The Hunted Whale by James McGuane

An evocative photographic study of historic whaling tools and techniques.


“The hunt is one of man’s most ancient endeavors,” begins The Hunted Whale. James McGuane’s photographic exploration into the bygone practice of whaling transports the reader back in time, when whale oil lit the streetlights of the world’s major cities and lubricated the burgeoning textile industry. Whaling was a significant economy unto itself, employing countless young men who were convinced to ship out for years at a time by employment agents known as “land sharks.” It was a trade performed by hand, and McGuane examines its many aspects: hunt, ship, whaleboat, crew, whale, tools and more.

McGuane’s text is accompanied by more than 200 fine, detailed color photographs depicting whaling artifacts, including several examples of scrimshaw–the art of painted, engraved or carved whalebone or teeth. Photographs of twisted and mangled–but intact–harpoons give visceral evidence of the whale’s power to resist human efforts, and McGuane details the methods in practice. Also showcased are innovative technologies, such as toggled harpoons or “irons.”

Selections from Logbook for Grace, a diary kept by naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy aboard the whaleship Daisy in 1912, add a valuable firsthand perspective and bring McGuane’s subject to life. With all its salty flavor, The Hunted Whale is an obvious choice for fans of Moby-Dick, but history or naval buffs and fans of pre-mechanized times will be equally charmed by this detailed pictorial view of the ancient industry of whaling.

This review originally ran in the November 5, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 5 scrimshanders.

2 Responses

  1. I can hear your suppressed voice behind this one. With this subject, there are value issues galore; did the book not broach it? what did it evoke in your values? no mention in the book of many indigenous peoples’ relationship with whales? only 5 scrimshanders? questions go wanting…..

    I understand your choice (obligation?) not to further comment on your Shelf Awareness reviews; and it only warrants attention if your personal interest dictates; maybe this one doesn’t meet that test.

    But this one certainly stands out in that regard.

    • Interesting comments, Pops! I don’t feel any obligation to not comment further; if you recall Meat Eater, I wrote a good bit beyond my SA review (and didn’t get in trouble for it or anything). I certainly see where you’re going with this, but it didn’t inspire as much ambivalence or conflict for me as Meat Eater did. Perhaps that’s because this was a fairly straightforward portrayal of history – it didn’t try to take a side, as Meat Eater certainly did. Of course, I understand the argument that no portrayal of the history of whaling can fail to take a side – silence on the question of exploitative, damaging practices equals approval, right? – but no, I guess I didn’t feel moved to argue against that silence. Perhaps also because I feel it’s so obvious as to not require discussion! But maybe that’s not so. No, the book didn’t broach the subject of whaling as destruction – except to point out that the near annihilation of whales as “resource” is what ended the whaling industry. Again, that’s not a judgment or an argument, just a statement of fact.

      For the record and for what it’s worth, no, I didn’t feel that my voice was suppressed in writing this review. Only 5 scrimshanders were handed out because it wasn’t deeply evocative, didn’t grab my imagination or pique further interests; it was “just” a visually interesting, introductory history lesson.

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