America and the Whale

July 4, 2013 - Zoe Dennington and Philip Hoare


The Susan of Nantucket Scrimshaw, 1829. Attributed to Frederick Myrick.

The Susan of Nantucket scrimshaw is one of the Museum’s most fascinating objects. The delicately carved sperm whale tooth carries a detailed depiction of the nineteenth century whaling ship, beneath which can be read the grisly inscription:

 Death to the living, long live the killers

Success to sailors’ wives and greasy luck to whalers


The object serves as a stark reminder of both the brutality of the whaling industry and its importance to the American economy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We are delighted that author, presenter, and champion-of-the-whale Philip Hoare will be joining us on Thursday, 18 July for a discussion of America’s troubled relationship with these giants of the deep. Philip’s book Leviathan or, The Whale, won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and he recently wrote and presented the BBC Arena film The Hunt for Moby-Dick. He is also the curator, with Angela Cockayne of Bath Spa University, of the on-line rendition of Melville’s classic, at His new book, The Sea Inside, explores his own encounters with whales in the context of this rich history. He writes:

The Sea Inside is a journey into our collective imagination. It’s the product of my continuing fascination with the meeting of human and natural history, and the way the two worlds collide.  The book was inspired by my travels into the world of the whales.  In Leviathan or, the Whale, I explored the way we have thought about, observed, assimilated, used, and abused cetaceans – principally using the lens of Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, ostensibly a hymn to the great Yankee whaling industry of the nineteenth century – although it is much, much more than that. It amazes me how prophetic that book is, even now.

Mindful of whales, I set off on a new journey, to investigate their world. There is nothing so exquisitely exciting and bowel-loosening as finding one’s self caught up in a group of sperm whales, virtually squashed in between their great grey bodies, as I was in the Azores.  Or to be faced with a charging super-pod of 200 dusky dolphins heading straight for me in the Pacific, off New Zealand.  Or witnessing the house-tall blows of two dozen blue whales in the Indian Ocean at the tip of Sri Lanka.  Those experiences are so totally set apart from ‘normal life’ that it makes ‘normal life’ difficult to live thereafter.

Azores 2011 Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare swimming with Sperm Whales in the Azores, 2011. Photograph by Andrew Sutton.

Thankfully whaling as Melville described it is no longer a global operation.  But we still keep cetaceans captive – see the new movie Blackfish for the lowdown – an apt word – on the terrible effects captivity has on these magnificent mammals. We still allow them to be culled, in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, and Japan, and worst of all – because it is unconscious – they are threatened by the pollution – chemical and aural – that we pump into the oceans.  Yet organisations such WDC – for whom I act as a Special Ambassador – can lead us to real change.  As much as anything else, it is awareness of the continuing plight of the whale that will ensure its future – and I suspect Herman Melville would be delighted to know he is still making a difference – a century and a half after he wrote his book.

Join Philip on 18 July for a lively exploration of the history of American whaling and the future of the whale []. Organised in collaboration with Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) Philip will be signing copies of his new book, The Sea Inside (£18.99),


1 Comment »

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