MEN AND WHALES by Richard Ellis


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 Authoritative history of man's relationship with whales, presented in lively, straightforward prose. Ellis completes his comprehensive two-volume account of the cetaceans of the world (The Book of Whales, 1980) with a history of man's pursuit of whales. Anticipating that such a story would divide into three parts--ancient man's discovery of whales; the rise of the whaling industry; and the fall of the whaling industry--he found instead multiple beginnings in countries settled by whalers, and endings that devolved on species of whales being hunted to the brink of extinction, at which point they were of no further profit. In the 19th century, he explains, whale oil provided illumination and lubrication that was superior to that of vegetable oils, and whalers were admired as doing a necessary and dangerous job. When hunting meant ``hanging on to a wounded, 60-ton animal with a length of rope attached to a bouncing rowboat,'' there was ground for the whaler's heroic image. After the invention of the grenade harpoon and bow-mounted cannon, though, each species of whale was efficiently and ruthlessly hunted. Ellis records the many whale fisheries throughout history, beginning with those of the Basques in A.D. 1000, who are thought to have hunted the Atlantic gray whale into extinction. (The history of whaling has been a dismal record of human greed always and everywhere). He intersperses his chronicle with diverting interludes on the white whale (the beluga--unlike Moby Dick, a ``small, smiling, puddinglike creature''); the sea- unicorn--actually the narwhal, whose long, straight tusk found its way into crown-jewel collections; and life aboard a whaler, an employment so filthy that one 19th-century chronicle said that cockroaches in the crew's quarters made ``a noise like a flush of quails among the dry leaves of the forest.'' A fine and expert accomplishment. (Three hundred photographs, paintings, drawings, and maps--most seen.)

Pub Date: Oct. 30th, 1991
ISBN: 0-394-55839-1
Page count: 528pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1991


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