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Curious about 'The Whale?' Read the Book

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Dawn Brancheau found her vocation at 9, when she visited Seaworld in Orlando and delightedly watched killer whales perform. She became a top trainer at Seaworld and was publicly drowned last week by its top draw, a killer whale named Tilikum.

As a youth in England, Philip Hoare watched an orca named Ramu follow his trainer's demands "like a lap dog...beaten by his captivity." Ramu, Hoare tells us, outgrew his "oversized swimming pool" and died of heart failure at San Diego's Seaworld after siring four offspring.

During his long career as a writer and author, Hoare nurtured a fascination that grew into obsession; he went off to watch and study whales so frequently in Provincetown that his friend John Waters suggested Hoare write a book about them.

I wonder what Dawn Brancheau would have made of Hoare's just-released text, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea. Her lurid death in front of a big crowd must be boosting sales of this thoughtful, sensitive survey of man's interactions with whales, from centuries of slaughtering them for oil to light homes and cities (and making exquisite perfumes from their dung) to forcing them to entertain us.

Hoare pays eloquent tribute to the beauty, power, and history of the sea's mightiest creatures, particularly the sperm whale, which happens to be the world's biggest mammal -- essentially our cousin, with bigger brains and a noble sense of family and loyalty that might be superior. (While orcas belong to the mammalian porpoise family, they are the sperm whale's sole natural predator and play a role in the book.) Science is only beginning to figure whales out. Can readers who have discovered their elegance and mystery ever again enjoy a seaquarium?

This personal tour through the nature, history, and literature of whales and whaling is generously illustrated with photographs, art, and charts. Throughout are choice quotes from Herman Melville's Moby Dick, a presence that Hoare uses to examine not only the practice of whaling (dominated by Quakers, as it happened), but its sexual and racial tones (men at sea, many of them African, like Queequeg).

Hoare presents whaler-turned-adventure-writer Melville, nearly finished writing a book that he expects to prove popular with the masses ("blubber is blubber," he dismissively tells a friend), meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne at a picnic that I was surprised to learn an ancestor of mine had held in the Berkshires. The two became passionate friends. Hawthorne's gloomy concerns soon prompted the younger writer to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Shakespeare's collected works. These helped provoke a radical rewrite that produced a Moby Dick dedicated to Hawthorne. Melville never recovered from its commercial failure.

No longer hunted by most nations for oil and protein, whales are still in danger. They eat a lot of food: The world's sperm whales, says Hoare, eat as much fish per year as people do. (That's one of the rationales the Japanese put forth to defend their gory obsession with killing whales -- and even common dolphins.) The toxins we dump in the sea have filled its larger species with mercury and PCBs. The gorgeous, ghostly beluga's Arctic habitat is melting; freighters will soon exploit the once-blocked Northwest Passage, fouling waters that are no longer icy enough to sustain it.

Meanwhile we chase whales around in sonar-equipped cruisers jammed with tourists. We confine them in glass boxes, marveling at their scale and cleverness. We click on tales of their empathy (whale saves drowning diver!) and of tasteless human hubris (Shoppers flee as shark aquarium in Dubai mall cracks!). I prefer Hoare's account of swimming close to a female sperm whale that clicks over him until she decides he's unfit to eat.

Mostly we wonder at the untimely conclusion of Dawn Brancheau's life. What made that orca drown her? I read absurd distinctions between Tilly, as the killer whale is known, and other animals that have offed their trainers. Because Tilly is "wild," it might not be executed, as happens to chimpanzees, alligators, and pythons that bite their trainers, explains The New York Times. Is an alligator really less wild than an orca?

Six-ton Tilly happens to be the world's biggest captive killer whale. He's participated in the deaths of three trainers in his 30-year lifespan. I'm not saying Tilly should be punished. There's no chance of that anyway.

With widespread bans on capturing killer whales, breeding has become the most acceptable way to acquire one for display. Calves are worth $10 million apiece. Seaworld, a chain bought last year by the Blackstone Group -- one of the world's biggest private equity firms -- owns 25 of the world's 42 captive orcas. Tilly sired 14 of these salable commodities. He's a killer stud, too valuable to sacrifice to public opinion.

In fact, his Shamu Show will go on, a bigger draw than ever. Performances are already resuming, though trainers won't be allowed to get in the water with Tilly until Seaworld can announce some sort of conclusion that allows it to risk another worker. Given how little we understand about the great oceanic mammals, that piece of fiction will be a lot less informative than Hoare's wonderful book.