cover image A Whale Hunt

A Whale Hunt

Robert Sullivan. Scribner Book Company, $25 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-684-86433-4

In 1999, a small armada of animal rights activists, TV crews and Coast Guard ships swarmed around a canoe off the coast of Washington State carrying seven Makah Indians as they hunted and killed a gray whale for the first time in living memory. The activists were attempting to halt the slaughter of an animal only recently removed from the endangered species list, while the Makahs were reviving a whaling tradition that had been dormant for generations. For visiting journalist Sullivan (who made a splash last year with his quirky natural and social history of The Meadowlands of New Jersey), it was an irresistible story. SullivanDwho writes like a hipper, edgier William Least Heat Moon and spent two years with the MakahDgives a kind of outsider's insider view of the hunt's preparation and aftermath, from the private anxieties of the tribespeople to the external pressure from the U.S. government, which insisted that the whale be killed ""humanely"" with a bullet in the brain immediately after the harpoon strike. He also provides funny commentary on subjects like neighboring Seattle (""a city filled with people who walk around in technologically advanced outdoor fabrics"") and the too-easily ridiculed animal rights protesters. But Sullivan never quite communicates why the whale hunt was so important to him personally, or what it really meant to the Makah themselves. Did they actually hope to restore tribal heritage and pride? Or were they merely aiming to get rich by selling whale meat to the Japanese, as the animal rights protestors alleged? Sullivan mostly ducks these questions, which may disappoint those who come to this wry and sympathetic account for a hard-hitting look at the issues it raises, rather than to ride along with its engaging author. (Oct.)