Fourth Estate, £18.99. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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!"

Get money off this title at the Independent book shop

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada