Philip Hoare is best known for his biography of Noel Coward, but he turns his attention to a much grimmer subject than the follies of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" in "The Whale," an eminently readable chronicle of the tragic interaction between humans and whales. Using Herman Melville's life and "Moby-Dick" as touchstones, Hoare traces the whaling industry from its origins in 18th century New England to the present.
Although the basic story of the near-extermination of the great whales is well known, the numbers Hoare cites are staggering.
In the mid-18th century, more than 5,000 street lamps burned whale oil every night in London alone.
Turning whales into oil, corset stays and scrimshaw was big business: "By 1833, seventy thousand souls and seventy million dollars were tied up in whaling and its associated crafts; ten years later that figure had nearly doubled. The United States exported a million gallons of oil to Europe each year."
Production on that scale decimated whale populations: more than 1 million sperm whales swam the world's oceans in 1712; by the end of the 20th century 360,000 existed.
Initially, the prime target was the northern right whale, which had large reserves of blubber and a body that floated after it died, making it the "right" whale to strike.
By the time the right whales had been pushed to near-extinction, whalers had found a new target: the sperm whale (or cachalot).
Sperm whales not only produced blubber, their huge heads contained a reservoir of high quality oil and a waxy material that could be made into the finest candles. Their digestive system also produced ambergris, a valuable substance still used in perfumes.
Although surprisingly little is known about them, recent studies indicate that sperm whales are gentle giants with enormous brains (19 pounds) and complex social systems. They're also great predators with ivory teeth up to a foot long, and, when they're harpooned, they sometimes attack.
Melville's "Moby-Dick" embodies the 19th century image of the sperm whale as a vengeful monster that sent men to watery graves. But when men and whales met, the whale was almost invariably the loser.
Hoare argues that the slaughter of the whales was part of a wider pattern of destruction involving the natural riches of the New World:
"As their land-borne counterparts drove buffalo from sixty million to extinction, so these oceanic cowboys pursued whales to the brink. . . . For America, the common enemy was the wilderness; and just as that wilderness was in fact full of animals -- and native peoples -- so the American seas were full of whales, ready for the slaughter."
Sometimes Hoare's enthusiasm for his subject carries him away: He speaks of whales with old harpoon marks as bearing the "scars of their martyrdom" and describes them as "animals before the Fall, innocent of sin."
But he usually catches himself: "They also have bad breath" and, after eating "day and night without discretion," release "reddish water."
The greatest slaughter occurred long after the age of iron harpoons and wooden boats: Many readers will be surprised to learn they lived through the most destructive era of whaling. During the Cold War, gargantuan Soviet factory ships dispatched and processed their quarry with grim efficiency.
Lamps no longer burned whale oil during the 1950s and 1960s; whales were made into lipstick, margarine, vitamins, lubricants, fertilizer, glue, leather and food for minks and other fur-bearing animals.
Hoare recalls the "whale-oil margarine which sat in yellowy blocks in our fridge" in post- World War II Britain. In 1965, a record 72,471 sperm whales were killed.
Even more surprising is the revelation that high-tech industries continue to use sperm whale oil as a lubricant because it remains viscous at very low temperatures:
"Even now, space agencies in Europe and America still use whale oil for roving vehicles on the moon and Mars; and as you read this, the Hubble Space Telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti."
In addition to the subsistence and ritual hunting permitted by certain indigenous peoples, the Japanese continue to hunt minke and finback whales, ostensibly for scientific research -- although this research has yet to produce a single peer-reviewed paper and the whale meat is sold commercially.
As the clashes between Japanese whalers and Sea Shepherd activists in January and February of this year attest, the battle for the future of the great whales continues.
Solomon is the author of several books, including "Disney Lost and Found" and the forthcoming "The Art of 'Toy Story 3.' "Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun