Whale Tales: A Reading List

Whales: We want to watch them, to save them, to read all about them. They are so large—larger than life—that they are symbols in our literature and in our lives. Yet they remain elusive to us, due in part to their nature (deep-diving and difficult to track for sustained periods of time) and to our nature (killing what fascinates us, industrialization, greed). These four stories demonstrate humans’ multi-faceted relationship with whales—where politics, the environment and the economy intermingle with love, terror and cruelty.

1. “Chasing Bayla.” (Sarah Schweitzer, Boston Globe, August 2014)

Let’s start off strong. Sarah Schweitzer has written a masterful story, here: one of hard work, daring rescues, danger and heartbreak. Dr. Michael Moore created a sedative to calm endangered whales trapped in deadly fishing wire. But is his invention enough to free the animals he studied all his life? (I cried.)

2. “‘People Can Be Afraid of Anything.'” (Kate Horowitz, The Atlantic December 2014)

Overwhelmed by a massive model of a blue whale at a museum on an elementary-school field trip, Kate Horowitz develops an unusual phobia. As an adult, she discovers she’s not the only person with a fear of whales, and she takes on a course of exposure therapy, returning to the site of her first fear-struck moment.

3. “The Most Senseless Environmental Crime of the 20th Century.” (Charles Homans, Pacific Standard, November 2013)

One hundred eighty thousand: the estimated number of whales massacred for no reason by the Soviet Union in the mid-1900s. For decades, the government claimed it followed maritime restrictions and hunting quotas. Now, the records kept by a corrupt bureaucracy and its whaling vessels are brought to light and reconstructed. Charles Homans’ piece builds like a horror film, dread spreading through your stomach.

4. “The Legend of the Loneliest Whale in the World.” (Leslie Jamison, Slate, August 2014)

Leslie Jamison’s writing chops are unparalleled, and her account of 52 Blue is fascinating. Named for his vocal frequency—52 hertz, almost three times more than the average blue whale—52 Blue is both a marine marvel and a locus for lonely, misunderstood humans. Jamison weaves together the stories of scientists and civilians affected by this rare whale’s very existence and the stipulations of making an animal the catalyst and cause for hope.