Episode 5 | Songs from the deep

Alok Jha talks to the award-winning writer Philip Hoare about his life-long love for and obsession with whales and their history in Antarctica. 

Philip Hoare was born and brought up in the port of Southampton, within the sound of the sea. He has been haunted by whales ever since he saw a captive orca, as a boy. Philip’s numerous books include Leviathan or, The Whale, which won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize, and has been published all over the world.  It was followed by The Sea Inside (2013) and RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR (2017). His latest book, Albert & the Whale was published in the UK and USA in spring 2021.

Philip wrote and presented the BBC Arena film The Hunt for Moby-Dick, and directed three short films for BBC’s Whale Night. He is co-curator of the Moby-Dick and Ancient Mariner ‘Big Reads’, and is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton.

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Why does Antarctica matter to you?

"Antarctica to me represents the emptiness of our response to an invisible crisis, as invisible as the whale. Just as we never see the biggest animal on our planet, so we ignore our largest uninhabited continent. We need to bear witness. I wonder if art can stir us from our complacency? The art of the whale, in its cultural expression, is the deepest, loudest sound generated by an organism on Earth. And like the whale’s song, we will sense the reverberations of the past, present and future of Antarctica, as much felt as seen or heard."

Read more about Philip Hoare's work here.

Special thanks to The Dominica Sperm Whale Project for providing recordings of sperm whales for this episode.

Images: Philip Hoare and sperm whales in the Indian Ocean by Andrew Sutton; Jougla Point and its whale bones with Bransfield house in the background by Kristine Hannon; Philip Hoare looking through the eye of a whale, Texel island by Jeroen Hoekendijk.

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Episode 5 Transcript Songs from the deep

Alok Jha (00:01): Let me take you on a journey to the coldest place on earth and it's last and greatest wilderness on A Voyage to Antarctica. Hello, and welcome to A Voyage to Antarctica brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. I'm your host Alok Jha. This week, I'm talking to the award-winning writer Philip Hoare about his lifelong love for and obsession with whales and their history in Antarctica. Philip's numerous books include Leviathan or The Whale, which won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson prize, and has been published all over the world. His latest book Albert and the Whale is published by fourth estate in the UK. He's also a professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton.

Alok Jha (00:55): One of the things that if anyone knows anything about your books is that you are obsessed with and love whales. Where did that obsession start?

Philip Hoare (01:04): Well in a weird sort of way, it did start in childhood as with many people, rather like sort of liking dinosaurs. Although for me, it was a very disturbing experience, ultimately because I really was tuned into whales, I suppose by the whole save the whale movement in the late 1960s, early 1970s. And I suppose that sort of sensitized me to the whale, apart from seeing them on Jacques Cousteau documentaries. And we passed it myself, my sisters, who were equally mad on whales and dolphins, passed our parents to take us to Windsor's safari park which had a dolphinarium - it's now Legoland. And we were very, very excited about this. This is back in the early seventies, I guess, and we sat at the front of the, of the pool, which is really an overgrown concrete, it's really grim. I actually found some photographs my father took that day, which we never knew he took. But then into this really just brutal place a pod of dolphins appeared and then the pool was cleared and a big black gate opened up at the other end. And in swam Ramu was billed in the program as our other performer. It was an Orca, a killer whale. And for most of your listeners very aware of Orcas, incredibly social intellectual, or intelligent, maybe intellectual is pushing it, but certainly intelligent, incredibly successful animals, probably most successful mammal on the planet. Not human beings Orca's have been around and they were evolved state for 6 million years and they are present in every ocean. And this poor benighted creature jumped through a hoop and balanced a ball on his nose and got a fish as a reward. And for me, that was a kind of a moment of apostasy. I had to stop loving these animals because I saw the way they were treated. So, so the sort of fast forward from that to 2000, when I went on holiday to Cape Cod, and I didn't realize that this is a great whale watching place. And it was only in the day before I was going home actually that I realized that you could go out and about to see whales. And I was very dubious about this because I thought this would be another kind of circus performance, a mediated human experience. I kind of expected them to be feeding them with fish as well. And I stood on this whale watch boats along with all the other punters and then half an hour later in the middle of Stellwagen bank, which is protecting the Marine reserve off the coast of new England, 40 foot, 40 ton Humpback Whale jumped out right in front of me. And that's what started me writing about whales. And I have no scientific background. I have no knowledge in that respect. And I didn't really know that much then, but I just went on this crazy voyage of like talking to scientists, going on the whale watch boats, going out to the Azores eventually and getting to know the animals in the water.

Alok Jha (04:41): How did you, at that point, you know, in 2000, when you saw this whale leaping from the water and had this visceral experience that was I guess, an emotional experience in some respects. How did you then begin to square what you saw there and the subsequent interested with whales, with what you'd seen as a child, this trapped whale, what were you trying to sort of get at?

Philip Hoare (05:07): For me, the great way into the whale was through Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Because that text written back in 1851 by a great New Englander who was on the whale Lin boats, as opposed to whale watching boats. And they're quite interestingly comparative those two processes. They're both humans going out trying to find whales. Melville, no one has ever written better about the whale since Melville really. And in that great compendia, sprawling, digressive, mad, subversive, sexy, crazy book. I, I kind of found more questions than answers, but they were kind of questions which were metaphysical and cultural and transcendental and, and very, very disturbing because he was trying to work out what he was doing out in the middle of the Pacific ocean slaughtering these animals. He was part of a whaling mission out to the line as they called the equator, and Melville like the other whalers at the time knew far more than anyone else on this planet human wise, that these animals were sentient, that they were socially organized, that they had a kind of culture was expressed in sound, mainly for whales, but also in the demonstration of physical, what we would call affection, there's a description in Moby Dick and in the chapter, the Grand Armada, which is I think the first piece of natural history documentation from a cultural point of view, certainly in literature, he and Queequeg, who is the maui based tattooed warrior in the book, Ishmael the narrator both lean over the side of the boat. And through this incredibly clear water, see a female sperm while pushing her newly born calf to the surface, still attached by the umbilical cord. And it's a moment of extraordinary connection because they are looking at this thing, this scene for its own sake for its own beauty, a moment later they are about to kill them. And then the slaughter in that chapter is terrible to behold, but it's that one point in which Melville allows the kind of emotion, the kind of emotions that I saw when I was at Windsor safari park. And that was what I felt, you know, that kind of cooperation between something that you are creating, that you are the, the reason why they could see that as this enormous effort, these humans had gone out in this boat all the way to kill these animals, but there's this moment, this kind of interlude at which things could have gone the other way. So for me, the whale represents so many things. It represents this bridge to a natural world, partly because they are so attractive as creatures, they are so mysterious and majestic, you know, the great sort of sometimes dismissive phrase used by biologists is charismatic, megafauna, you know like polar bears and pandas. You know, they're kind of the the eye candy of, of ecology.

Alok Jha (08:38): The things to get people interested in, in caring about the world.

Philip Hoare (08:42): Exactly. As opposed to snot eating worms and et cetera, et cetera. So so yeah, so that's what fascinates me is the, the whales experience of human beings. You know, I can write about our experiences of whales, but I want to also write about the whales' experience of us.

Alok Jha (09:21): People probably think of whales as, as you say, charismatic megafauna, the idea of this beautiful creature in the, in the ocean, and perhaps we should go watch them, but they should be saved and looked after back then in Herman Melville's time. And maybe at the time, this was not the case at all. Could you just describe for us what the human relationship with whales was back in the 19th century? Why were people searching for and killing whales?

Philip Hoare (09:47): Well, there are parts of the relentless economic progress in the 19th century. There were parts of the industrial revolution, they lubricated and lit the industrial revolution. Whale oil was used in factories, in manufacture. It was used to lubricate pencil lead. It was used to light the streets of London, Paris, New York and Berlin. It was an essential part of the 19th century imperial and colonizing progress. You know, the whaling ship since the late 18th century had been taking Western influence out to the Pacific, for instance carrying missionaries sometimes supplying the missionaries. So that whole sense of the way the world was being opened up to Western influence was, was predicated on, on whales and whaling, you know the colonies of New South Wales and Tasmania van Diemen's land as it was then called and New Zealand really dependent on whaling for the development as as viable settlements. And so the whale as unknown as it was, as unseen as it was, very, very, very few people would have ever seen a whale, and certainly not alive. Mostly your experience of whales was a slumped, deflated monster, a leviathan on a beach. Yet these animals are really an important part of the economic structure of the Western world.

Alok Jha (11:36): And just to get into the detail, it was the particular part of the blubber of a sperm whale, wasn't, it, that was very, very highly prized as an oil for a lot of these purposes.

Philip Hoare (11:49): Well, they were called sperm was because they believed that the oil, as you mentioned which is actually present in the, in what is in fact, the nose of the animal. So the head, the great square pugnacious, head of a sperm whale is filled with spermaceti oil, and it gets its name because the site is when the first pearce that had thought it was the whale semen. And this oil is in fact, it's an extraordinary material. It's incredibly fine oil, which becomes waxy when it hits sort of cool air. And if the whale, that oil has a unique quality in that bio acoustical medium through which it can focus its sound, an intensified sound. So it's creating the sound, which is bounced back to the back of the skull, like concave skull of the whale, and then focused back through this bio acoustical oil in a series of chambers, and then is admitted that sound is the loudest sound naturally created by an animal on the, on the planet, it can get to know the loudness of an airplane. For humans that oil is prized because it burnt without smoke. The unit of light itself, lumen is the measurement of how much light is given off by certain part or certain measurement of a sperm whale candle. And in places like Nantucket off the coast of New England, and there were huge factories just processing these candles, which were the most desirable form of lighting where oil also burned smokeless in lamps as well. But the oil was used for many other things for, for, for making leather supple. It was used later on during war, it was used as, as as a way to treat trench foot, Wilfred Owen when he's about to send his troops over the top in in the first world war battles, supervised the anointing of their feet, and one of the most kind of ritualistic way with this whale oil. So it's, it's very strange that the paradox, again, the world, the way we spend, when is one of the deepest diving of all whales, it can go for a mile in depth. It can stay down for two hours or more yeah. Brings back as it were this light, giving it energy as though it's kind of processing the great series of, of, of, of chemical events, which life consists of. And that ends up being a candle, being burnt in a aristocrats house.

Alok Jha (14:58): Listening to you talking just then I've got some very, very pleasant flashbacks there, reading, Leviathan, your book. And I would recommend anyone who wants to know about all of this stuff to just go and devour that book. So we're talking about how whales have become this, this, they have this magical oil almost that everyone's searching for. That's created almost sort of the aristocratic 19th century lifestyle. And it's also, this hunt for oil is the reason that the UK, that Britain ends up sort of citing Antarctica because it's just chasing these animals all around the world. Just, can you give us a picture of that time? So we know about the, we talked on this podcast and people are probably familiar with the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, the Scots, and the Shackletons going to the continent and trying to find the south pole and, and all of those feats of endurance. But the first sightings of those Southern places were from whalers.

Philip Hoare (16:05): With the invention of steam powered ships, and also much more horrifically of grenade harpoons. These animals came within human remit. They hadn't been for Moby Dick for Herman Melville, fin whales and blue whales are too sleek and fast and didn't have a social habit in the way sperm whales and humpback whales have. And suddenly it was kind of open season on these animals and the slaughter that went on in the Antarctic from the whaling stations established by the British and Norwegians is incomparable and much more so because they're so far away from civilization they're so far out of sight of London and New York and the civilized quite civilized centers of commerce and trade to which these animals being returned in barrels of oil and rendered down the fat is rendered down. And they end up in the food chain too. In the second world war famously Britain was partly sustained, not in a major way, but certainly whale meat was being eaten. My mother and father recalled eating whale meat during the second world war. There were recipes for whale curry and whale burgers, amazingly enough. And indeed Southampton, where I'm speaking to you from now, ships were still coming from the Antarctic in the 1960s. Ladened with whale oil, which became Stork margerine. So anyone who ate Stork margarine in the 1960s was eating whale. You couldn't really avoid whale actually. Up until the 1960s even the early seventies it was still part of the, the economy of the west.

Alok Jha (18:05): What did all of that do to the whale populations in these previously untouched parts of the world?

Philip Hoare (18:12): Incredibly good question. Well it killed 3 million great whales in the 20th century and that toll is pretty much all down to the, mostly down to the whaling in the Southern ocean of Antarctica. And of course they were killing the largest animals, the largest blue whales, and we know that they were, they were experiencing, certainly at the beginning of the 20th century Blue Whales were larger than they reach now. Because the genetic predominance of the large males was being sort of bred out really by the cull that was going on. But what we don't know, and possibly never will know is what the effect on whale culture was of that Holocaust. You know, why the, while there glittering was being used to make nitroglycerine for the first and second world war, where they were literally enabling the destruction of human on human in the first and second world wars their own culture was suffering in a terrible way. And we know now blue whales reduced to, well, certainly at the beginning of the century, down to 15, maybe 18,000, pathetic paltry number estimates of them reaching their millions before, before the great cull began in the 20th century some animals have recovered and that there is some evidence of Blue Whales recovering in the Antarctic, but they will never possibly return to those numbers.

Alok Jha (20:44): As a commercial enterprise, certainly has, has largely stopped and I think that people have understood that that killing these, these animals is going to just decimate their populations. And in the eighties we began a moratorium on commercial whaling yet some countries still kill whales for commercial and quote scientific purposes. What is the justification, if any, for the scientific killing of whales right now?

Philip Hoare (21:17): Well, countries such as Norway, Japan, Iceland, North America, USA, they hunt whales from a cultural basis as an indigenous economy. The problem with that is the cost. They're not using traditional methods to kill whales. They're using grenade harpoons and and remote killing operations, which are intensely cruel. These animals can take three and a half hours to die, these are animals which, I don't believe in hierarchies of organisms, but they're certainly very, very intelligent sensate creatures. If you see a whale and I've often seen Humpback Whales, for instance, where when they're feeding, seagulls will sort of land on their backs, the whale will quiver with the feeling of a bird on its back, but the whale is an incredibly, it's like us, you know, it's, it's a very sensate creature. And the idea of killing these animals in countries, such as Norway and Japan, the reasonnthat there are species of whales, such as the Minky whale, they're a resource to be fished. It's a different cultural attitude. And if you go to Iceland or Norway, there will be whale on the menu.

Alok Jha (22:55): How do you feel about that?

Philip Hoare (23:00): Well, I mean, if you're talking about an indigenous tradition, it's difficult to argue about it, but if you're talking about as in Iceland, for instance, where whale meat consumption is very much a tourist thing, you know, it's tourists, that this is what you do when you go to Iceland, that's much more ambiguous. So even putting aside the fact that you would never be allowed to slaughter a domestic animal for consumption and the way we kill whales. I mean, if you, if it took cows three and a half hours to die, no one would accept that. I hope. And yet these very rare wild creatures are killed in that way.

Alok Jha (23:46): Around the world though. Apart from these examples, you've talked about where there's an indigenous tradition in the use of whales like this. Around the world then what's your sort of impression of how well we're protecting or trying to protect whale populations.

Philip Hoare (24:07): Whales are dying in by-catch, you know, because they've been caught in nets, which ultimately kills them very slowly, either through necrosis, the nets get caught around the peduncle, the part of the tail, which, which meets the body where it's narrow and that can just rot off. It can lash around, you know, fishing nets can lash around the head of a whale. I've seen that myself a number of times stops them feeding properly. But then there were other of course, anthropogenic causes of whale death, which are more insidious, which such as chemicals in the ocean, which pass through the food chain through to whales impact their immune systems. Sound is, is probably one of the biggest issues for whales, so if you imagine when Herman Melville was sailing the seven seas humans made almost no noise in the ocean, now it's a cacophony of engines and wind farms and seismic surveys military sonar for whales, especially, but for most Marine organisms actually, who live in a world of sound. Sight, isn't usually very useful in the ocean. These are, these have terribly deleterious effects on them. They, they really affect their their communication systems the way they hunt for food or the way they find food. And really, we know also they, they do induce a great deal of stress so that we know, for instance, there's a resident population of Orca in the Northern waters around the UK, which have not had a viable calf for the past 10, 15 years.

Alok Jha (26:03): Can I ask you about the sort of position and importance of, of animals like whales in the, in an ecosystem, of course they're top predators so if you take them out that affects the food chain and then the populations of animals in the sea, but also we're learning at the end of their lives, whales' bodies themselves are quite useful stores of carbon so that they can be unlikely climate heroes in a way over their long lives. So what was the sort of importance of these creatures in, in their ecosystems?

Philip Hoare (26:39): Such a good question. If you consider the removal from the ocean of the biomass of 3 million large animals in the 20th century, for instance, that's not taking into consideration hunting now, but the cycle of those whales, so their feces fertilizing the ocean which of course sequestrates carbon dioxide because the feces fertilize phytoplankton, and then that hydrolyzes zooplankton or feeds zooplankton, there's a whole, a great chunk being taken out of that cycle of sequestering, carbon monoxide carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And then the thing that I love this notion that you're alluding to, whale fall, it's known as whale fall, it's rather poetic and Shakespearean, it's the dark dead whale that slowly sinks to the bottom of the ocean. And there becomes a whole new ecosystem in itself, there are entire species, like the worm, which are entirely predicated and life cycles entirely dependent on a rotting whale. If you think about the amount of nutrition that's released by that flesh and bone, these bone eating worms, it's a wonderfully, it reminds me of the section of The Tempest, where Ariel talks about a drowned sailor, lying there and his bones make coral, his eyes make pearls. And there's something very beautiful about that process because it's, it's the process of life as much as it is the process of death.

Alok Jha (28:32): Can I just wind up by asking you why Antarctica matters to you?

Philip Hoare (28:39): Rather like the whale, there's something unreachable and huge and mysterious, but real, and that one day you might get to go there, one day you might have that experience. There's something very beautifully fragile and hugely weighty about it at the same time. It's almost as though the earth is weighted by these two areas, especially with the Antarctic, because we, in the Northern hemisphere, feel as though we're weighted by ice, it's a kind of center of gravity in a way that that holds us in place. It gives us a sense of security a strange sort of way. So for me, it's an impossibility, it's an impossibility that the world should still be partly frozen as though it still could develop other way or go another way, it's like history, frozen.

Alok Jha (29:46): Philip, thank you very much indeed for your time.

Philip Hoare (29:50): It's been a great pleasure. Thank you very much.