Balancing comfortably on the cusp between popular and scientifically detailed narrative, Bortolotti (Exploring Saturn, 2003) summarizes our current knowledge concerning the blue whale.
He engages readers with a smooth writing style and a storyteller’s easeful tempo, and his subject has an obvious wow factor. The blue whale is the largest, longest, heaviest and loudest animal inhabiting earth, capable of reaching 100 feet in length and 200 tons in Antarctic waters. Its story is tragic. Treated with mythopoetic awe by Pliny and in The Arabian Nights, blue whales would later be reduced to cakes of soap and bars of margarine. In the 20th century, hunters managed to kill 999 out of every 1,000 of the creatures off Antarctica. “No human industry followed a more reckless, myopic pattern than whaling,” writes Bortolotti. The color and sting are good for his story, but the author is aiming for something more encyclopedic and so must make extended forays into the more nebulous world of scientific theories and the hard practice that structures those theories. Our understanding of the blue whale is neither broad nor deep. How old do they get? Do they have breeding and birthing grounds? How do they generate their spectacular sounds? How can they be measured? How many are there? To all such questions Bortolotti must reply, “no one knows for certain.” Which is not to say that plenty of researchers, a handful of whom receive cogent portraits here, are not hard at work developing means and recording data, though the whales’ natural attributes make study difficult. (They are fast, sink when dead and mostly live hundreds of miles offshore.) There is some evidence that the blue whale is increasing its numbers. Still, the author notes, “each of the world’s blue whale populations faces a different suite of potential threats”—including continued hunting.
A lively, thorough and judicious survey of the species Melville described as “uncertain, fugitive, half-fabulous.”