As image changes go, the whale has undergone the biggest transformation going. Since Herman Melville penned his 19th century tale of ferocious sea beast Moby-Dick, this most mysterious of sea creatures has gone from feared to revered.
Over the years the heavily hunted whale has evolved in the public perception from terrifying monster to gentle giant.
And whether we are hunting the creature or lining up on a tourist boat just to catch a glimpse of it, the whale has always held a deep fascination for humans.
None more so than bestselling writer Philip Hoare – Noel Coward’s biographer and author of Spike Island and England’s Lost Eden.
Philip was so intrigued by the animals, he embarked on a four-year adventure around the world exploring man’s complex relationship with these awe-inspiring creatures.
The result – a captivating book about his experience and a feature-length documentary to be aired on BBC2 tonight.
“It’s where human history meets natural history,” says Philip, whose interest began when he saw a killer whale at a safari park as a child. We have gone from a world of hunting whales to a world of whale-watching. Before the discovery of petroleum the world ran on whale. All street lamps ran on whale oil and it was a huge industry.
“Up until the late 1980s whalers were still hunting in the Azores but they still had an intimate relationship with the whales, watching them on their days off. Now these guys take tourists whale-watching. I wanted to explore what was happening and why.”
Philip’s epic journey takes him from the waters of the Solent to the whaling ports of New Bedford, Nantucket and the Azores.
We even see the Sholing, Southampton-born writer floating in three-mile deep Atlantic waters alongside the legendary sperm whale.
“It was the culmination of it all but I’ve never been so scared in my life,” admits Philip, who is both fascinated and frightened by the sea. The sperm whale is the world’s biggest predator. It can swallow giant squid and even sharks. It was terrifying but then I felt it using its echo location. I could feel it vibrating through my rib cage. It was scanning me – it knew exactly where I was. Then it just glided off. It was amazing.”
During his adventure, Philip visits the house where Melville wrote his masterpiece. “It was moving to stand at his desk, look out of the window and see the mountain which he thought looked like the shape of a whale.”
In fact, says Philip, the story of Moby-Dick (one man’s obsessive pursuit of the great white whale) has parallels with the modern world. “It’s just like George Bush hunting Osama Bin Laden. This idea of chasing evil. What is it? Does it even exist?”
Philip happily admits to being “obsessed” by whales.
“I saw my first whales during holidays in Cape Cod in the late 1990s. It got to the point where people said I spent more time with whales than humans! That’s how I started the journey. When you’re standing on a beach in a cold New England winter freezing your bits off, you do ask yourself what you’re doing there. But the rewards are worth it.”
The biggest bonus of all, he says, was getting up close to the creatures once again.
“I have seen grown men crying when they see a whale for the first time. It’s not just their size. When they look at you, there is intelligence behind those eyes.
“There’s also something mystical about them because they are so huge but we know so little about them.
“When I started out I had a much more pragmatic, less emotional response to the whole whaling thing. I took an objective approach.
“But when I swam with whales I felt a sense of guilt, as if I should be apologising to them for how we’ve treated them.
“Whaling is still going on in some parts of the world and they are also suffering through pollution and climate change. They are victims. But these are enlightened times and I hope all that can change.”
By Paula Thompson