Quill & Quire
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.
This mostly admiring portrait of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (aka MSF), the nonprofit that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, emphasizes the inner workings of the organization and is animated by interviews with mid-level staffers and by site visits to MSF projects in Angola, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In between, journalist Bortolotti traces the history of the world's largest independent medical humanitarian organization, whose genesis was the Biafran horrors of the late '60s.… Only about a quarter of field volunteers are, in fact, doctors, and most staff are local hires rather than foreigners. MSF volunteers resist being described as heroic ("It's not noble; it's an attempt," one says) but acknowledge that the crucible of crisis does test character. Some stories (illustrated by stock-looking photos, including two color inserts) are grimly poignant: a middle-aged surgeon tells of relying on his lower-tech training to perform surgery in Sri Lanka and Liberia; a logistician describes how to negotiate with drugged-up child soldiers at a Sierra Leonian checkpoint. While Bortolotti could have been clearer, for example, on the mechanics of MSF's fund-raising apparatus, he notes that even critics of humanitarian aid admire MSF for attempting to intervene under seemingly impossible circumstances. -Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly
*Starred Review* It may be difficult to read this book, not because it is poorly written--it is in fact the inspired opposite--but because it makes the meager number of volunteers comprising Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) look like the last hope for millions who suffer subhuman living conditions and death, visited upon them by tyrants and thugs more often than by natural disaster. Born in France nearly 30 years ago, MSF, known in the U.S. as Doctors without Borders, struggles to remain true to its philosophy of delivering humanitarian aid divorced from all political affiliation. Still, the notion that humanitarianism can be totally agenda free presents constant challenges for the international group as it struggles to dispense essential medical services to places where no other such providers dare to go. Bortolotti says the Congo is one of the "greatest humanitarian disasters of our time" and the South Sudan is "another planet"-- places where, but for MSF, there would be no hope for thousands. Much of what Bortolotti reports is noticeably absent from the daily headlines, so this eye-opening account is all the more chilling, and MSF's efforts achingly more compelling. - Booklist (Booklist
"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." (Richard Ellis, Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History
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.” (Kirkus