This collage of personal memoir, cultural history and travelogue is full of the ocean's strangeness and beauty
The last third of the 20th century saw a revolution in attitudes – at least in North America and many of the European countries from which the whaling fleets had once sailed. In the 1980s the International Whaling Commission made the conservation, rather then their exploitation of whales, its primary goal. One of the drivers of this change was the discovery by Scott McVay and Roger Payne that humpback whales sing complex and beautiful songs. Their album of whale songs, released in 1971, became one of the bestselling records of the decade and a signature sound for the rapidly growing environmental movement. Photographs of whales underwater – first taken only in 1975 – contributed to growing awareness of the extraordinary beauty and sophistication of these creatures, and by the time of the hit film Free Willy in the early 1990s whales were swimming in the cultural mainstream. The present century has produced other striking works. In 2008 the philosopher and musician David Rothenberg released Thousand Mile Song, an album of his jam sessions with whales in which jazz saxophone is relayed underwater through a loudspeaker and meets funky responses, together with a book reflecting on whale music and human-whale interaction. Bryant Austin's Beautiful Whale, published earlier this year, takes high-definition photography to an astonishing new edge of possibility.
Increasingly, and notwithstanding the unconscionable cruelty sometimes inflicted on smaller cetaceans by fishermen, whales are receiving more practical and effective protection than ever before. In recent years, marine biologists have begun to understand the contribution whales make to ocean productivity (their waste feeds plankton on which other life depends, and they mix ocean waters to useful effect). "Allowing whale numbers to recover could be seen as a benign form of geoengineering,"George Monbiot writes in Feral, his landmark book on rewilding. Viable populations of most of the great whale species, though not necessarily the more mysterious beaked whales, are still with us, balanced precariously on the edge of a recovery that may or may not be shattered by rapid changes to ocean acidity and other perturbations in this century. Meanwhile, billions of humans are bound by fossil-fuel consumption into an energy metabolism equivalent to that of a mammal of 30 tonnes – the mass of a humpback.
Philip Hoare documented the wonder of whales and their destruction in Leviathan, or the Whale. It was an extraordinary achievement, combining a history of whaling, a voyage into the life of Herman Melville, reflections on Hoare's own encounters with whales and more. Building on the success of that book, Hoare co-curated The Moby-Dick Big Read, a performance of what is, arguably, one of the defining texts of industrial civilisation.
The Sea Inside is shorter and in some ways a more digressive book thanLeviathan, but bears a clear family resemblance. It is a collage of memoir, cultural history and travelogue in which the author makes pilgrimage to ever more distant seas to swim with whales and dolphins. These encounters yield some of the most vivid writing in the book, charged with the same awe and joy that characterised Hoare's retelling in the last chapter of Leviathan of a close encounter with a sperm whale near the Azores. Off the coast of New Zealand he dives into a super-pod of more than 200 dusky dolphins: "I see their shapes, exquisitely airbrushed black and white and pearl-grey, swimming beneath me. Steadily the fins begin to gather and steer towards me, more and more, till I'm in an eddying mass of swooping, diving cetaceans. Everywhere I look there are dolphins; I'm encircled by them. They shoot from a single source like a shower of meteorites, their two-metre bodies zipping past, in and out of focus … Dolphins are breaching right by me, turning somersaults in the air. How about this? Can you do that? I reach out instinctively; they easily evade me … For a moment I think they're going to swim right into me. A ridiculous notion. They, like the whales, register my every dimension, both inside and out, my density, my temperature, what I am, what I am not." This is glorious stuff, true to our nature and to theirs. For thousands of years, people have marvelled at the exuberance of dolphins. An English bestiary of the 13th century exaggerates in the letter but not the spirit: "Dolphins follow men's voices, or gather in shoals when music is played. There is nothing swifter in the sea. They often leap over ships in their flight."
The Sea Inside also describes artistic and literary figures, scientists and adventurers whose lives have left traces in the spots that Hoare visits on his quest. A day trip to the Isle of Wight from his Southampton home summons the ghosts of Julia Margaret Cameron and Alfred Tennyson. In London, where he goes to see the skeletons and preserved flesh of whales and porpoises, Hoare encounters the shadow of the surgeon John Hunter, whose world is brilliantly portrayed in Hilary Mantel's excellent, neglected short novel The Giant, O'Brien. A visit to Sri Lanka brings in the self-styled Count de Mauny-Talvande, who before the second world war created his own louche paradise on a tiny private island – Paul Bowles and Arthur C Clarke were visitors. There is an extended account of the life and passions of TH White, a man "more remarkable than anything he wrote", but usually remembered today for his Arthurian adventure The Sword in the Stone and for The Goshawk, an account of his attempt to train a bird. These and other digressions will engage different readers to different extents. Especially interesting to me are those circling the lives of a Northumbrian saint, a Tasmanian princess and a Maori warrior. Around St Cuthbert, whose love and communion with wild animals is a tale that never grows old, Hoare traces the radical changes in attitude to the raven in Western history (beloved to early Christian mystics, it denoted gothic gloom by the 19th century). Reflecting on the aboriginal Tasmanian woman Truganini, who survived one of the most thorough genocides in recorded history, Hoare finds himself contemplating the fate of the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger – an extinct marsupial predator with something of Pakicetus, the ancient terrestrial ancestor of whales, in its vaguely wolf-like shape. (The surprise at the end of this chapter is alone worth the price.) And in the Maori war leader Te Pehi Kupe, who travelled from Aotearoa to the English Antipodes in the early 19th century with the aim of obtaining advanced weaponry with which to destroy his enemies at home, Hoare finds the likely model of Queequeg, the fabulously tattooed harpooner in Moby-Dick.
Running like a braid of coloured water through the whirls and eddies of The Sea Inside is the author's inner struggle. Hoare's epigraph is from the great Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer": "Even now my heart / Journeys beyond its confines, and my thoughts / Over the sea, across the whale's domain, / Travel afar the regions of the earth …" But his starting and ending point is the family home in which he lives alone. At the beginning the vision is intense and unsettled: "Far off in the city centre a clock tower chimes. Inside the house, things shift and fall. Floorboards creak like a ship. It ticks with the ebbing heat as it falls asleep. I lie in my narrow bed, listening to the sound of the dark. A vague rumbling drifts over from the docks, godless, 24-hour places where the black water ripples with sodium traces."
Returning from the ends of the earth, Hoare finds that, for all the journeying, one may never hear anything so beautiful as a blackbird in a suburban garden. An easy, off-the-shelf trope at this point would be the familiar lines from TS Eliot's "Little Gidding": "The end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." But he has discovered something more ambiguous and true: "There's no such place as home. And we live there, you and me." The world is unutterably strange, and full of marvels.