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Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Book review - Leviathan

This is not an original title for a book (see my review of 26 January). The first usage of the title was probably Thomas Hobbes’ tome of 1651, which had nothing to do with ships or sea monsters. However, as the word ‘leviathan’ is conjured up to be a sea monster and the blue whale has always been regarded as such, it must have been inevitable that John Gordon Davis would settle on this title for his novel about an attempt to stop the slaughter of these magnificent creatures before they became extinct. This Leviathan was published in 1977 and my paperback copy was issued in 1978.

For much of the 1970s, like so many, I’d been affected by the plight of the whales. I’d bought and listened to Roger Payne’s LP Songs of the Humpback Whale (1970) and I’d read Farley Mowat’s A Whale for the Killing (1972), I gave a lecture on the whales and their grisly fate at the hands of the whalers, and also wrote a lengthy magazine article ‘Whales for the Killing’. When Leviathan came out, I was intent on reading it, but alas have only now got round to doing that. I cannot account for my reluctance to read it; I’d been amassing material for a planned science fiction story featuring whales and a post-apocalyptic earth and probably felt it wasn’t time to write it. Anyway, in due course along came Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) which caused me to reconsider that notion! (I’m still doing that…). And the commercial whaling moratorium suggested that the whales would be saved, which meant there was little urgency to read the book (How wrong could I be? See the footnote below).

Leviathan is an understandably angry book. It concerns Justin Magnus, the new head of Magnus Oceanics, a successful film and communications company that concentrated on the conservation of the oceans of the world. Following his father’s death he considered himself free now to put into motion his daring plans. He was outraged about the continued slaughter of the whales – ‘butchered for lipstick and pet-food’. Propaganda and persuasion hadn’t worked, the IWC seemed toothless. Fortunately, assembled around him were believers in his cause. His crew would set out for the Antarctic and locate the Russian factory ship Slava and blow it out of the water!

He sets out on the Jubilee with a loyal crew, including his younger brother Craig and the woman who becomes the love of his life, Katie. She’s also Justin’s editor; he has written a number of best-sellers, his purpose being the readers ‘must understand! They must see and understand the terrible peril that nature is in.’ (p28)

Their plan is complicated because they have no intention of harming any of the whalers themselves. They will board the factory ship and evacuate the crew in the lifeboats; the other outlying catcher boats can retrieve them.

What could go wrong?

Relationships become strained, especially when an associate and friend Max turns up out of the blue and threatens to expose their scheme. Loyalty is tested. The details are believable; and particularly harrowing when we witness the factory ship’s processing of the dead whales.

Interspersed between the chapters are sections from the perspective of three whales, mother, young son and father, and how their fate becomes entwined with a whaling fleet. There is nothing humane about their methods of killing; a harpooned whale will take at least two hours to die, in excruciating agony, while its family swim close by, pining, soon to be next to be harpooned.

Justin lectures about the decimation of the whales, and for good reason. But his concern is not only for the whales. ‘If the oceans should die, as they will unless we stop polluting the continental shelves with sewerage and industrial waste, unless we stop oil pollution coating the sea and preventing oxygenation…’ (pp99-100) The carbon dioxide content will rise and then the polar ice caps will melt… You get the picture. And he – or his research sources – didn’t even consider the threat from plastic!

The whale sequences are glorious – and heart-breaking.

Since the book was written we know that massive public outrage and the efforts of many groups, including Greenpeace, have managed to bring these enormous graceful giants back from extinction. But now many of us have seen dead whales – and other sea creatures and birds – literally choking on the plastic detritus of our civilisations. Common sense tells us we cannot eradicate plastic, but the world’s response to coping with it requires international resolve. Before it’s too late.

According to Greenpeace, by1970, there were only about 6,000 blue whales left in the oceans, and the numbers of humpback and sperm whales had halved. The methods of killing certainly were not humane, using exploding harpoons, ultimately feeding the carcases into the efficient factory ships.

A so-called moratorium on commercial whaling was established in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission. The only countries still conducting whaling are Iceland and Norway, who objected, pleading exemption from the moratorium on the flimsy grounds of national diet, while Japan was permitted to continue killing for ‘scientific purposes’. According to the WWF, since the moratorium (that admittedly saved the whales from extinction), there have been about 19,000 whales killed (objection and scientific); and not surprisingly there’s been a continuous increase in the number of scientific kills. How many corpses do you have to study, really?

However you sugar-coat it, these whales take a long time to die in excruciating agony.

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