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No whale is an island

No whale is an island

Philip Hoare swims with sperm whales in the waters of the Azores

Philip Hoare swims with sperm whales in the waters of the Azores

Philip Hoare | May/June 2014

The nine islands of the Azorean archipelago seem built to deceive. They are only the tips of volcanoes set on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs along the ocean’s unseen floor like a knobbly spine. Their black, basaltic shores are modelled from bubbling lumps of stilled lava, frozen in the moment of their creation.

In feel, neither European, nor American, nor even African—although historically ascribed to all three—they are caught between cultures, and geologic aeons. The three groups of islands, set on three different tectonic plates, are in the process of being pulled apart. They have been colonised since the 15th century—Colombus called here on his way back from America, to give thanks for his discovery—but seem to resist the modern world in their sublime isolation. The Azores were the setting for the mystery of the Mary Celeste.

To anyone with a romantic imagination, they are fearful places, imbued with the profundity of the sea that surrounds them. A hundred yards from the shore of Pico, one of the central islands, the depth falls to half a mile. Half a mile out, and the gauge will read one mile; a mile farther, and the water plummets three miles, down to the abyssal plain.

This alien environment is the perfect home for an animal we have sought to encompass through myth and literature, exploitation and eventually a kind of scientific understanding. It’s a creature we drew as children, which few of us could hope to see alive.

The sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, is the largest predator that ever lived. Its bizarre, block-like head is filled with a waxy substance named spermaceti, believed by early hunters to be its semen. In reality, this oil possesses bio-acoustical properties that amplify the whales’ sonar clicks, allowing it to find food. They favour the Azores for their clear, cold waters and plentiful squid. Supreme natural submarines, sperm whales can dive to a mile down and for two hours at a time, using echo-location to search the darkness for their lunch.

Their brains are enormous and even more intriguing, capable of intense communication (via Morse-code-like clicks) and even, some scientists believe, of a sense of abstract self. Such is their social cohesion that sperm whales can be said to be collectively individual, expressing a matrilineal culture in which unrelated females will look after young calves while their mothers dive for food.

And whereas home for a whale is other whales, the Azores seem to act as a place of safety. I have swum with these whales. I have been scanned by their sonar; I have looked them in the eye. I have felt their sense of sonic connection with one another, although members of their pod might be miles away. Whaling here ended in 1986; the same motorboat that towed the hunters out to sea still occasionally takes tourists out. When it does, the whales vanish. They remember the sound.

Abiding survivors, these enigmatic shape-shifters seem to live in another world entirely. I sometimes think that, like those eerie Azorean rocks, they might exist only in my imagination.

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