anything better over the course of a few generations.
Oneeyedman, Kingdom of the Blind

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