The Wake of the Whale: Book Review

Mae Dorricott

“The Wake of the Whale, Hunter Societies in the Caribbean and North Atlantic” is a combination of personal memoirs and scientific research of Dr. Russell Fielding’s 15 years of studies into artisanal whaling. Brace yourself, it’s not always a pretty journey. However, the journey is worth it… eye opening… and a unique perspective on a very controversial means of subsistence. 

The importance of a healthy ocean represents itself in different ways for varying communities. Those who take to the waters for leisure hope to enjoy the sea’s relaxing nature with hope that an ocean bound journey brings them into contact with some of the most enigmatic creatures we share our planet with, dolphins!

Photo: Jenna Duncan ( greenoffshoots.com )

Photo: Jenna Duncan (greenoffshoots.com)

If you’ve been lucky enough to be in the presence of a pod of dolphins or a whale, you can’t deny the immense joy they seem to conjure. Watching them leap, twirl, play… they embody the wonder and beauty many of us feel towards the marine world.  

However, to many communities the delight of seeing breaching fins and tail flukes is not due to a want of engaging with playful frolicking sea life, but due to their feeling of relief at being presented with their food source.

Russell Fielding, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, has been studying artisanal whaling for nearly 15 years. Within his compact and insightful book, Fielding sets out to give the reader a sense of what it was like for him to undertake his research on such a controversial means of subsistence. 

Whalers from Saint Vincent. Photo: Russell Fielding

Whalers from Saint Vincent. Photo: Russell Fielding

I asked Russell, Why Whaling? Out of all the subjects you can study within marine science… what was it about this topic that captured his intrigue?... 

“It began as an investigation into something I found so completely foreign to my own upbringing. Growing up in Florida I saw whales and dolphins only as the occasional visitor to the seashore, or as a friendly animal to view from a boat. When I learned that there were places where they were hunted for food I wanted to know more.

I applied for a Travel Scholarship from the University of the Faroe Islands while in graduate school and, to my surprise, I got it. I made my first trip to the Faroes just interested to learn more. I never thought it would turn into a decade-long research relationship but I'm glad it did.”

The Faroe Islands. Photo: Russell Fielding

The Faroe Islands. Photo: Russell Fielding

Within the book Russell specifically focuses upon two very different communities that hunt Pilot whales; the Faroe Islands who are infamously tied with whaling, as well as the younger, possibly lesser known whaling communities of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines within the Caribbean. The Wake of the Whale guides the reader through Fielding’s experiences, from his very first encounter with a whale hunt, the evolution of whaling techniques, the international scrutiny, as well as the opinions of those at the front of the action.  

From a personal perspective, a marine biologist, avid scuba diver and generally a lover of marine animals, I found Fielding’s skilfully detailed account of his first observations not that dissimilar to a horror novel, whilst I literally struggled to read without welling up with sadness. 

Community in the Faroes gathering to divvy out Pilot whales. Photo: Russell Fielding

Community in the Faroes gathering to divvy out Pilot whales. Photo: Russell Fielding

I told him that I truly struggled to get past the first few chapters…

“I really wanted to give the reader a sense of what it was like for me to do this research and to take them on a journey from my first experiences with whaling (mostly shock and misunderstanding) to a more complex and nuanced view on the subject. It sounds as though you got it exactly as I had intended.”

For many marine enthusiasts, the events of the first chapters may be displeasing. However, with Fielding’s tactful and honest words he arms the reader with the wealth of knowledge he has gained through years of studying within these communities. He clearly intends to shock and relate his own initial misunderstandings of a whale hunt, but it is this  transparency of his own emotions closely linked with scientific facts which is the key strength to this book. 

Whalers in the Caribbean preparing whale meat. Photo: Russell Fielding

Whalers in the Caribbean preparing whale meat. Photo: Russell Fielding

What I really rate about the book is that it doesn’t attempt to make you believe that whaling is right, neither does it preach that it is wrong. It’s honest and raw, highlighting the fact that this issue should not be discussed as black and white. Due to the authenticity Russell brings I was encouraged to read past the shock and delve into the complex interactions between culture, science and international policy. The final chapter for me brought to light the more ominous threats our oceans face… 

I really don’t want to give too much away, but the truth of it is that the countries that shun communities that truly traditionally hunt (excluding Japan as “traditional” whalers) exploit the ocean in different ways, and in complete honesty are damaging the marine environment more extensively than these artisanal whalers are…

At the end, you may like me, be left still unsure as to where you stand on whaling. However, what you will gain is a sense of appreciation to the families and stakeholders involved and a deeper awareness of what whaling means for them. It is compelling, thought provoking, and an incredibly insightful account into a means of subsistence that has, up until now, been one-sidedly portrayed within the mass-media. 

No matter what your opinion is on whaling, I urge you to read this book. Whether you are a hard-core Sea Shepard supporter, or have an interest in the ways we can live sustainably from the sea, this book will give you an insight into traditional whaling communities that you could only gain from years of living and learning from within. 


If you’re interested in Russell’s work you find some more of his academic work here, or follow him @russellfielding

If you’re interested in reading The Wake of the Whale, you can buy it online from : 

Harvard Press Amazon or Blackwells

If you liked this article, look out for more from Mae in her Plastic Not Fantastic series.

Stay tuned for an upcoming article about Japan pulling out of the IWC (International Whaling Commission) and what this means for whale conservation

Local man holding a Farose whaling knife. Photo: Russell Fielding

Local man holding a Farose whaling knife. Photo: Russell Fielding