The Exploding Harpoon

Kathleen Jamie

  • BuyThe Sea Inside by Philip Hoare
    Fourth Estate, 374 pp, £18.99, June 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 741211 2

In April this year a sperm whale appeared in Oban Bay and remained there for nine days, long enough for word to spread and various experts to pronounce. That it wasn’t set upon, tortured and speared to death, as would have been the case not so long ago, surely marks a sea-change in human sensibility. On the contrary, if anyone had harassed the creature, well, they’d have been the one flensed.

I happened to be passing through Oban en route to Mull so I joined the small group assembled behind the pizza parlour and public toilets on the pier. Fishing boats were tied up, and across the bay the island of Kerrera lay in the first spring sunshine. The whale had chosen a spot just outside the Kerrera marina, so it was in full view, and its behaviour was predictable. Every 45 minutes or so it surfaced for a couple of minutes, blew, then dived again. The group I joined consisted in Easter holidaymakers, workmen in overalls and an elderly lady perched elegantly on a capstan, who perhaps knew this would be her only chance to see a great whale. Or maybe she’d seen hundreds and was coming back for more. They are a bit addictive. Some people preferred to gaze over the water in silence as they waited, others were inclined to show off their knowledge. I overheard phrases: ‘When we were in New Zealand,’ ‘When we were in Cape Town.’ ‘Of course, sperm whales are usually well out into the Atlantic.’

It’s true that sperm whales are deep-sea animals and it’s highly unusual to have one arrive, as it were, on the doorstep. Local newspapers kept up reports but thankfully didn’t give the whale a silly name. The creature might have been resting following an injury or illness; it didn’t seem unduly stressed. It was echo-locating nicely and knew its own situation. The best policy was simply to leave it alone. The alternative would have been to try to shoo it back out to sea, but how do you shoo a whale? The attitude that arose was part protective, part laissez-faire. CalMac diverted their ferries around the beast’s haunt, people came and went on the pier, and the whale remained in the bay until the next very high tide, when, buoyed by the extra water, it swam away.

I didn’t see the whale from the pier. I had to leave for the ferry before it appeared but the ferry terminal windows overlook the same waters so I kept an eye out while queuing to board. Then there it was! Like a range of low grey hills, with sunlight gleaming on its flanks. A sperm whale! In Oban Bay! Having surfaced it sent up a satisfying bush of spray two or three times. I couldn’t contain myself. ‘Look!’ I said to the woman next to me. ‘Look! There’s that whale!’ But she didn’t look. She just turned away, saying: ‘I am not a whale watcher, thank you.’

The world is full of wonders and mysteries, cruelties and colourful characters, and occasional flashes of enlightenment, as Philip Hoare’s book reminds us. Chief among the enigmas are other people. Until that moment, I’d thought the whale unfathomable. A half-fabled creature, emerging from the deep in a holiday resort. But that woman was now the greater puzzle. What was going on in her head?

Hoare’s previous book, Leviathan, was a lengthy and engrossing disquisition on whales, whale lore, whale hunting and humanity’s abrupt volte-face about these creatures. He was also co-curator of the Moby Dick Big Read, an online extravaganza which involved all 135 chapters of Melville’s book being read, a chapter a day, by people as different as Stephen Fry, Tilda Swinton, even David Cameron, as well as ordinary folk. The Sea Inside is most at ease when, again, he is in the company of whales.

Companionable and entertaining, the book follows the recent fashion for combining memoir, travelogue, historical byways, natural history and lore. This can suggest a hoarder’s fear that something might be left out. Or perhaps it’s a bid to escape categories in favour of an appropriate fluidity. ‘The sea defines us, connects us, separates us,’ Hoare writes. ‘Most of us experience only its edges, our available wilderness on this crowded island … Perpetually renewing and destroying, the sea proposes a beginning and an ending, an alternative to our landlocked state, an existence to which we are tethered when we might rather be set free.’ ‘Being 50 per cent water,’ he goes on, ‘we all contain the sea inside us.’ The sea becomes a medium, and Hoare delivers an enthusiast’s compendium, a cabinet of curiosities linked by the notion of the sea.

The book opens and returns to Hoare’s home port of Southampton. A suburban sea, he calls it, where he swims, apparently every day, and in doing so offers digressions on birds and container ships, and plenty of the fascinating facts that characterise his work. Southampton, originally a Roman settlement, now with a shore-side oil refinery, chemical plant and power station, is where the inhabitants of the South Atlantic island of Tristan Da Cunha were brought in 1961, after being evacuated to escape a volcanic eruption. But digression is the wrong word, because these explorations are not deviations from the main point, they are the point. Everything connects.

Southampton is connected by water to the Isle of Wight, where we encounter the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, born in 1815, who lived there ‘swathed in purple paisley’. Cameron was born in Calcutta, but on the Isle of Wight she ‘presided over an unlikely irruption of bohemianism’. She died in Ceylon, so in a skip and a jump we are looking up at the Ceylonese stars, and wondering how we got there. The Isle of Wight also means Tennyson, and his Kraken – a deep sea connection. There are ravens on the sea-cliffs and following the ravens takes us to the desert saints, whom ravens befriended. The desert, we might complain, is far from the sea, but a sleight brings us back to the Vikings, who carried ravens as navigational aids, and thence to St Cuthbert, and yes, cetaceans. St Cuthbert, himself a great one for chilly dips in the sea, is associated with a minor miracle involving dolphin flesh. The flow of thought and association enriches the book, although cetaceans remain the fleshy centre of the watery world.

Certain of the paths are well trodden. Barely a ‘nature book’ is published today without homage to J.A. Baker, or Gilbert White, or stern collectors like the 18th-century surgeon John Hunter, who dissected everything, including any hapless whale that wandered into the Thames. Much is fresh, though. When we reach New Zealand, the discussion turns to the relationship between the Maori and whales. And the Moa, the giant, now extinct, bird. And Te Pehi Kupe, a warrior richly adorned with facial tattoos, who in 1824 blagged a lift to Liverpool on a merchant ship. It’s testament to Hoare’s skill as a writer and companion that his work, a crammed treasure chest, doesn’t irritate. He isn’t a show-off. In The Sea Inside, you can go with the flow.

All the lore and wonders are fascinating, but in New Zealand, as in the Azores, as in Provincetown, it’s the cetaceans who steal the show. It’s just typical of us as a species to invent the exploding harpoon long before we came up with scuba-diving gear. Now, though, it’s possible to swim among dolphins and whales. What they think of it we can only speculate, but it’s certainly not the worst thing we’ve done to them. The book’s most original sections are Hoare’s accounts of doing just that, diving with whales, an experience he calls ‘truly dreamlike’. In the Azores, he swims among a pod of sperm whales. Despite their size, the animals flit from view. ‘Like birds that vanish in mid-air, they seem to disappear in the sea. It’s an impossible feat of prestidigitation. Over the waves I can see the whale, quite clearly close; under the water, nothing. Then suddenly there it is – a big beautiful animal held in the surf, stilled within the surge as I am flailing.’ He says later: ‘Nothing else matters. I feel nothing bad can happen if I’m with a whale. As if its grey mass insures against all the other evils.’

In New Zealand, it’s dusky dolphins, a super-pod of at least two hundred. He is in the water.

I look round and see dozens of dolphins heading straight at me, like a herd of buffalo. For a moment I think they are going to swim right into me. A ridiculous notion. They, like the whales, register my every move, my every dimension, both inside and out, my density, my temperature, what I am and what I am not. A dolphin’s sonar, which can fire off two thousand clicks a second, is able to discern something the thickness of a fingernail from thirty feet away. At the last minute the animals swerve aside, under my legs, by my side, past my head … I feel the sensual power of their bodies as they race past.

I wonder if it was this cetacean sensuality the Oban woman registered and refused.

Is this then a pelagic travel book? In a sense, because if you want to hang out with whales you have to go where they are. Although Hoare’s whale-road takes him all around the world, he’s glad to get back to Southampton. Even before he sets out, he refers to himself as ‘philopatric’: home loving. By the end, when he’s had enough of travel, the book almost becomes a meditation on home, and what home is. Unusually for a man in his fifties, Philip Hoare lives in the house he grew up in. Ghosted in the background are his parents, now both gone, and the business of clearing his mother’s room which he left untouched for years after her death, even the bedclothes. His seafaring and whale-swimming over, he appreciates his garden and lets light into his mother’s room at last, concluding paradoxically: ‘There’s no such place as home. And we live there, you and me.’