An older book about whales. It caught my attention at a library sale because I knew this author was famous for being among the first men to film underwater, making early documentaries of sea life. He invented the aqualung (very early type of scuba gear) and some other apparatus that enabled man to explore the oceans. This book is part of a series called The Undersea Discoveries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-authored with Philippe Diolé. I have a few others- the one on sharks and another about coral reefs- and I’d really like to read the one about cephalopods, too.
This book describes a number of ocean expeditions the author made with his team, in pursuit of whales. And when I say pursuit, I really mean that. His attempts to film whales swimming free in the oceans were among the first ever done- they had to find the whales, get close enough and then stay in range. To not loose track of the whales when they dived, they tried to tag buoys on them with several-thousand-plus-foot lines, using light harpoons. Said over and over again that the whales would hardly feel it and were not injured, but I dare say they were bothered a lot, according to how quickly they swam away, and tried to avoid the boats. The team discovered they could hold individual whales in one place by circling them with an outboard motor- the ring of bubbles and noise disorientated the whales (presumably making it hard for them to use their echolocation). When they did this to calves, it’s no wonder the mother whales became aggravated. They found the whales were usually not at all aggressive, taking care to avoid divers in the water with their giant fins, and they often could approach close enough to grab hold and “go for a ride.” They seemed pretty thrilled with this. It was all in the attempt to get film footage of the whales, but honestly from a modern perspective, anyone doing this would be called out for harassing the animals.
That said, they did have some incredible encounters and learned some things about whales that nobody knew before- although the book feels seriously outdated to this reader. In different parts of the book they find and follow around humpbacks, grey whales, right whales, sperm whales, orcas, dolphins, finback whales and others. They rescued a few pelicans found injured, and one with a broken wing. They found a way into some secluded lagoons in Baja California where grey whales give birth and raise their young- didn’t witness a birth, but found many calves nursing, and were closely approached by calves while the mothers napped. Made an attempt to save an injured grey whale calf that had beached, the mother nowhere in sight- but it only lived a few days. There’s descriptions of the gear they used, the differences between the whales, what was known about whale physiology and social behavior (not much on this last point, and some of the information given is just wrong). I was mostly interested in parts about the orcas, to compare to the last book I read, but while Namu was mentioned, and the captivity of orcas criticized, this was only a few pages. There’s lots about the sounds whales make, especially the humpback songs, and how whales reacted to recordings played back to them. The author surmises that soon mankind will decipher the language of whales- well here we are fifty years later, not yet. But currently AI is being used to try and “decode” the sounds that sperm whales make- I have to admit I’m skeptical, but also find this quite exciting.
The author writes a lot in this book about how profoundly emotional he and the team members felt in the presence of the whales, that they often were observed and scrutinized, and in awe of the animals’ great size and apparent gentleness. Just by the way whales would look closely at them, they felt indicated a high intelligence. And they often related maneuvers the whales made as a group to shake off the trailing boats, which pointed at an obvious plan and collaboration among the pod or school. It’s kind of dismaying that with all the respect and admiration they claimed to feel towards the whales, they would still find it okay to lasso a calf, stand on a wild whale’s back, or try to ride it like a horse. I guess they thought it wouldn’t hurt and took pride in the daring of these antics, and I’m sad that this is what stood out to me upon closing the book, when really there are many interesting passages and firsthand observations that were at the time, stunning revelations about whales.
The pictures are somewhat blurred and grainy, but some are quite compelling in spite of that. I think my favorite are three photographs of a wild orca accepting fish from a diver’s hand.