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
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.