When words fail: "I had one thing to say - fuck."

Philip Hoare. Photograph: Martin Rosenbaum.

Philip Hoare. Photograph: Martin Rosenbaum.

Transcribed from When Species Meet: Loss, a Wellcome Collection event that took place on April 27th, 2017, at the Grant Museum of Zoology, Rockefeller Building, UCL, University Street, WC1E 6DE.

Philip Hoare (born 1958, Southampton) is is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Southampton, and Leverhulme Artist-in-residence at The Marine Institute, Plymouth University, which awarded him an honourary doctorate in 2011. He is author of six works of non-fiction including Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant (1990) and Noel Coward: A Biography (1995). Leviathan or, The Whale (2008), won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. In his latest book, The Sea Inside, Hoare sets out to rediscover the sea, its islands, birds and beasts. An experienced broadcaster and curator, Hoare wrote and presented the BBC Arena film The Hunt for Moby-Dick, and directed three films for BBC’s Whale Night. He is also co-curator, with Angela Cockayne, of the Moby-Dick Big Read, www.mobydickbigread.com

“There were ships coming from the North Atlantic, laden with whale blubber which was then processed in factories in Southampton, reduced down. We played tennis with rackets strung with whale gut. Not that long ago, in the 1960s and 1970s, whales were part of the economic discourse of the country. 

Partly as a result of this, partly as a result of Jacques Cousteau, my younger sisters and I were obsessed by whales and dolphins. We were very keen to see these animals in real life and persuaded our parents to take us to Windsor Safari Park, now Legoland. 

They had a dolphinarium there. [This story] has become part of my own personal myth. I remember sitting down in front of this kind of municipal swimming pool, painted a lurid turquoise, and the dolphins leaping into the pool, these joyous, aqua dynamic creatures. Very difficult not to think about them in anthropomorphic terms, when you talk about cetaceans. And then someone held up a hoop, and the dolphins jumped through it; threw a ball in the air. They balanced it on their beaks. And then they got a fish as a reward.

I started to feel slightly uneasy about the whole thing; it was just a circus really. Then the dolphins were cleared from the auditorium and in swam Ranu, an apex predator, a killer whale. Present in every ocean, it’s one of the most successful mammals on earth, a supreme predator; sentient, highly socialised; typified in the male with this huge dorsal fin, rising two metres high, scything through the water. Ranu was a male but his dorsal fin had flopped, a sign of his captivity. Someone held up the hoop, Ranu jumped through it. Threw a ball in the air, Ranu got it and then was rewarded with a fish. 

For me, that was a moment of apostasy. I had to give up my love for these animals because I realised what we did to them and the way we dealt with them and the way I felt about them disconnected. Cetaceans stood at the heart of this disconnection and their interaction with us is a real marker of the way we’ve allowed our activities to impact on the natural world. 

But, actually, things are changing. In 1970, Roger Payne recorded an album, Songs of the Humpback Whales, off the coast of Bermuda, and recorded a sound which is now almost cliched to us. It’s [become] a kind of shorthand of new age but you have to remember that, at this point, no one had ever heard this sound before. 

And so this animal which had been dumb had a voice. And it wasn’t just a voice, it was a lament. It was a poetic expression of their fate, if you will. It was the ultimate expression of culture, where our cultures meet, where human and bio cultures meet. That’s what really turned things around, in many ways, big ways. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were born from Save the Whale campaigns. 

In many ways, what it did then, we are benefiting from now. In the North Atlantic, there were only few dozen animals in the 1930s; now we still only have 535 precisely identified animals. So there was that sense of retrieval at that point. 

But, for me, my personal relationship with these animals was very much put aside because I felt unable to process the way we dealt with them. It wasn’t until 2001 that I went to Provincetown, a former whaling town at the tip of Cape Cod. When I visited, I had no idea there was whale watching there. The whole idea came back and I thought “am I going to pay my $12 to witness a circus?” Nonetheless, I bought my ticket, got in the boat. 

Twenty minutes out of Cape Cod Bay, a 40 ton, 40 foot humpback whale breached right in front of the boat. It was an extraordinary demonstration of kinship, this huge animal was leaving its environment to be part of our environment; something clearly sentient, something so huge it was very difficult to have a physical relationship with it.

I’m a practised writer, a poetic mind, and I had one thing to say: ‘fuck’. Because there’s no way you can close that distance between ourselves and these creatures. They defy description, they defy superlatives. I’ve been writing about them for 15, 16 years and I still can’t write about them enough. 

For me, it’s the sperm whale I’ve become very attracted to as a species because of the major targets of whaling of the 18th and 19th centuries - and the 20th century. Many more whales died in the 20th century than in the age of Moby Dick. Yet they’re survived.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of very close encounters with sperm whales in the Azores. One female we came across was very inquisitive. I think she was so inquisitive because she was so beautiful, wearing the cetacean equivalent of Comme des Garcons, a band of white avant garde. 

It’s very humbling to be in the water with an animal like that, the shared history between us. They’re so curious. They’re actually very, very placid animals. All the stories about them attacking ships were generally because the whalers technique for hunting sperm whales was to harpoon the calf. 

I’ve just come back from Sri Lanka where we came across a superpod, 150 plus sperm whales who were very busy mating. At one point, we had two sperm whales actually copulating under our boat. They were so caught up in the act, they didn’t care. Then, shortly after this, the whales started moving very fast in one direction. We followed them and we came across 30 sperm whales rammed close to each other like logs. The original group had been summoned by a stress signal. In the middle of the group, where they were females and calves, the whales were bunched together. We went back in the water and thought, oh look, there’s dolphins swimming with them.

But the whales were tightly packed. They weren’t dolphins, they were orca. And the orca were circling round and round the sperm whales, with the males on the outside, moving up and down and underneath at the same time as the orca were coming to attack. There were two pods of 24 orca, the most extraordinary demonstration of their organisational skill. 

We were in a fishing boat, miles from land, no GPS, no life jackets. I thought, at one point, I thought the boat was actually stopping the sperm whales from getting away so I asked to pull back. Then I realised the sperm whales were actually using the boat as a defensive wall to stop the orcas. 

After a while, one pod of orcas left the scene and moved off quarter of a mile away. We followed them - and they started circling around us, very closely. It was only when one male hit the boat that we realised something was going on. The orca was charging directly at us; they were clearly trying to tip the boat over. I’ve never been scared of animals ever but when you have a pod of incredibly intelligent animals focused on you, the whole history turns around.”

find out more about philip hoare and his work at www.philiphoare.co.uk