When author David Poyer failed at conceptualizing a full-fledged sequel to “Moby Dick,” he asked for fresh ideas from his students at Pennsylvania’s Wilkes University. Drawing on his extensive naval experience, fueled by their suggestions, Poyer produced another riveting sea-faring adventure, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” a title shared with chapter 42 of Herman Melville’s classic. Fans of Melville, Joseph Conrad and Peter Benchley will enjoy comparing old with new, and thriller fans in general will appreciate the engrossingly frightening nature of an anti-whaling mission in Antarctic waters.
The Black Anemone, an 80-foot sailing sloop built for world class speed, departs Argentina with primate behaviorist Dr. Sara Pollard aboard. Pollard, descendent of a Nantucket whaling captain whose ship, the historical Essex, was sunk by a rogue whale, has left her immediate field of study following a horrible incident in the primate lab. Someone had to take the blame, rather than the university, so the dismissed researcher decides to summer among icebergs, seeking career and life revitalization; she invokes a traditional Nantucket blessing for “fair winds and full sails.”
She joins seven others planning to disrupt a Japanese whaling fleet harvesting whales in internationally designated sanctuaries. Crewing the sloop are obsessive captain, Dru Perrault, his first mate, Jamie Quill, and Mick Bodine, a double amputee Afghanistan veteran, the only research assistant Pollard could attract given her disgraced status. Bodine brings a friend, Lars Madsen, who also represents the funding Cetacean Protection League. Eddi Auer, scarred externally and internally by work with captive orcas, accompanies as videographer. Last aboard are a lithe, leggy film celebrity, Tehiyah Doree, lover to the wealthy sloop owner and Georgita, Doree’s hairdresser and personal servant. At times the behaviors and relationships between these characters closely resemble genre romance but Poyer’s primary storyline remains suspenseful, hostile and brutal; the first mate’s warning about going overboard echoes daily, “Helpless in sixty seconds. Dead in five minutes.”
The first few days on pitching seas brings a routine of small things going wrong — a leaking engine seal and similar mechanical malfunctions, radar that blips off when the sloop soars over a particularly large breaker, some people learning to cooperate while others learn how much they can get away with, all accompanied by a looped soundtrack of entitled celebrity grousing. They must sail 2000 treacherous miles just to get in range of the whales.
Pollard clarifies her new research focus; she seeks to identify neuroscience factors contributing to rogue agonistic behavior in some species, mostly apex predators, like humans and similar primates, tigers, elephants and whales. She reminds readers of Nantucket folklore about rogue whales, encapsulated as one “Mocha Dick,” the source material for Melville’s white whale.
Upon reaching the broached sanctuaries, the Anemone is joined by Dr. Hideyashi Kimura, a Japanese neuroanatomist who literally jumps ship to escape the whalers. Pollard is appalled to learn from him that the Japanese, hunting the vast, unpatrolled areas, use “research” agendas to justify merciless transgressions. In just the past few days, Kimura has dissected 144 whale brains, looking for damage or abnormalities in the region that controls and causes disruption in social relationships. However, to cover up the factory ship’s commercial slaughter, far exceeding “research” quotas, he had been ordered to destroy his results evidence.
Isolated at the bottom of the world, the whalers are also free to run down and ram objectors. The Anemone’s speed proves to be her weakness-her eggshell hull can’t withstand any battering. Soon, members of the anti-whaling crew reveal secrets. Embittered by the ineffectiveness of “peaceful” protests, they bring out of hiding an armor-piercing rocket launcher for use against the factory ship. Main characters start dying. A corpse is hung over the bow and left to freeze in place until the Anemone can reach authorities who will publicly renounce the death as another whaling industry atrocity.
After a mutually destructive climax, the Anemone limps away, taking on water while bilge pumps and engines sporadically cut out. Through blinding snow, with sprung buoyancy tanks and no radar or radio, the reduced crew takes hourly turns hacking ice off the sloop’s top surfaces. During this dangerous activity, the two-story, bloodied forehead of an oddly-colored whale breaches the surface behind the Anemone. Seriously injured by a harpoon, the whale targets the sloop for revenge, trailing the distinct sound of wounded engines. It stalks them for days as they flounder, thousands of miles from any port. Can the creature really be malevolent and murderous? Is the beast a legendary antihero? Poyer leaves few behind to narrate the tale’s end.
Soon the relentless heat and sun of our Kansas summertime will engulf us. Many readers will welcome a refreshingly chilling cruise through the ice-laden oceans of “The Whiteness of the Whale.”
Carolyn J. Kelly is a freelance writer and a Manhattan resident.