When Philip Hoare was just a boy growing up in Southampton, England, his father took him and his sisters to Windsor Safari Park where he watched dolphins jump through hoops and balance balls on their noses. After the performance, the pool was cleared out and in swam Ramu, “a killer whale—the orca, the apex predator of the ocean.” What happened next demoralized the young boy. “This proud animal went through the same routine—jumping through a hoop, balancing a ball on its beak, catching its reward of fish,” Hoare remembers. “It was, even to an ignorant young boy, a shameful spectacle.” Many years later, in 2001, Hoare witnessed his first whale in the wild off the coast of Cape Cod, and he was mesmerized. The experience set him on adventure following these massive mammals around the world. “It was these experiences which inspired my new book, The Sea Inside, which attempts to explain the extraordinary shared relationship between human history and natural history,” the author says. Philip Hoare will be speaking at the Whaling Museum on May 19th. Here he gives us a preview of some of the topics he will be presenting.
On swimming with whales…
Sharing the water with the biggest predator that ever lived is very scary. The first time I did it, in the Azores, my heart was pounding like crazy. This huge sperm whale actually began to swim directly at me. I now realize she was the matriarch of the pod, coming to check me out — whales are intensely curious creatures, but also very wary. I just thought she was coming for me!
I knew that the sperm whale was the only cetacean that could, and indeed has, swallowed a human being. It’s not a nice way to go. A whale sucks in its prey, whole, and digests it with juices so acidic that human beings who have been cut out of the animal’s stomach have been bleached entirely white by the process.
All this is going through my mind like a drowned man witnessing his life flash before him. But then I felt—I didn’t hear—her echo- location moving through my body like an MRI scanner. It was the most extraordinary sensation — click-click-click — reverberating in my bones. Then she turned and looked me in the eye. We were close enough to touch— but I knew that wasn’t part of the deal. Her eye was completely sentient, comprehending. All I could think of was to say, “Sorry.”
On traveling the globe…
I’ve been lucky enough to follow whales around the world, from Cape Cod, where I work with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, and where ‘Stormy’ Mayo took me out last year to witness eighty-five endangered North Atlantic right whales feeding in Cape Cod Bay; to the Azores (one of my favorite spots, with twenty-six different species of cetacean around the deep waters of the volcanic archipelago); to Sri Lanka, with its amazing population of blue whales (one day our tiny nineteen-foot fishing boat was surrounded by fifty blue whales, believe it or not); to Tasmania, where I’m writing from, whose coasts are witness to twice-annual migrations of humpbacks and southern right whales; and to New Zealand, where gigantic male sperm whales hang out, off the mountainous coast of Kaikoura.
I’ll never forget seeing a sperm whale in New Zealand named Tiaki, or ‘guardian’ by the indigenous Maori, zapping the water with its sonar to stun yard-long kingfish, then rising, headfirst, from the waves with a huge fish clenched triumphantly in its toothed jaw. It seemed to me to be an emperor of its environment, of this vast and wild place that, in our arrogance, we assume we have conquered and tamed and brought under our dominion, but which, as any sailor will tell you, we resolutely have not.
On returning to Nantucket…
I’ve been to Nantucket a number of times. I love the place; it just reeks of history, a tangible connection with the past. Isn’t the Whaling Museum just one of the best in the world? I find its evocation of the island’s heritage very moving. I like the way the cobbles and bricks force you to slow down, to move at a different place from our 21st century frantic rush.
I’ve also been lucky enough to become friends with Nathaniel Philbrick, whose work has been such an inspiration to me. When I curated an online reading of Moby-Dick in 2012, I persuaded Nat to read Melville’s chapter on Nantucket, from Nantucket! And I love the fact that Melville wrote an entire chapter about Nantucket without ever having visited the place!
On the power of the ocean…
We owe our lives to it. It provides 50% of the air we breathe. We evolved from it, and human culture owes its global spread to the oceans. We still rely on it for our food and our commerce. And yet we turn our backs on it. We barely give it a glance from the airplane window as we cross the oceans. We pollute it because its depths are invisible to us; we fill it with plastic and noise, and we do so at our peril, as we are coming to realize.
But it is also a source of great wonder and metaphysical beauty. Whose heart does not soar when they see or smell or hear the sea? I always think of the opening chapter of Moby-Dick, when Ishmael talks of ‘water-gazers’ to be found at Battery Park in Manhattan, gazing out to the open ocean beyond, as if it might save their souls.