Herman Melville's classic novel Moby-Dick immortalized the idea of a mammoth sperm whale roaming the seas, wreaking havoc on all that crossed its path. But could such a creature actually exist, then or now? To find out, the acclaimed adventure writer and explorer Tim Severin set off to the islands of the South Pacific in search of one of our most iconic modern myths. From the Marquesas Archipelago, where the twenty-one-year-old Melville deserted his whaling ship in 1842, through the Philippines, Tonga, and Indonesia, Severin follows a trail of ocean legend and lore to the last surviving islanders who hunt the great whale by hand, shadowing a victorious hunt from Stone Age boats and uncovering tantalizing evidence of the existence of a Great White Whale. In this captivating account of his voyage, Severin traces not only the origins of Melville's legendary literary creation but also something of the spiritual relationship between the islanders and the creatures of the sea, the hunter and his prey.
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Historian and adventurer Tim Severin has made a career of retracing epic voyages. He crossed the Atlantic in an open boat of stretched leather to test whether a sixth-century Irish monk could have made a fabled journey to North America, and later explored the Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia to see how the archipelago has "evolved" since 19th-century naturalist Alfred Wallace first surveyed it. The quest for the white whale, however, lands Severin in different territory: the shifting currents of fiction. Following tenuous evidence of pale sperm whales, Severin embarks for the South Pacific and the birthing grounds of Melville's masterpiece. On Nuku Hiva, the setting for Typee, he finds that the island harbors "many of the sources that Melville had raided to embellish his own, rather thin, experiences." Also thin is any evidence of a white whale, so he moves on to Pamilican, a dirt-poor little scrape where the locals subsist on jerry cans of imported fresh water and by "jumping" the sea's bounty. Their principal prey is the whale shark, the largest fish in the sea. Artists of the jump actually wrestle these plankton eaters underwater by hand, hooking the beasts with a massive grappling hook before coming up for the fight on board. One ancient hunter speaks vaguely of having jumped a white whale shark, but there are also rumors of giant white manta rays and other fantastic creatures.
The centerpiece of the book is a visit to the little-known island of Lamarala, the "last community on earth where men still regularly hunt sperm whales by hand." An old-timer with 60 years of whaling notched into his harpoon explains enthusiastically that the white whale "has visited us many times. Sometimes it can be a wicked fellow." Severin's gripping firsthand account of an actual hunt gives credence to a 1993 report of 34 Lamaralese fishermen being towed out to sea for four days by a big bull sperm whale. But does he find Moby-Dick's kin? In a manner of speaking. What surfaces in these pages is not so much the white whale as the idea of the white whale--a creature bathed in mystery and the people that speak knowingly of it, all of whom give meaning to the sea. --Langdon CookAbout the Author:
Tim Severin has retraced the journeys of such mythical figures as Sindbad, Ulysses, and Jason and the Argonauts. His books include The Brendan Voyage and In Search of Genghis Khan. When not traveling, he lives in County Cork, Ireland.
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