A keen and passionate anthropological-natural history of the gray whale, twinned with a portrait of the whale’s great nemesis-turned-admirer, from environmental journalist Russell (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1992, etc.).
Known to whalers as the devil-fish for its fiercely protective behavior when with its young, the gray whale has been brought back from endangered numbers by a ban on its hunting. But habitat destruction can do as easily what over-hunting once nearly accomplished, and much of Russell’s account is concerned with the fight over protecting Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon (the whale’s critical calving area) from development into a saltworks. Russell also tells the story of whaling captain Charles Melville Scammon, who hunted the gray with remarkable zest and success (he could fill his oil barrels in 8 months when other captains took 4 years), but who also took great interest in studying his quarry—to the point where he abandoned whaling and wrote an important book on marine mammals. That work is still referred to in gray-whale research, which says something about how little of the whale’s behavior is understood, notes Russell. The author tries for a reporter’s balanced approach in his far-flung reports on the gray, dispatched from everywhere along the wide arc starting in Baja California and moving up the US and Canadian coastlines, then sweeping across the Bering and Chukchi Seas to the Russian Far East. He covers controversial Native American whale hunts, and he writes about the hunting of the tiny western gray population along Sakhalin Island by indigenous people in a way that makes the take acceptable. It’s a big story and there is much more: on the whale’s history and choral repertoire and anecdotes aplenty from countless days afield talking with folks for whom the whale is an ever-recurring event.
Anyone who’s been held rapt in a whale’s presence will find this a delight—and those who haven’t will find it an inspiration.