Moby-Dick—strange portents and leviathan obsessions
I’ve been obsessed with whales since I moved to Newcastle, Australia, from Sydney two years ago. The day after moving I walked to Strzelecki Lookout, my favourite place in Newcastle, high above the sea. It was the first day of September—one of those clear Spring days when the wind is cold but the sun is shining. Just off the cliff, in the wide expanse of blue, I spotted a puff of white like a small cloud. If I’d been a whaler I might have cried out: ‘Whale Ho! Thar she blows!’ Instead I laughed with delight; whales do that to people.
As joggers and dog-walkers passed by I said to them, ‘Look, there’s a whale!’ Most smiled politely and kept walking. Newcastle’s coast is a whale superhighway: 33,000 humpback whales migrate up and down the east coast each year. I’d spotted just one, but it felt far from mundane to me. Whales are a kind of magic—wild and wondrous, and joyful at the same time. I stood watch for an hour or more, following the whale with my eyes as it breached.
I had no idea at the time that I’d become as avid a whale spotter as those in the crow’s nests of nineteenth century whaling ships, or that my growing whale obsession would see me travelling in boats, planes and through literary tomes to learn more. It wasn’t long before I acquired a pair of binoculars to see my whale friends better. It wasn’t long before I started calling them ‘my friends.’ I was a little lonely when I first moved to Newcastle. But I had books and I had the lookout, and between May and November I had whales.
There were also dolphins, nankeen kestrels, white-bellied sea eagles, sooty oystercatchers, and—one memorable time—an octopus in a rock pool that was as curious about my friend Chris and I as we were about it. Each time Chris dipped his finger in the pool, the octopus sent out a curling tendril of a tentacle to touch him, like God and Adam in Michelangelo’s fresco.
Whales were more like God, though. So huge, so ‘out there’, so untouchable. The practice of whale-spotting required faith and patience—whales can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes. Most people I met at the lookout were ‘ocean glancers’: one quick look at the coal ships on the horizon and they were off to get coffee and coo over corgis. Some even complained that there were ‘no whales today’. I’d smile to myself while adjusting the focus on my binoculars, waiting for the moment when a pod would rise together, breathe, and dive down again with a graceful flick of their tail flukes.
I learned so much about whales in those first months that I created my own mental compendium of what to look for. I knew which locations they casually cruised past and which places they were more likely to hang out and play. I knew the wake of a boat from the wake of a whale. I knew the splash of a tern from the spray of a blowhole. I saw the round, smooth ovals left on the surface of the water by a whale’s flukes; they were like palimpsests, a whale’s signature overwriting the lines of the ocean’s currents.
But there were limits to what I could know through observation alone. I turned to books and began a new journey. It started with a book about dolphins: Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey. At first I felt self-conscious. Was I becoming a ‘dolphin person’? Would I soon decorate my house with a tapestry of a mother and baby dolphin swimming through a coral reef? (Yes, I would.) In each chapter Casey writes about a different facet of human-dolphin relationships: dolphin intelligence research; the controversial annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan; live dolphin trafficking; and dolphins in ancient Minoan art.
The chapter on the Minoans sent me down another obsessive track: I found myself watching episodes of sexy historian Bettany Hughes’ The Ancient World on YouTube and recreating Minoan spiral designs in my pottery class. I took a picture of my best piece and sent it via WhatsApp to my Great Aunt Margaret in Connecticut; she was a sculptor, and although we’d never met, I felt a kinship.
The friends I made after a year in Newcastle knew me for two things: my obsession with whales and my obsession with the Minoans. As I became known for my spooky ability to summon cetaceans whenever I stood on a cliff, my friends started asking to come with me. I organised a field expedition to Nelson Bay for a whale cruise. Over the microphone, the captain told us that a humpback whale’s song can be heard from 20 kilometres away. I thought about my Connecticut Aunt: was there a whale that could sing across the Pacific? At that moment, a curious young whale swam underneath the boat and people screamed with delight. When you’re this close, I realised, everyone is obsessed with whales. Naturally, this revelation led me to the most obsessed whale guy of all time: Captain Ahab.
At the end of 2018 I had my first conversation with Great Aunt Margaret and her partner Tina; we spoke for two hours on WhatsApp. After this, my sisters who live in England hatched a plan: we would all meet in Connecticut in July for a summer holiday. After months of being broke and indecisive, I booked my flight and began researching the area. Back in May I’d borrowed a pile of whale books from my local library—among them Leviathan, or the Whale. I was intrigued by Philip Hoare’s travels through New Bedford, Cape Cod and Nantucket in search of the secrets of Melville’s text, but had to put the book down before it ruined the plot. To prepare for New England I bought a Penguin Clothbound Classic version of Moby-Dick and started reading.
Before I left for America I’d reached the point where Ishmael and Queequeg ship themselves on the whaling ship Pequod in Nantucket. ‘Nantucket!’ Herman Melville writes. ‘Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse.’ I’ve been in love with lonely islands since I was a teenager, but I hadn’t travelled alone since I was 21. I’d have a few spare days before the family reunion; enough time for a solo adventure to Nantucket.
On the plane I decided to catch up on Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life. Mum and I had watched this show when I was a teenage girl. In the new episodes, Rory Gilmore is a 32-year-old struggling writer who decides to write a memoir about her relationship with her mother. As I binge-watched the series I started feeling strange. I was a 32-year-old struggling writer who had written a memoir about—among other things—my relationship with my mother. Towards the end, Rory’s grandmother Emily moves to Nantucket and starts volunteering at the Whaling Museum. ‘Nantucket!’ I wanted to yell, but nobody would have understood.
After landing in the USA, the strange coincidences continued. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art I got lost and stumbled into the Minoan Crete section. Here I found the same spiral-patterned pot I’d imitated in my own ceramics. The curator of this section, Seán Hemingway, is the grandson of Ernest Hemingway. Reading A Moveable Feast had inspired me to commit to my writing back in 2014, the same year I first spent time with my English sisters. Before my trip, I’d had several dreams about eagles—in New England I saw them everywhere. In Nantucket I was picked up by an Uber driver who was an O’Keeffe from Cork, just like my beloved maternal grandmother Elizabeth who’d passed away three weeks earlier. On my last morning in Nantucket, The Quaker Meeting House that was meant to be closed was mysteriously unlocked, allowing me to sit alone in silence contemplating Quaker faith, the chosen religion of my deceased paternal grandmother Sheila. The museum attached to the Quaker Meeting House had an exhibition on Jewish people in Nantucket, and I was on my way to visit the Jewish side of my family—Sheila’s sister Margaret.
I found myself thinking of Starbuck, first mate of the Pequod: ‘Outward portents and inward presentiments were his,’ Melville writes. He’s superstitious but his superstition ‘seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance.’ I’ve been a superstitious person for as long as I can remember. As I cycled around Nantucket, trying to capture the beauty of the island with an analog camera, I couldn’t help but think of the role that destiny had played. Earlier this year I’d been stuck in a rut, jobless and depressed by what I saw as the failure of my writing career. Then I landed short-term work and earned enough just in time to book the trip. A few days before going overseas I was offered a publishing deal. Somehow, it had all come together.
When I got on the Amtrak to New London, I was nervous. I’d never met my Great Aunts and had only hung out with my sisters a few times before. My three younger sisters and I share the same biological father but I grew up without him, in Australia—with my mother, the father who raised me, and two brothers. Going to Connecticut was emotionally dangerous but it was something I had to do—especially before continuing work on my book. I was like the whaler Bulkington, who having ‘just landed from a four years’ dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term.’ The unresting energy of Melville is apparent in these pages: his obsession with stretching the limits of language and form to secure The Whale drives Ahab, Ishmael and the Pequod onwards. I thought of myself as a kind of Ishmael: an exile, an outcast. Yet there I was, arriving, or returning, via a Moby-Dick-inspired adventure.
As it turns out, Moby-Dick is Aunt Tina’s favourite book and they are both big fans of Bettany Hughes. They’d sailed on America’s last remaining wooden whaling ship of the 1800s, Charles W. Morgan, and had participated in the annual New London Moby-Dick Marathon, where people take turns reading aloud the entire 209,117 words. As I learned about my family, I wondered if I might not be so unique, if I might be from a long line of rebel misfit artists. If Moby-Dick, a ‘radically discontinuous, multi-stranded text’—as academic Sascha Morrell describes it—might be my family story.
I didn’t do much reading in Connecticut. I spent mornings drinking black coffee on the deck with my sisters and evenings drinking cocktails at Margaret and Tina’s favourite restaurants. We talked a little about the past: about winter coats that were sent over from Eastern Europe by relatives who were meant to follow, but never did. About Sheila’s husband—my grandfather—who wanted to play the cello as a boy but was given an accordion, who obtained his PhD in chemistry at 38 and took his own life at 40. I’d had an idea that I was going there to learn these stories. Mostly we sat around the living room, talked about where we’d go for lunch, argued about who was the least worst driver and laughed way too much in the backseat. After hearing about my whale obsession the Aunties took us to Mystic Seaport Museum. There I boarded the Morgan, watched people lowering the boats, and learned about historic whaling, Indigenous peoples’ connections to whales and whale conservation—the height of lit nerd obsession.
And what about that Captain Ahab? Well, I’m 100 pages in and haven’t met him yet. I’m taking the book slowly, enjoying each page through the eyes of Ishmael, and thinking about something Margaret said to me: ‘You’re not the strangest person who’s walked through our doors. You’re not a stranger at all.’
Bastian Fox Phelan is a writer, musician and zinemaker. They live in Newcastle (Mulubinba) on the land of the Awabakal people. Bastian has self-published their zines for fifteen years. Their writing has been published in The Lifted Brow, Runway and Scum Magazine. Bastian’s memoir about finding their identity as a queer outsider was recently signed to Giramondo Publishing. Bastian is also part of dreampop duo Moonsign.