In search of Moby-Dick

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From a commodity hunted for its bone and blubber to a potent symbol of the environment, the whale has long held value.

And the 150-year-old novel Moby-Dick is remarkably prescient about its fate, says writer Philip Hoare.

The whale is perhaps the most mysterious animal known to man. For centuries it inspired awe and fear, and was hunted for its oil, blubber and whalebone.

Now it is a symbol of an ecological threat, a barometer for a world out of kilter.

It is even more remarkable that the transition from an age of whale-hunting to an era of whale-watching has happened within living memory.

Ancient myth regarded the whale as an uncanny monster, a creature beyond comprehension. A whale might swallow a single human being, such as Jonah, or an entire city, as one Greek myth imagined.

The poet William Blake wrote of a terrifying vision, “the head of Leviathan, his forehead was divided into streaks of green and purple like those on a tyger’s forehead… advancing towards us with all the fury of a spiritual existence”.

But ever since the early Basque fishermen travelled as far as the coast of North America to hunt whales, humans also saw these animals as a source of wealth.

When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed into Provincetown harbour, Cape Cod, in 1620, they saw hundreds of whales “playing hard by us, of which in that place, if we had instruments and means to take them, we might have made a rich return”.

By the early 19th Century, Provincetown had become a profitable whaling port, with a fleet of 70 whale-ships. Ironically, it is now one of the world’s great whale-watching spots. It was here that I saw my first whales in the wild.

I’ve seen grown men cry when they see their first whale. Nothing prepares you for the sight of a 50 foot, 50 ton humpback whale leaping out of the water – in behaviour known as breaching.

For a brief moment, it is as if the animal has freed itself from gravity, and seems to hang there in the air before plunging back into the ocean with an almighty splash.