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Swimming With Whales


Swimming with whales. We’ll get up close with the largest, loudest, longest-lived animals on earth.

In this photo taken July 21, 2011, a baby gray whale is seen with it's mother in the Klamath River in Klamath, Calif. (AP)

In this photo taken July 21, 2011, a baby gray whale is seen with it's mother in the Klamath River in Klamath, Calif. (AP)

Whales thrill humans, and they always have.

The easy day-trip thrill of watching whales. The terrifying thrill of hunting whales. The ancient thrill of contemplating a creature of size beyond imagining. Even of being swallowed whole.

Philip Hoare caught whale fever in the pages of “Moby Dick,” the giant skeletons of museum display and the sight of giant humpbacks breaching.

He ended up mid-Atlantic, swimming face to face with a sperm whale, overwhelmed by all the leviathan has meant and means today.

This hour in an archive edition of On Point: swimming with whales.

-Tom Ashbrook


Philip Hoare joins us from New York. He’s author of “The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea” and writer and presenter of the BBC documentary “The Hunt for Moby-Dick.” He’s also the author of five previous works of nonfiction, including “Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant,” “Noel Coward: A Biography,” and “England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia.”

You can read an excerpt from “The Whale” at HarperCollins.com.


Rebroadcast Aug. 30, 2011 at 10 am.

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  • Margaret Campbell

    Re:Today’s Show=”Swimming with Whales”–please be sure to mention our responsibility to try to protect whales (and all wildlife). Mention Farley Mowat’s book: A Whale for the Killing.
    Thank You.

  • Dana Franchitto

    the “terrifying thrill” of hunting whales? Whaling is certainly nothing to be proud of nor romanticized as a “way of life or “cultural tradition”. it has been inhumane and devastating of populations of such fascinating animals to reduce them to a commodity is a black mark on human kind.

  • Larry


    I may have missed it but how does the whales’ body adjust to the change in pressure so rapidly diving and coming to the surface?

  • http://ibelieveinbutter.wordpress.com Soli

    Dana, I agree that the whaling industry has done a horrific job of killing off large amounts of many whales. But I don’t see indigenous cultures hunting a small amount a year (whether they be in Canada, the US, Iceland, or Japan) and using the whole animal for their community in the same league.

  • Carmen

    I lived in the South Bay of Los Angeles when I was young; my father was and is an avid sailor. When I was eight years old, we were out with family friends sailing on a boat perhaps 20-25 feet long (point: a SMALL vessel). All of a sudden, we see the back of a whale – California Blue? Gray? Humpback? – surface less than 50 feet away from us. Once the whale had disappeared, all we saw was its “wake” – a glassy oval in the middle of the water.

    I wish I had known that that was the closest I’d ever be to a whale! But at the age of eight thinking weekend sailing off the coast of California was a normal thing to do, all I thought of was, “Cool, we saw a whale today. He was kind of close to us!”

  • Daltonic

    i was finally moved last year to buy my own boat to be able to go out and see whales on my own time…

    i live in boston and have made it my goal this year to bring as many people as i can out to the waters off cape cod and share with them the majesty of these incredible animals -

    i can attest to a recent caller – it is incredible to be next to these great animals from a 20 foot boat and have them breaching just 40 feet away or have them blow just 10 feet from you…

    amazing animals…

  • Kristina Jansen

    Listening to Philip Hoare describe his encounter with the Sperm Whales sent chills up my spine. What an awesome experience that must have been. I appreciated the opportunity to think about these enormous and awesome animals this morning as I drove to work. I will definitely check out Mr. Hoare’s book and share it with my children.

    Best, kj

  • Brian

    No whale story myself, but here’s a favorite passage from Moby-Dick, in which Ahab addresses the severed head of a whale. From Chapter 70, The Sphinx:

    It was a black and hooded head; and hanging there in the midst of so intense a calm, it seemed the Sphynx’s in the desert. “Speak, thou vast and venerable head,” muttered Ahab, “which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor’s side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw’st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw’st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed— while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”

  • Larry

    What about the U.S. Navy using sub sonic radar which the NRDC has taken them to court for since it harms the marine mammals?

    Why do humans have to be so arrogant and destructive and brutal to other creatures?

    I do not want my tax dollars going to harm whales.

  • Gary Colecchio

    Killing whales is unconscionable, but to celebrate the actions of a pirate and dangerous mariner as Paul Watson is equally wrongheaded and irresponsible.
    Captain Gary Colecchio
    USCG licensed Master Mariner.

  • Kash Hoffa

    Does anyone know where can I obtain a whale hunting license?

  • http://none nicole Shoong

    Dear Tom,
    You are the best talk show host I have ever listened to. However, this morning you did not let Philip Hoare finish his Sperm Whale story. Philip has profound information. Thank you for covering this topic. Please, please have him back soon.
    Nicole Shoong

  • Curt Welling

    My best whale story….

    The Bering Sea, steaming back to Dutch Harbor after a month long fishing trip. I’m on watch by myself, the rest of the crew is deep in a well deserved sleep. I’m just watching, watching from the wheelhouse, trying to stay alert. The fog causes me to keep a close eye on the radar. Finally nature calls me out on deck to relieve myself. On the port beam, just 30 yards or so away, a small pod of minkes begin to breach…
    Flinging themselves nearly clear of the water, must be 6 or 7 individuals. They keep breaching over and over, keeping up with us for long moments, I hear the splashes over the dull roar from the diesel. Through the fog, they leap, I can’t forget them, they haunt my dreams.

  • Curt Welling

    BTW, who decided to speed up the whale songs? It totally ruins it. Please, play them back in real time, if at all possible. Especially humpbacks, speeding up humpback songs just doesn’t work.

  • Sue Meyer

    Great show!
    I crossed the Atlantic a couple of times on a small sailboat and was fortunate enough to have a number of whale encounters. I’ve experienced pilot whales swimming mere inches from the hull of the boat, which was pretty unnerving and exciting at the same time. I also had a sperm whale surface in the light of the moon, next to the boat off the Azores while I was alone at night on watch. It scared the living daylights out of me. Whales never fail to thrill, no matter how many times you’re lucky enough to see them. It’s pretty sad to think of the numbers of these amazing animals that are killed and the amount of pollution in their environment.

  • http://www.cinastructuralintegration.com Sally Cina

    In February 2008, I was off the NaPali Coast of Kaua’i feeling quite seasick on the tourist catamaran. We had seen countless humpback whale tails. They were amazing and the seasickness was almost quite worth it. Then with a sudden lurch of our vessel, I tossed my cookies off the backside of the ship. Just as suddenly an orca swept up and out of the sea behind us – right in front of me. The deck hand saw it too and it was the most amazing encounter that I have ever had.

    Whales are amazing.

    Thanks for the show!

  • Sarah Podleski

    Love it! Great to read about individuals I know and love, both people and whales :) Hope you are well and that we see you on the cape this summer. Cheers!

  • Sarah Podleski

    To the gentleman who asked about the whale’s ability to adjust to pressure changes:
    Whales store the oxygen that they need from the air in their muscles, attached to myoglobin (analagous to hemoglobin in the blood) as opposed to carrying gas in their lungs, as we do. Without the gas, the whales do not suffer the bends.
    Whales can, however, suffer severe, often fatal, damage to their inner ears from surfacing too rapidly in response to disturbances in their environment such as the Navy’s use of Low Frequency Active Sonar or naturally occurring seismic events.

  • Perry Nelson

    What an utterly fascinating interview this evening! I cannot wait to order and read The Whale, and Leviathan. Based on the conversation with Tom, it’s clear that Phillip Hoare is a first-rate story-teller. I’ve only ever had encounters with dolphins before, but can only hope to have a similar encounter with whales before my life is over.

  • Hillary

    Hello, I have never written to any of the shows on NPR, but there was something about this particular show that really struck my soul. I am from Santa Cruz County, California. This area is one of the most prized marine habitats in the entire world. I have been a member of this community for my whole life. I guess you could say I am an environmentalist, but coming from the new younger generation I am still ignorant to the horrors that plague humankinds past. Why do people in different cultures massacre whales and dolphins? Do they not see the harm that they cause the rest of the world including the beautiful creatures of the sea that we know nothing about? I fear that many types of whales will be extinct before my children are even born. What is being done to solve this problem? I know of the peaceful ships hunting the Japanese whaling fleets, but this is not enough. Why haven’t other governments gotten involved? Why can’t these older generations of people realize that they are not leaving their children or grandchildren with a planet to live on, water to drink, food to eat and wild animals to see?

  • angela cockayne

    An enjoyable programme based on a magnificent book, re faction; Mr Hoare’s wonderful and informative literary style, left me bereft on finishing. Gets my nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature, this is a classic, a very important work, a book he was born to write, like Melville’s Moby-Dick, with a message for us all.

  • ulTRAX

    To WFCR/WNNZ listeners… and listeners on other stations who have lost the second hour of ON POINT.

    You are not hearing this show because, according to a letter from WFCR another show’s producers wanted to shift their time from 9am to 11am. : “Tell Me More’s producers, including host Michel Martin, feel this later time will make the show an even stronger. The staff will have more time to prepare, and West Coast guests can be more easily booked for interviews.”
    Their alleged problems are not OUR problem.

    On Point is perhaps one of the BEST shows on NPR. It covers timely and controversial topics I don’t hear elsewhere on NPR. Tom Ashbrook is a gifted host who knows how to get the most out of his guests. Better still, he brings us guests that we might otherwise never have a chance to directly question. We can do so BECAUSE THE SHOW IS LIVE. In contrast, the other show need not be run live.

    PLEASE PROTEST TO WFCR by writing to radio@wfcr.org or to your own NPR station.


  • Wendy

    I just listened to the show on podcast and enjoyed it.
    I lived in the Kingdom of Tonga for 4 whale seasons and had many in-water encounters with whales. I was always impressed that the whales would come by and “eyeball” you, knowing exactly where you were at all times.
    I was interested in the comment by the woman who had a baby humpback approach her with mouth open. While it did not happen to me, a friend of mine once had the exact same experience with an open-mouthed baby.

  • http://kunstderenergie.ch Corydon Martinet

    Dear Tom and Philip

    Great program! I listened to it twice and could almost stop everything I’m doing and go follow whales around and spread the word about their intelligence. I’ve a comment to Philip who was asked if whales intelligence could be greater than our own and the response was ‘probably not’ and then ‘we don’t know.’ You’re right, we don’t know; and what is intelligence anyway. We tend to have a bias towards a scholastic type of intelligence which would be rather useless if left to survive with nothing but your bare hands in a jungle, weeks away from civilization, let alone the otherworldly habitat of whales.

    Also, could someone please tell me the name and whose music track was used between breaks? I have to know. It sound like a modern Grateful Dead, my favorite hometown band.

  • Fman


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Montana-Tracy/670063411 Montana Tracy

    Wow. They are amazing!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QME6C6XTBAYFEJP2GYDH3VQEMU Beat

    They are almost extinct because of whaling. I remember a Star Trek movie when an alien space craft returned to earth to get in touch with a whale. The whales were already extinct but the star trek crew had to return to the past to get a whale and bring it back to the  present. Because the Alien Craft signal where destroying planet earth when the crew came back with the whale the alien craft received its signal and then left. Earth was saved

  • jim

    we need to have a world protest against japan and norway for hunting and killing these majestic animals.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QME6C6XTBAYFEJP2GYDH3VQEMU Beat

    Whales, if they can vote will they go for a Republican or Democrat candidates?

    • John – Williamstown, VT

      The one’s who beach themselves are not only Republican but also Tea Party.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QME6C6XTBAYFEJP2GYDH3VQEMU Beat

        LOL. Just trying to figure out what topic is more important animal lives or the never ending debate about Politics. I hope I am wrong.

      • Modavations

        Sheila Jackson Lee has now protested the name Great White Whale

  • John – Williamstown, VT

    The same forces that nearly hunted whales to extinction for their oil (saved only by petroleum discovery) would now doom other species and perhaps man with monstrous pipelines and calls to ‘drill baby drill.’  The more things change the more they remain the same.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QME6C6XTBAYFEJP2GYDH3VQEMU Beat

      Prayers to the people of Vermont that are having problems with floods.

    • Modavations

      if you covered 3 states in windmills it would not produce as much energy as one ,good deep water well.Furthermore,you’d then start objecting to the bird deaths.Don’t get me started with your abysmal Ethanol.

  • John

    I have worked as a whale watch naturalist for about 6 years and I have observed that many people’s lives are changed by their encounter with whales. Part of what I see happening is that we discover through our encounter with whales that we belong to a living world that includes other intelligences. We humans are often deeply disconnected from the natural world, or in conflict with it, so to feel suddenly and unspeakably part of something so beautiful and vital is a profound homecoming for many people. A gift from the whales to us in these environmentally challenging times.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QME6C6XTBAYFEJP2GYDH3VQEMU Beat

      very true. also dolphins they said can change a life of a person especially if the person is autistic or have clinical mental illness. I think the sonar or sounds that these animals makes, makes human feel different. Sending waves thru the brain make us feel better.   

      I think

  • John – Williamstown, VT

    Mowat, virtually unknown in the US, has chronicled the death of a) the fishing industry in the North Atlantic and b) of the very sea that is the origin of all life on Earth.  Kill the sea and we doom ourselves, sums up Mowat’s message.

  • Kim

    All animals are nations unto themselves – they are not American, Japanese, African. I applaud any one or group who gives them the voice they need. From farm animals to whales to rhinos, humans are cruel sharers of this planet.  Humane slaughter does not exist even where it is supposedly “regulated”. I’d rather be killed by a lion than by a human.

  • Scott B, Jamestown NY

    I heard the comment about how whales are being injured by ship props, and the damage done to that one whale’s fin (or fluke, I can’t recall at the moment).  I get the idea from a “weed free” fishing lures I had.  Why couldn’t some kind of “vanes” be built into ship design, or attached in the aftermarket, on the bottom of ships that could push a whale (or other larger sea life) away from the prop? They’d work much like a “cow catcher” on a train, but better to be strongly pushed out of the way than hit AND mangled.  They wouldn’t cause that much more drag than a keel, basically being a couple of thin, strong poles that angle aft, and  down a bit further than the props.  They would be retractable, so the ships can operate in shallow water, and coated with something to keep barnacles from attaching themselves. They might even be handy to keep other assorted flotsam and jetsam out of props, and possibly used for housing things like sonar or other research and information equipment. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QME6C6XTBAYFEJP2GYDH3VQEMU Beat

    Well no else once to comment about whales because the people likes Politics more than anthing else in this world.

  • D Neale

    Like many of the people commenting here I was riveted by this program. I have had a lifelong fascination with whales — and all cetaceans — and have always sensed they are an order of intelligence akin to our own.
    One afternoon on Oregon’s Cape Lookout some friends and I climbed through the safety rail and down the face of the cliff. On the rocky shall below we enjoyed lunch and beers. Suddenly whales started breaching right in front of us. They were as near to us as the street is from the porch I am sitting on right now. We watched for an hour or more as one after another appeared. Literally an awesome sight.

  • Zing

    Does anyone know of a distributor of whale meat?  I hear it tastes like chicken, but as an inquiring person with an open mind, I want to see for myself.

    • Heaviest Cat


    • Heaviest Cat

      ZIng , there’s something disingenuous about that kind of “open-mindedness”. besides if you live in the US such illicit bounty is illegal

  • Roy Mac

    Umm.  Which point are the whales on?  Or did I catch the wrong discussion thread?

  • Heaviest Cat

    great show but I found Tom’s introductory comment about the “terrifying thrill of hunting whales” a bit offensive given our history of the slaughter of these great marine animals. Also who cares what the whalers think? People like that are a dime a dozen but there is no substitute for the whales. THe UN should force the Japanese and Norwegians to cease whaling immediately, even employing a naval force if we have to ,to put the ships out of commission and send the crews of these vessels back to their native lands.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brennan-Moriarty/100000655771831 Brennan Moriarty

    Awsome show {February magic}. I used to love to draw sperm whales around the 5th & 6th grade, such an intriguing profile and eye.
    I learned how to free-dive simply by reading a basic paperback book about a blue whale born off the Congo; let all your breath out before one last deep breath, then flukes/fins up and dive [40', pressurize!].
    Once when I was about 26 [1996] while surfing Steamers Lane in Santa Cruz [my home county] several “large dolfins” surfaced right next to me, interestingly a few hours ealier I had eaten some quality canned tuna and I burped this flavor right before they surfaced [many other surfers were near, but I was very close] and I thought the tuna-burp was familiar to them or something.
    Last week at a Family Reuniun/wedding in Seattle’s San Juan Isls, a large bunch of the group went on a whale watching tour, but I stayed on Orcas Isl, figuring seeing Shamu was good enough.
    I hope the remaining right-whales are safe from fast moving ships.
    Big Sur Blues.

  • Pingback: Eye of the Humpback… » Nepenthe88.com

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