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Book review: The Sea Inside, By Philip Hoare

A circumnavigation of waters both tidal and metaphorical makes for a wondrous read

If, as Graham Greene famously declared, "There is a splinter of ice in the heart of every writer", this iciness must permeate much of Philip Hoare's body. His opening description of a dip in his beloved Southampton Water ("it is never not beautiful here") before dawn in December does not contain an "Argh!" or even a "Brrr!"

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Later, when swimming with mother and calf sperm whales or a super-pod of dolphins, there is ample demonstration of Hoare's cool courage. His heart, however, is an ice-free organ. This circumnavigation of waters both tidal and metaphorical (a chapter on "The Inland Sea" concerns London) is a passionate, wonderfully engaging book, packed with closely observed descriptions of the natural world and its finned and feathered inhabitants.

Among the latter, Hoare is fascinated by the oystercatcher's bill, fastest-growing of any bird and tipped with sensory corpuscles that enable foraging by day and night (its deft way with a cockleshell led to 16,000 oystercatchers being killed in Morecambe Bay), the intelligence of the raven ("it boasts a brain-to-body size comparable only to primates and toothed cetaceans such as dolphins and sperm whales") and the ability of the albatross to smell "a vast, multilayered web of odours" that "not only leads them to sources of food but allows them to navigate".

Human detours include the monk Thomas Merton, who shared Hoare's obsessions with ravens and Moby-Dick, and TH White, "a more epicene, English Hemingway", who said that "swimming underwater everyday looking at fish" was part of his training as a writer. We learn of Benjamin Franklin swimming from Chelsea to Blackfriars and Valentina Yakovlevna, a "glamorous" Russian whaling captain (it's true – see page 211), responsible for the slaughter of thousands of whales and an unfulfilled crush in Anais Nin.

A trip to New Zealand produces the story of the friendship forged in 1824 between an English sea captain and a Maori chief who refused to leave his ship. After hauling Richard Reynolds from a river in Montevideo, the profusely tattooed Te Pehi Kupe accompanied him to Lancashire and inspired Queequeg in Moby-Dick, Returning in New Zealand, the charming but belligerent Maori was killed in a quarrel then cooked and eaten.

The undoubted stars of this book are whales. Anyone who relished Hoare's prize-winning Leviathan will be eager for a second helping. Swimming off Sri Lanka with blue whales, "the largest creatures that ever existed", Hoare suggests their allure goes beyond size, "There's something sexual about whales… Sleek, sensual and untouchable. They are the ultimate tease. It is that which draws you on." The sexual electricity of the whale family is underlined when Hoare swims with dolphins ("two hundred, probably many more") in New Zealand: "I look round and see dozens of dolphins heading straight at me… Many are having sex. With the males' two-kilo testes and penises that quick-release from genital slits, and females whose receptivity is advertised by plump flashing bellies, dolphins mate continuously."

Tragically, we learn how sperm whales inhale chromium from coastal plants, which may be causing cancer and birth defects, and beaked whales are prone to stranding due to human-generated sonar. After revealing that sperm whales take more fish and squid out of the ocean than humans, Hoare adds a "Note to editor: Maybe we shouldn't publicise this?" But The Sea Inside is more celebration than jeremiad. Hoare draws an intriguing link between the Polynesians, whose "first migrations followed those of cetaceans" and "what their Anglo-Saxon seafaring comrades called hwoelweg, 'the whale's roads'." His oceanic pursuit of the most remarkable animals on the planet has produced two books of the utmost interest.