Before human greed and exploitation took its toll, the ocean was home to more than 300,000 blue whales. After half a century of horrific slaughter, and in the face of an indifferent public that doesn’t want to know where its soap and pet food comes from, the largest creature on earth has approached extinction. Today, only a few thousand remain. In Wild Blue
, Dan Bortolotti tells the whales’ story with lucidity and depth. While some may find the book’s style dry, the content more than compensates for this. The author has extensively interviewed leading whale biologists and accompanied several on their field trips, not even allowing seasickness to dissuade him. His research uncovered folklore as ancient as the story of the blue whale that carried Indonesians on its back to their homeland. He has also unearthed details about the whale’s evolution from a wolflike creature 50 million years ago to what he calls its “missing link,” an amphibian described as a “furry crocodile,” which was discovered in Pakistan in 1994. By using analogies the layperson can understand, Bortolotti makes statistics like the mammal’s immense weight easily comprehensible. He notes, for example, that a bouncing baby blue grows at the rate of four kilos an hour, and that a blue whale’s tongue can cover up to 64 square feet of a whaling ship’s deck space. Bortolotti took three years to research and write the book, and considering the wealth of information it contains, you may be surprised it didn’t take him longer.
Balancing comfortably on the cusp between popular and scientifically detailed narrative, Bortolotti (Exploring Saturn, 2003) summarizes our current knowledge concerning the blue whale. He engages readers with a smooth writing style and a storyteller’s easeful tempo, and his subject has an obvious wow factor. The blue whale is the largest, longest, heaviest and loudest animal inhabiting earth, capable of reaching 100 feet in length and 200 tons in Antarctic waters. Its story is tragic. Treated with mythopoetic awe by Pliny and in The Arabian Nights, blue whales would later be reduced to cakes of soap and bars of margarine. In the 20th century, hunters managed to kill 999 out of every 1,000 of the creatures off Antarctica.
“No human industry followed a more reckless, myopic pattern than whaling,” writes Bortolotti. The color and sting are good for his story, but the author is aiming for something more encyclopedic and so must make extended forays into the more nebulous world of scientific theories and the hard practice that structures those theories. Our understanding of the blue whale is neither broad nor deep. How old do they get? Do they have breeding and birthing grounds? How do they generate their spectacular sounds? How can they be measured? How many are there? To all such questions Bortolotti must reply, “no one knows for certain.” Which is not to say that plenty of researchers, a handful of whom receive cogent portraits here, are not hard at work developing means and recording data, though the whales’ natural attributes make study difficult. (They are fast, sink when dead and mostly live hundreds of miles offshore.)
There is some evidence that the blue whale is increasing its numbers. Still, the author notes, “each of the world’s blue whale populations faces a different suite of potential threats”—including continued hunting. A lively, thorough and judicious survey of the species Melville described as “uncertain, fugitive, half-fabulous.”Wild Blue
is not only about the awesome capabilities of this magnificent creature, it is also an important history of animal killing for profit and a reflection on the future of wild animals in a world dominated by man.
With prodigious research and lucid-- sometimes eloquent-- writing, Bortolotti tells three great stories in this book. First is the tragedy of how human greed and technological ingenuity came close to annihilating our planet's largest animal, turning hundreds of thousands of these majestic creatures into margarine, soap, pet food, fertilizer, and other industrial commodities. Second is an engaging mystery story, in which the author leads us deep into the living research of the modern scientific detectives who are attempting to understand these beings that only a few people can ever hope to glimpse. Finally is the coda, that shows us the interconnections between the future of the blue whale and our own species' roles on the blue planet.
Most whale books turn into sagas. It's the nature of the beast. One could hardly expect anything lass from a book on the great blue whale. Don Bortolotti turns his considerable journalistic skills to chronicling the blue whale saga-- the animal hunted to near extinction and studied now with great passion by teams of researchers in the few pockets around the world where blues still roam. Spellbinding superlatives abound. Written with authority, insight, and compassion, Wild Blue
reveals for the first time the big picture on the blue whale story.
Dan Bortolotti tells the whales' story with lucidity and depth.Wild Blue
is worthy of its mighty subject. With an easy to read style, Bortolotti gives us a fascinating account of the history as well as the enduring mysteries of one of the world's most amazing creatures.
Every whale species should be lucky enough to have a chronicler such as Bortolotti... He has the enviable knack for translating the jargon of biologists and complex scientific ideas into not just plain English, but enjoyable English. He is especially good at finding metaphors to make comprehensible what is otherwise not.Wild Blue
is a thoughtful and engaging journey- one that ambitiously sets out to document everything there is to know about the blue whale. With no shortage of scope, Bortolotti does manage to give the subject the depth it warrants, and does so with cohesion.