Monday, July 13, 2009
Philip Hoare: Could a sperm whale have swallowed him?
Philip Hoare writes of his "whalehead" experiences in G2 today as winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for his whale-spotting tome Leviathan. On a dive in the Azores (for BBC2's The Hunt for Moby-Dick) he encounters a sperm whale. He writes: "Silhouetted against the blue, the whale turned and looked at me, eye to eye. It was the most disconcerting moment of my life." What the whale thought as it ogled Hoare is unrecorded. He adds: "Sperm whales are the only cetaceans which could swallow human beings, and have done so."
The implication is clear: Philip Hoare could have been swallowed by the sperm whale! Even a hardened, unfairly maligned cynic such as myself, shuddered at such a prospect. It's no way to end a prize-winning literary career. As reverse sushi.
But is there really a documented and confirmed instance of a sperm whale swallowing a human being? There's the old James Bartley tale: back in 1891, off the Falklands, the whaler was reportedly cut out of a sperm whale's tum after a night in (the tum). Aside from Michael Jackson-style skin bleaching from the beast's gastric juices, he was OK, if a little nonplussed. The story is now dismissed as a sea yarn. Other tales are the stuff of maritime myth, though it's not like little Pip to get his facts wrong.
I suppose had Philip been inadvertently swallowed by the sperm whale, BBC licence fee payers would have happily funded a whaling ship to hunt down the miscreant and retrieve the author, hopefully corpus intacta and alive, from its belly. Alas, the whale would not have survived the experience. The risks an intrepid experience-chaser takes for a good book!