Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Reflections: The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

Whales endlessly fascinate me. They have a strange allure on me, causing a curious mix of fear, wonder, and an eagerness to know more. I have heard several personal stories from colleagues and friends from the Pacific coast on how pods of humpback whales have swum inches by their little rafts, making sure that not a drop of water splashed on them while they gracefully rose and dove at just the right intervals to avoid the rafts. Such consideration and compassion is so moving! I regard whales as truly gentle beasts of the sea with so much enigma around them. So, this acclaimed book was an apt gift from my husband who is fascinated with me being fascinated with whale watching.

Anyway, I was quite excited to read the book. I expected it to be a glorious book on whales - expounding on their behaviors, biology, habitat, and a little history rendered through a literary style of writing. However, this turned out to be mostly history - specifically the history of whaling and the misconceptions and metaphors surrounding whales before science clarified and debunked almost all of them. Being a fan of Moby Dick, the author frames most of the book using Moby Dick as his muse. I definitely enjoyed most of the book, but those parts of Moby Dick that were not captivating to me, specifically about the history of whaling, were present in this book too. So, I generously skimmed those pages/chapters.

But what I really loved about this book was my connection with the author's palpable enthusiasm, excitement, and wide-eyed fascination with whales! It was a wonderful resonance! If I had heard him talk in person, I think all my hair would have stood on end with excitement! All those elusive words that I have grappled with to articulate why I am so moved by whales are present bountifully in this book. And what beautiful words and apt sentences are spilled through this book! The writing is truly beautiful and literary. So, my heart raced, my head was nodding and my lips were breaking into a smile as I read through passages glorifying this magnificent beast. I particularly enjoyed reading about all the myths surrounding whales - the beasts of the sea that no one could see before the advent of aquariums and documentaries.

One aspect that clawed at me was my guilt at understanding how whales are (or used to be) transported to aquariums for public viewing. I don't think I will ever see beluga whales at an aquarium with the same mirth.  Side note: aren't beluga whales awesome? Such cheery, calming creatures. The author briefly discusses the costs and benefits (if at all) of bringing these animals to captive habitats - even if the habitat is set up with good intentions.

If there's one thing I would wish about this book, it would be to cut short on the historical aspects and concentrate more on the behavior and biology of whales. I guess, that means I should just walk into a library and pick a biology book. But if only biology books were as well written as this one!

The historical aspects of whaling do have a lot of social and environmental relevance today, so I appreciate that. However, more on the whales themselves would have been fantastic.

To wrap up, this is a wonderful, well written book that idealizes and empathizes with whales. The book engulfs whales with so much romanticism and glory. History buffs with interest in marine creatures or fishing will appreciate this book all the more.

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