For some reason this summer, I was weirdly drawn to ocean and/or whale-related nonfiction. Topics that I always appreciate learning something about, but I’m not sure why I felt such a pull now. Maybe the yearning to be elsewhere and if that elsewhere is as far-feeling as possible from the world as we know it, all the better.
My surprise favorite of this reading phase was Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves. It blends memoir, science, adventure, and natural and technological history with competitive freediving as the springboard.
There are more living things here and more different kinds of life in the ocean than anywhere else in the known universe […] it strikes me, and not for the first time, that the farther we descend into the lightless depths of the sea, the closer we get to understanding our origins — our amphibious reflexes, our forgotten senses, where we came from.
Freediving, I learned, is one of the most dangerous adventure sports in the world. Journalist James Nestor learned of it while working in Greece, encountering the world of competitive freedivers — people who take a single breath and descend into the ocean’s depths sans equipment except sometimes fins, staying under for up to four minutes. It’s exhilarating, but dangerous.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of divers are injured or die every year. It seems like a death wish.
And yet, days later, after I return home to San Francisco, I can’t stop thinking about it.
He demonstrates, brilliantly, why it captivates. The science that Nestor explores is fascinating because it posits that our machinery is too unnatural to observe the oceans accurately. The presence of technology interferes with natural sounds and systems and disturbs underwater life in a way that doesn’t allow us to observe it as it is (more on noise disturbances in one of the whale books). So the possibilities of freediving are intriguing from a scientific standpoint as well as the sporting aspect.
Deep tells so many fascinating side stories in addition to exploring freediving and profiling its adherents. Communication is a big topic, connected to how freediving can open up new channels. Nestor’s look at what scientists have learned about dolphins’ communicative abilities was mind-boggling: they address each other by name, and “speak their names when they approach humans.” How amazing is the world sometimes?
The writing is excellent; he keeps a narrative thread even while jumping topics, and imbues it with so much personal passion that it’s contagious. His descriptions are powerful too: “And there it is, this thing, two feet from our faces, at a depth equivalent to twice the height of the Chrysler Building, watching us with its non-eyes, communicating with its non-brain, and dazzling us with its Las Vegas lights.”
I also began to understand here how little we actually know about the oceans. Nestor puts it thusly: “If you compare the ocean to a human body, the current exploration of the ocean is the equivalent of snapping a photograph of a finger to figure out how our bodies work.” It can seem this is a time when we have so much figured out about how the world works, and although I knew oceans are still vastly unexplored, I didn’t realize how much was actually unknown, including about marine life. It was humbling. published 2014 by Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Amazon)
I started on this ocean-reading kick after enjoying two of Rachel Carson’s books, but also in anticipation of the highly lauded Fathoms: The World in the Whale, which drew comparisons to Carson and Annie Dillard.
Australian writer Rebecca Giggs began researching whale and human interactions after seeing a humpback stranded on an Australian beach. She seemed equally moved and disturbed by it, which led her to explore the question of what whales indicate about the ocean’s state, how they reflect it and always have: “Whales were how the western environmental movements first learnt to tell a story as big as the world.”
For as long as there have been humans, the whale has been a portentous animal. A whale warrants pause — be it for amazement, or for mourning. Its appearance and its disappearance are significant.
While searching for “where commonalities can be sought with the past, and between cultures, and how to remain compassionately engaged with distant, unmet things,” Giggs travels and explores how we interact with whales and what impact this has on life, past and future included.
This includes the importance of whalefall, when a whale’s carcass filters down through the oceanic ecosystem; Giggs’ powerful experience whale-watching, feeling how time stops near whales, and whether they can watch us (perhaps my favorite section); the disturbing trend of selfies taken with beached sea mammals; and ideas around consumer culture, including how international trade has affected ocean life through things like anthrophony — the impact of human sounds on these highly noise-sensitive animals (“the cost of this daily traction, our pulling the far-away close, is borne by the animals below. They see less of their world, because we see more of ours.”)
This feels primarily about the long-term ripple effects of pollution and human damage to the natural world. Giggs uses the whale, often the dead one, as both metaphor and literal depiction of how humans are changing the natural world. “We struggle to understand the sprawl of our impact, but there it is, within one cavernous stomach: pollution, climate, animal welfare, wildness, commerce, the future, and the past. Inside the whale, the world.”
This was touted as poetic nature writing, and at times it was, but generally I found the style distractingly overwritten, even confusing. It veers into the abstract and metaphysical, which, if you’re not connecting with the tone, becomes frustrating. It had lines that struck me (“Inside the night-time house of itself, the humpback sings,”) and I loved a chapter exploring humpback whales’ singing and the significance of whalesong.
Occasionally the philosophical musings resonate, like some lines about the “hauntedness that stems from regret” that stopped me in my tracks, but most of the time they felt melodramatic. The marvel of whales, that they even exist and have long represented so much to us about the world even as we destroy them and treat nature terribly is indeed an awe-inspiring web of topics to consider, but I didn’t always follow her leaps to these musings.
Like the oceans themselves, as mentioned above, we know precious little about whales, except that they don’t need us and we do them more harm than good: “How little is yet known about the wildness that attends the whale, I realized, and how well the world is built to work without us.” So much of that is our fault: before we tried learning more about them, basically at the eleventh hour, we’d been busy killing whales for centuries.
Which brings me to The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea (also titled: Leviathan: or, The Whale).
Like Ishmael, I was drawn back to the sea; wary of what lay below, yet forever intrigued by it, too.
Author Philip Hoare is lifelong obsessed with the sea (“Once you have seen it, it is impossible to forget, just as if you never saw it, it would be impossible to describe“), and whales. He traveled to the former Massachusetts whaling villages of New Bedford and Nantucket, among other locales of historic importance in human-whale history, and eventually swims with whales himself.
Hoare underscores that basic truth — we know so little about whales; we even knew what Earth looked like from space before we knew how a whale looked swimming underwater:
The first underwater film of sperm whales, off the cost of Sri Lanka, was not taken until 1984; our images of these huge placid creatures moving gracefully and silently through the ocean are more recent than the use of personal computers. We knew what the world looked like before we knew what the whale looked like.
This book covers whaling somewhat extensively, which is an upsetting topic but I got a graphic introduction to it in one of my favorites, In the Heart of the Sea, so it wasn’t as shocking. Still upsetting, but it’s history worth confronting. We tend to assume we’re far removed from this past of bad treatment of intelligent animals, but as Hoare shows, we’re not. Norway, Russia, and Japan remain major offenders, and consider that “in 1951 alone — one hundred years after Melville’s book appeared — more whales were killed worldwide than New Bedford’s whale-ships took in a century and a half of whaling.”
The Whale also covers the permeation of whales into popular culture and imaginations, often as the deadly, gluttonous villains they once were perceived to be — Nazi Germany was depicted in a cartoon as a whale opening its jaws over Europe. And I can’t believe, I CAN’T BELIEVE! that I never made the connection between J.M. Barrie’s Captain Hook with Ahab, “and his pursuant, time-ticking crocodile” with the White Whale. Repossess my English degree.
There’s a lot around Moby Dick, which, although it’s a book I’m never interested in reading, I find surprisingly interesting to read about. Its cultural significance is massive, and perhaps wider reaching than you might imagine. Again, In the Heart of the Sea was a primer here, so I’m not sure how appealing the topic would be otherwise.
Like Deep, this is another book built on fascinating segues and side stories as it varies between travel and nature writing through history, biology, and memoir. One such favorite detail: the story of JFK’s engraved whale tooth, a Christmas gift from Jackie that ended up placed in his coffin, which Hoare calls “a potent act: the king of Camelot interred with the talisman of a heroic age; a relic invested with the power of its original owner.”
Although it has its less luminous spots, I mostly found this a sensitive, eye-opening natural history. Hoare’s descriptions are stunning: “”And somewhere down in the fathomless, gathering darkness, sperm whales swim, eternally aware, their lives one waking dream, moving through valleys that run thirty thousand miles along the ocean floor, through lakes that lie stilly in the abyss, past jellyfish pulsating as ghostly Victorian brides in ectoplasmic crinolines.”
Like Giggs, Hoare often focuses on the human-whale connection through features we recognize of ourselves in them, but less abstract-philosophically: when he describes whales’ communications, he notes that sperm whales radio “their presence to other whales miles apart. Tuned in to some unseen circuit of food and communal intent, they knew instinctively where they were, while we wonder constantly what on earth we are doing.” (published 2010 by Ecco)
Have you read any of these? Is there other good ocean or whale-centric nonfiction you can recommend?