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Philip Hoare's experience with North Atlantic right whales

Philip Hoare is a writer and cultural historian. He is the author of many non-fiction books, including Leviathan, or The Whale, and a friend to WDC. He is starting off this series in which whale scientists, advocates, and whale lovers tell us about their most memorable or favorite North Atlantic right whale experiences. We are highlighting just how special these experiences are because without action the North Atlantic right whale could be gone forever. Please help protect this species by signing our Act Right Now petition and help save North Atlantic right whales from extinction. Below is Philip Hoare’s story:

That morning I cycled to the shore on the outermost end of the Cape.
I had to wade through sand to get there, breaking the salty crust that 
winter had laid over summer dunes.  Finally, I reached the lighthouse 
I’d seen from far away.  For the last few hundred yards I had to abandon my bike and trudge between stumps of dormant marron grass that 
snatched at my heels.  Their dead strands described circles in the 
sand as the Atlantic winds blew them round and around. 
As I crested the last dune, the view fell away before me, the sea 
unrolled like a painted strip.  I might have been the first person to 
discover this beach.  The tide was on its way out, leaving a wide 
stretch of damp sand on which a huge flock of gulls was feeding. As I descended and entered this natural arena the birds took off, the 
flutter of a thousand white wings rising like a curtain to reveal, 
barely yards out in the water, an impossible arrangement of black 
triangles and humps.  Moving restlessly through the water, this way 
and that, was a group of right whales.

Photo Credit: Philip Hoare
It was a breathtaking moment, beyond spectacle or expectation – all 
the more powerful for being experienced alone, and for the accumulated 
history that these animals bore on their broad black backs.  The 
rarest of the great whales, right whales were hunted to near 
extinction in the nineteenth century, prized for their long baleen and 
oil-rich blubber.  By the time the killing stopped in the last 
century, barely more than one hundred were left.  They were the first of the great whales to be protected, but even now their numbers stand at fewer than four hundred.

The huge animals wove in and out of each others’ paths, sometimes 
surging across the appointed place – a deep undertow where two 
powerful currents met.  Sometimes they dove down, moving, as we humans 
seldom do, in three dimensions, fully occupying the world, living in 
their moment.  They took no notice of the watcher on the sand, or of 
the seal that had appeared on the shoreline, expectantly observing the 
show going on ahead of us both.  It was a spectacle, a piece of 
theatre or ballet; only instead of the grunts and groans of the 
dancers’ exertion, I heard the sound of exhaled air – many cubic 
litres of it – and deep, sensual gasps as the whales curled around 
each other.  The animals seemed to stroke each other with their flukes 
and fins, as if in reassurance or celebration of their physical 
survival.

The wind grew colder.  It was time to go, to leave the whales to their 
frolics, far from the sight of man.  Yet a mile away workers were 
repairing the road; and a mile from that, Provincetown was going about 
its business on a weekday morning in March, blithely unaware of the 
miracle being played out at the sea.