BOOKS: Seeking the truth of whales

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1994:

The Year of the Whale, by Victor B. Sheffer.
Scribner, 1969. 244 pages, paperback, out of print.
Gone Whaling, by Douglas Hand. Simon &
Schuster (Rockefeller Center, 1230 Avenue of the
Americas, New York, NY 10020), 1994. 223 pages,
$22.00 hardback.
Published 25 years apart, The Year of the Whale
and Gone Whaling came to ANIMAL PEOPLE, the former
at a library book sale and the latter for review, within 24
hours of one another. Victor Sheffer’s faintly fictionalized
account of the first year in the life of a sperm whale might be
remembered as the book that saved the whales, except that it
isn’t remembered at all despite the acclaim it received on pub-
lication, including the Burroughs Medal for the year’s best
book about natural history. Douglas Hand’s exploration of
the growing human fascination with orcas owes ancestry to
Sheffer’s work, even though the odds are good that Hand
hasn’t ever heard of Sheffer, much less read him. Though

both The Year of the Whale and Gone Whaling are likely to be
of enduring interest to whale enthusiasts, both are also very
much products of their times––and the context of public sym-
pathy for whales today would have been unimaginable to
Sheffer, who thought it likely that many of the species famil-
iar to him would be now be extinct. Writing for an audience
who had yet to develop any notion of whales as magical,
mystical, or even particularly attractive and intelligent cohab-
itants of the planet, Sheffer nonetheless anticipated the New
Age view of whales with illustrations by Leonard Everett
Fisher, depicting the sperm whale mother and child in space
beneath the signs of the zodiac. Sheffer’s frequently lyrical
descriptions of the whales’ world likewise anticipate the way
most people who write about whales now write. Yet Sheffer
was also an eminent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist,
in an era when anthropomorphism was considered the worst
of sins in wildlife observers, when every hint that other crea-
tures might think or emote at all as we do was suspect.
Sheffer therefore harshly yanked himself and his readers back
to the reality of those times with extended textual
notes––chapters in themselves––which matter-of-factly
recount such activities as dissecting fetuses begged from com-
mercial whalers, hiding any trace of the moral revulsion he
must have felt. Sheffer was an objective, thoroughly scientif-
ic writer; and yet only keen concern for whales as suffering,
struggling, often admirable and lovable individuals could
have impelled him to produce The Year of the Whale.
Sheffer not only exposed the ecological abuse of commercial
whaling but also challenged the way humans had thought of
whales since Biblical times. Like Farley Mowat, whose
Never Cry Wolf was also based upon scientific observations
recorded on behalf of an unsympathetic government, T h e
Year of the Whale helped change the moral basis of our rela-
tionship to other species.
Curiosity rather than moral purpose informs G o n e
W h a l i n g. While Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab sought
Moby Dick out of hatred and fear, and Sheffer pursued sperm
whales out of loving admiration, Douglas Hand pursues orcas
mainly to find out about himself and other people. He jour-
neys from an affectedly precious life as a New York aesthete
to the orca habitat of Puget Sound much as other yuppies
might hunt for antiques in the trackless wilds of a Connecticut
auction barn––and not surprisingly seems to spend more time
with Haida carvers of whale art than with the orcas who are
nominally his subject. Seeking the mysterious impulse he
believes must inspire whale art, Hand describes the lives and
work of whale researchers John Ford, Ken Balcomb, and
Paul Spong as if they too are essentially artists in their dedica-
tion to finding ways and means of deciphering orca communi-
cations. The approach seems appropriate. Ford is the senior
researcher on the staff of the Vancouver Aquarium. Spong,
once a Vancouver Aquarium researcher, is now the leading
scientific exponent of releasing all captive whales back to the
wild. Hand illustrates how their similar perceptions have led
to distinctly different views of how we should proceed from
here to achieve a better deal for whales and their environment.
Attempting much less, Gone Whaling falls far
short of the stature of The Year of the Whale, but likewise
makes a noteworthy contribution to our understanding of
whatever whales ultimately mean to us: signal species, inspi-
ration, or––in our view––the most visible test of our ability to
learn coexistence.
––Merritt Clifton
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