Review: The Two-Headed Whale a remarkable book about Antarctic whaling

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The Two-Headed Whale: Life, Loss, and the Tangled Legacy of Whaling in the Antarctic

Sandy Winterbottom | Greystone Books   

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$36.95  | 256pp

Like many who sailed south to the tumultuous waters of the Antarctic whaling grounds before her, Sandy Winterbottom was driven to those desperate waters by motivations that were mixed and mysterious, even to her. This unlikely modern Ishmael, a Scots academic who taught environmental sciences at the University of Stirling, signed on in 2016 for a tall ship cruise to the Southern Ocean.

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She needed a change and some distance from the demands of her family, especially, she frankly admits, those of her deeply depressed husband. And she wanted to see for herself the scene of the crime — the industrial bloodbath that drove many of the planet’s largest creatures to near extinction. As Atlantic Magazine feature writer Ed Yong noted in a 2021 article, “In one century, whalers killed at least two million baleen whales, which together weighed twice as much as all the wild mammals on Earth today.”

Winterbottom certainly did not expect to come away with a deep, compassionate sympathy for the working whalers who committed this assault on the magnificent mammals and with a fascination with a young man, Anthony Commiskey Ford, whose grave she came upon on an island in the Southern Ocean. And yet she did.

This remarkable book reflects the years of work and research Winterbottom put in after her life-changing cruise to the Southern Ocean. It is a heart-scalding, excruciatingly detailed account of life on the 20th century industrial whaling ships that roamed the Southern Ocean when Anthony Ford was a young worker on board one of them. Awash in blood and blubber, the floating abattoirs were horrific places to work and die, and Winterbottom’s polished sentences render the horror palpable.

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Her compassion extends to the whales, but also to the young working-class men who crewed the factory ships. In an act of literary daring, she imagines her way into the inner experience of those young butchers and makes their suffering real, too.

She draws on her observations when visiting abandoned Antarctic whaling stations, on records of the big companies that profited from all this suffering, human and cetacean, and on interviews with old men who were whalers in their youth.

The resulting text is at once an homage to Ford and the other workers in the whaling industry and an act of deep mourning for the damage they did to the fabric of life on the planet.

Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected].

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