Up From the Depths

Photo: Merrill Gosho, NOAA

Spring is slowly, very slowly this year it seems, lurching into view. It is time again to tend to the garden, clean out the house and, for some, wear a pair of shorts and a tee shirt way too soon. If you cast your eye out to Puget Sound, however, you might just be witness to another rite of spring: the return of the leviathans.

The leviathans in question happen to be gray whales. They are now making their way into Puget Sound during their northerly migration back to their arctic feeding grounds. While sightings are somewhat rare, they have been known to come in close to shore while feeding. Sometimes a little too close…

Now there are many, many books on whales at the library. Let me point out a few recent titles that are intriguing, unconventional and products of authors who are obsessed, perhaps at times a little unhealthily, with their subject.

The Whale: In Search of Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare is a good place to start. The author, who usually writes biographies, has been fascinated by whales since childhood. This book is an entertaining journey that blends whale science, the history of whaling, literature and the author’s own experiences to try to find out why humans have been fascinated by whales for centuries.

D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale is another product of obsession but this time with an academic bent. Based on nearly a decade of research, this work chronicles the complicated and often disturbing relationship between humans and whales in the 20th century. While well documented, this is no dry read, and the author’s entertaining and lively prose comes across on every page.

One just needs to read the title of Richard Ellis’ latest book, The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature, to know that the author is devoted to his subject. And what a subject it is. Ellis lovingly describes the sperm whale in all its scientific, cultural, literary and historical glory and includes many fascinating illustrations.

Lurking at the back of all three of these books is an appropriately obsessional interest in that most famous of fictitious white whales: Moby-Dick. All three authors list Herman Melville’s tale as the inspiration for their fascination with the world of whales.

Due to its length and exhaustive nautical references, Moby-Dick is sometimes considered a hard sell. If you are among the doubters, you might want to check out the appropriately titled Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick. This thin volume is an entertaining plea for the books continued relevance by an unabashed fan. He is also a bestselling author who knows a thing or two about good books.

But I think the prize for greatest whale-related obsession has to go to Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page by Matt Kish. The Ohio artist created an image a day for 18 months to coincide with the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Moby-Dick. Each image is accompanied by a quote from the page and the artwork is quirkily low tech with old book pages and other miscellanea being incorporated. Ahab would approve of this artist’s obsessive fascination.

So no matter what your level of commitment, consider checking out a whale-related book in honor of the return of the gray whales to Puget Sound.

Richard