Eye of the Whale
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Eye of the Whale

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by Douglas Carlton Abrams

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Filled with “breathtaking scenes” and “vivid” (Publishers Weekly) imagery, national bestselling author Douglas Carlton Abrams’s riveting ecological thriller blends shockingly true facts with a powerful narrative that pulls readers into a dangerous race through a majestic and mysterious world.

Dedicated scientist Elizabeth


Filled with “breathtaking scenes” and “vivid” (Publishers Weekly) imagery, national bestselling author Douglas Carlton Abrams’s riveting ecological thriller blends shockingly true facts with a powerful narrative that pulls readers into a dangerous race through a majestic and mysterious world.

Dedicated scientist Elizabeth McKay has spent almost a decade cracking the code of humpback whale communication. Their song, the most complex in nature, may in fact reveal unimaginable secrets about the animal world. When a humpback whale swims up the Sacramento River with a strange and unprecedented song, Elizabeth must decipher its meaning in order to save the whale and ultimately much more. But as her work captures the media’s interest, powerful forces emerge to stop her from revealing the animal’s secrets. Soon, Elizabeth is forced to decide if her discoveries are worth losing her marriage, her career, and possibly her life.

Working closely with leading scientists for his extensive research into humpback whales and the harrowing ecological challenges they face today, national bestselling author Douglas Carlton Abrams has created a unique and timeless story that will transform readers and their relationship with the fragile world in which we live.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Many breathtaking scenes of the beauty and majesty of humpback whales, including a vivid look at a whale giving birth, are lost amid Abrams’s heavy-handed focus on issues in his overblown second novel (after The Lost Diary of Don Juan), a preachy ecothriller. For Elizabeth McKay, a scientist who believes the humpbacks’ complex songs are key to understanding the animal world, her efforts to crack the creatures’ communication code take priority over her personal life, including her marriage and her friends. Opposing her work are businessmen wanting to increase whale hunting and make whale meat an international delicacy. As McKay tries to help a humpback that has swum up the Sacramento River, she begins to realize that the change in whales’ songs warn that pollution is causing an alarming rate of babies born with birth defects. Ecoterrorists, ecoactivists and the ubiquitous government link weigh down the action. Only the whales have real personalities. (Aug.)

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Washington Square Press
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5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue: Siren Song

11:14 p.m.

Thursday, February 15

Near Socorro Island, Pacific coast of Mexico

18°48'N, 110°59'W

Clear night, wind SW 5 knots

Apollo hovered silently as a school of hundreds of hammerheads encircled him in the rich upwelling —

His massive forty-foot body hung just below the surface, cradled by the swell of the sea —

Moonlight filtered through the shrouded water of night —

Every inch of his skin straining to hear —

Waiting —

Silence —

Only the slow throb of his giant heart — the pulse pounding in his skull —

Slowly his tail floated up until he hung upside down — his twelve-foot pectoral fins splayed outward from his sides like a cross —

Rotating almost imperceptibly — he began to sing again —

Creaks and moans — cries and whistles — animated the water with the pulsing power of song —

The echoes cascaded back to him off the ocean floor as the sounds revealed the texture of the deep —

Then again silence —

At last — he heard two other males singing — amplifying the sound —

Then others — males and females — young and old — swam closer and closer —

The Pacific Squall bobbed on top of the cresting waves, the steel hull of the research vessel vibrating from the whale song. The otherworldly music spilled out from the speakers strapped to the walls as whale biologist John Maddings accompanied on the cello. His weathered fingers, graying hairs surrounding each knuckle, pressed the strings against the neck as if taking its rhythmic pulse. The other hand lovingly rocked the delicate bow across the strings in a hypnotic melody.

With his eyes closed and his head tilted to the side in concentration, Maddings effortlessly played along with this year's song. He had begun to accompany whale song out of musical curiosity, but it had proved a powerful research method that let him enter and understand the structure in a way that his most technologically advanced spectrographic software could not. Now, six weeks into the breeding season, he knew this year's slowly evolving song practically by heart.

Although he had studied many kinds of whales, there was nothing quite like the song of the humpback. Its rhythm was scored to the rolling ocean; its haunting sounds gave voice to the abyss.

Maddings suddenly stopped playing. Quickly he put the cello in its case and jumped to the computer console. His trembling fingers flicked on a desk lamp. Its bulb cast a spotlight revealing the computer, a black synthesizer, and a photograph of a gray-haired woman in her fifties whose radiant smile made her beautiful.

Anxiously, Maddings adjusted the black knobs of the recording equipment, unable to believe the sounds coming from the directional hydrophone. Built in to the hull of the boat, this underwater microphone picked up the sounds echoing through the sea. Maddings made sure he was recording and then grasped the black joystick. He rotated the hydrophone 360 degrees. In every direction the song was the same — in every direction the song was new.

"Switch to the sonobuoys, old man. Switch to the sonobuoys." Maddings barked directions to himself in what was left of his British accent after years of living abroad. The other members of the crew were all asleep or up on deck.

Maddings squeezed his eyes closed to focus his mind completely on the sounds coming in from the sonobuoys. Used by the U.S. Navy to listen for enemy submarines, declassified sonobuoys now allowed marine biologists to listen for whales in vast expanses of the ocean. There was no doubt — the song was definitely diverging, shifting dramatically.

A wave of excitement flooded Maddings's body as his hands grew hot and his breath short. A voice in his head warned, You're too old to get excited about what might just be your imagination or faulty equipment or both. But he didn't believe this lying voice of caution.

Maddings wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead. He hadn't felt like this in forty years, not since the day he and a colleague had discovered that the sounds made by the humpback whale were actually songs with recognizable structures. Four decades of study had documented repeatedly that the songs, sung exclusively by the males, evolved gradually over a season, even over years. New musical phrases were introduced by individual singers and gradually adopted by all males, but whole songs were not completely replaced in a night. What Maddings was hearing over the speakers was contradicting forty years of careful research.

He checked the recording levels again. The sound was getting louder as he picked up more singers. He turned the volume down to avoid distortion; the lights flickered green and stopped erupting red. Maddings needed confirmation. He grabbed the watertight case and pulled out the sat phone. From memory he dialed the number of his closest collaborator at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

"Mike, Maddings here. Sorry to wake you. Something...something unprecedented is happening."

"Maddings, good to hear from you. For you to use the word 'unprecedented' must mean you're talking about a goddamn miracle."

Maddings knew that neither of them believed in miracles, but he had woken Mike in the middle of the night only once before, and that call had made both of their careers. Perhaps that was why Mike was so uncharacteristically courteous even at this hour. "What is it?"

"I'm still in Socorro, recording song. There's rapid transformation. Mike, the song sung yesterday is gone. Overnight the humpback population is singing a completely new song."

"That's impossible."

"I know it is. I'm calling to find out whether you've heard about anything like this happening. I want to know if anyone else is observing it."

"Actually, there was some controversy about this a few days ago on WhaleNet. I invoked your research to dismiss her."

"Dismiss who?"

"That old graduate student of yours down in Bequia."

"Elizabeth..." Maddings said under his breath. A smile warmed his face as he began to shake his head in amazement and satisfaction. Of course it would be Elizabeth, he thought. Brilliant Elizabeth.

Elizabeth's face leaped to mind. Her unusual genetic heritage — half Jewish, half Native American — made her beautiful face look almost Asiatic. How she ever got a good Irish name like McKay, he never knew, but the Irish did seem to get around. Elizabeth was not only arguably the most gifted graduate student he'd ever taught, she was also a marvelous violin player and had been a vital member of his research quartet. That was until she had to follow her doctor husband across the country for his residency. It had been a great loss to the department and to him. He did become very fond of his students, which was a real liability, since they invariably left him to pursue their careers.

"Professor Maddings! Come quick!" The voice echoed down through the metal corridor from up on deck.

"I'll call you back, Mike."

Maddings felt the sharp pain in his not-so-young knees as he bounded up the stairs and practically stumbled to the gunnels, looking beyond. If it had not been for the ache in his joints, he would have sworn that he was dreaming. To see one whale breaching was always extraordinary, but to see so many was unfathomable.

As the song ended Apollo thrashed his massive tail back and forth — propelling his forty-ton body straight out of the water —

His black shimmering skin glittered in the moonlight as white foam spilled off like a waterfall —

His winglike fins rose slowly away from his body as he began to twist —

Pivoting on his fifteen-foot fluke — his back arching — the spray bristling from his body —

A moment of suspended time — weightless in the moonlight —

His earthbound bulk — refusing to linger in the sky any longer — fell back into the sea —

The resounding crack — the white lava waves — his flipper reached toward the sky as the dark waters enveloped his body at last —

All around him the others began following his lead — countless whales launching themselves skyward under the full moon —

They tore their bodies from the water in an endless cycle of flight and fall — erupting out of the molten water —

At last the moon reached its zenith —

Apollo and two other males began to swim quickly away from the rest of the group —

The others would follow north in the days and weeks ahead —

Yet Apollo's destination would be different from that of all the others —

Copyright © 2009 by Idea Architects


12:00 p.m.

Five days earlier

Saturday, February 10

Shark Bay, Bequia, Caribbean Sea

13°01'N, 61°12'W

"There, Liza!" Milton pointed toward the bay.

Elizabeth McKay saw the blow before it vanished in the wind. The aching tiredness in her legs from five hours of standing and scanning the horizon disappeared as the excitement of the chase began.

She looked through her large waterproof binoculars. The afternoon light reflected off the water like shards of glass, making her blue eyes burn, but she forced her eyelids open wider to take in more information. She squeezed the hard rubber eagerly when she saw the back of the whale floating in the water where it had surfaced.

"Head into the wind," she said as she braced her leg against the bench.

Milton had already anticipated her command and was steering upwind of the whale. It was hard to believe that eight years had passed since they started working together, when she first came to study North Atlantic humpback whales in their most southerly breeding grounds. Finding Milton had been like discovering a treasure of devotion: He had tirelessly helped her to navigate the dangers that she and her research subjects faced in these waters.

The old Evinrude 35 whined quietly as Milton drove his beloved lime-green boat into the trade winds that endlessly lashed these eastern Caribbean waters.

Elizabeth looked back at the viridescent mountains that thrust sharply from the water to a ridge stretching the length of the island like the spine of an emaciated animal. Bequia — or "bekway," as the natives called it — meant "Island of the Clouds" in Carib, but today there was not a cloud in the sky. The land was densely forested, mostly with the knotted and wind-curved trunks of white cedar, which the boatmen handpicked to fashion the ribs of their double-ender sailboats. From where she stood, Elizabeth could also see towering palms and prickly cactus, along with brightly colored houses that hugged the steep slopes and flat harbors. Their roofs were topped with corrugated metal, which the islanders used to capture rainwater.

Milton cut the engine, and they silently drifted back toward where they had seen the blow. "The whale he not far now," Milton said in the warm accent of the islander — a cross between a Scottish brogue and a Jamaican drawl. When Elizabeth heard Bequians speaking to one another, she sometimes had trouble understanding them, but when they spoke to outsiders, they often tried to speak "proper," as they called it. "There the whale!" Milton shouted.

Elizabeth looked where he was pointing and saw the glistening black back and dorsal fin just as the whale began to dive. Grabbing the camera from her yellow Pelican case, she anxiously pulled off the lens cap. Will I get the image? Will I recognize it? She pressed the shutter-release button halfway. As the image focused, the whale fluked up, and she saw the pattern on the tail. She stopped breathing as she shot several photos, but she could hardly restrain her enthusiasm. The tail sliced through the surface, and she shouted back, "It's Echo, Milton! It's Echo!"

She magnified the digital image on the camera's small screen to prove it to herself, but the three lines on his left fluke were unmistakable. With a little imagination, they looked like the ever widening circles of a radar display. These distinctive markings had inspired Elizabeth to name him Echo during her first season of fieldwork with Professor Maddings. Entering his unique tailprint into the fluke catalog had sealed her fate as a scientist intoxicated by the thrill of discovery and the patterns of nature.

Elizabeth scanned the water through her black binoculars with the precision of a radar-tracking device, searching for the wispy white plumes that would hang in the air for only a moment. Echo could stay down for as much as twenty minutes and surface anywhere within a radius of miles. Her stomach dropped at the thought of losing a chance to swim with Echo on her last day on the island.

Every minute that Elizabeth waited for Echo felt like an hour, but she did not dare get into the water too early and risk losing track of him. Handing the binoculars to Milton, Elizabeth pulled on her yellow fins. Her weight belt pressed down against her hips. She spat into her mask and positioned it on her forehead, ready to slip silently into the sea at any moment. Her long black hair was already braided, but she swept a few untamable strands out of her face and behind her ears.

With her mask and snorkel, she was limited to the border world of the surface, but scuba diving, with its clouds of bubbles, would disturb the whales and interfere with her recording. She had become quite expert at free diving and could hold her breath longer each year. Every movement was done precisely and quietly. Sound travels great distances in the water, as light cannot, making hearing as important to whales as sight is to humans. She didn't want to scare Echo away. Not all were benevolent in these waters.

As on many other small and remote Caribbean islands, almost everyone on Bequia depended on the sea for their livelihood. While some were master boat builders whose craftsmanship was prized far and wide, most were simple fishermen. Yet a handful of men continued the hundred-year-old tradition that their ancestors had learned aboard the Yankee whalers. They hunted in small sailboats, using old-fashioned harpoons, and they were allowed to take four whales a year by the International Whaling Commission. This was a small number in comparison to that of the Japanese and Norwegians, who each killed hundreds of whales annually.

In the distance Elizabeth saw the Japanese factory fishing boat that had been trawling these waters all season. Her jaw tightened. She knew they were offering development money on the island to gain access to the fisheries and who knew what else. They had even paid for the whaling station.

When she first came to the tight-knit community on Bequia eight years ago, she quickly discovered that if she was going to have any hope of doing her research, she would have to make friends with the whalers — the local heroes who fought the giants.

As she got to know the whalermen, a mutual respect had developed between them. Milton had warned her against getting too friendly with his half brother, Teo, who was the whaleboat captain and a heartbreaker. Elizabeth knew she could handle herself, and to her surprise, Captain Teo had a great deal of knowledge about the whales. It was the Bequia whalers, after all, who had correctly guessed that the males were whistling — the word they used for singing — down in the depths.

Elizabeth continued to scan the horizon through her binoculars. She had given Captain Teo an identical pair when it looked like he might give up the hunt and start a whale-watching business. Elizabeth had explained that individual whales could be identified by the pattern on their flukes, like a fingerprint, and he had told her how devoted whale mothers were to their young. As they shared their knowledge, they became friends and eventually lovers. It was still hard for her to believe that she could have fallen for a whaler. She could have escaped his handsome face and bewitching eyes — one green, one blue. She could have resisted the warmth and confidence of his island smile, but ultimately, she was caught by his love for the sea and his eagerness to share it with her.

For two months her desire and her doubt had wrestled like predator and prey. Elizabeth had ended their relationship over the phone the day after she met Frank for the first time, back in Boston. She knew that in the shelter of Frank's embrace, she could create a life and have a family. Despite what Frank said, she did want a family. Six years was not that long to be married, and Elizabeth argued that there was still plenty of time to have children after she finished her dissertation.

The blow finally came, and it was only fifteen meters away. Elizabeth threw down her waterproof notepad. She hoisted herself overboard and, biceps straining, lowered herself slowly into the water.

"Mind the sharks," Milton said softly as he handed her the video recorder. "Is plenty in these waters."

"Don't remind me." Elizabeth took the bulky gray waterproof housing that protected her video camera. She wished Milton wouldn't mention the sharks every time she got in the water. Many of the fishermen could not even swim, and Milton was even more afraid of sharks than she was.

Elizabeth pulled her mask down with one hand and then placed the snorkel in her mouth. She could hear her anxious breath rattling through the blue plastic tube and tried to slow it down. Ever since she had seen the movie Jaws as a girl, she had been afraid of sharks, which was very inconvenient for a marine biologist. She controlled her fear by never looking behind her in the water. If she was going to be eaten, she did not want to know in advance.

Elizabeth reminded herself of the facts that helped to keep her fears at bay. Unprovoked attacks by sharks were extremely rare. In these parts there were mostly reef sharks, which were rarely aggressive. Even tiger sharks — while second only to white sharks in reported attacks on humans — were generally safe if one understood their behavior.

She knew that those who thought the wild was ferocious and endlessly dangerous were wrong. There was a homeostasis in nature where predator and prey existed in close proximity. Only occasionally at feeding time was the calm disrupted in a convulsion of violence as one animal died and another was able to continue living. Survival was unkind, but it was not cruel.

Elizabeth kicked her fins slowly and smoothly, trying to make as little disturbance as possible. Only forty or fifty feet below her, she could see the marbled light dancing on the gray-brown coral and a blue parrotfish darting around. The crackling of the reef's snapping shrimp filled her ears, although most of the coral looked bleached and dead. She felt a wave of sadness as she recalled how colorful the reefs had looked when she first came to the island. She thought of her colleagues who were trying to understand why the reefs here and around the world were dying faster than anyone had predicted. Was it warmer waters? Pollution? Disease? No one knew for sure.

She turned her gaze to the gray housing of the video recorder she held in front of her, putting her finger on the trigger, preparing to record Echo's every sound and movement. Elizabeth was one of the few researchers who had started to record vocalizations while simultaneously observing and recording whale behavior. Whales spent the vast majority of their lives in an alien and distant world, so the work of studying them was long and difficult. Nonetheless, at moments like this, it was thrilling.

Elizabeth kicked more quickly. Her hands floated ghostly white in front of her. She stared at her naked ring finger. Tomorrow she would be going home to California. While she hated to leave the whales, she needed to return to Frank. Elizabeth remembered the fight they'd had the day she left for the island, and her stomach tightened as she thought about Frank's ultimatum.

Echo appeared out of the shadows, interrupting any other thought, leaving only this moment of awe. She saw his huge head, from the rostrum on top down to the jaw, ending just before his enormous flippers. It was truly impossible to comprehend the vastness of his body. Behind the jawline, a third of the way along his length, she saw his eye looking at her serenely. With increasing size came ever greater calm in the order of nature. What had amazed Elizabeth most about these titans of the deep was not their power but their gentleness. In her imagination, whales were the very eye of the storm around which the whole world hurried and worried. She knew that Echo's massive heart was beating only once every three seconds as hers continued to flutter like that of a hummingbird. Humans were small and nervous creatures.

Echo's tail floated up until his body was pointing down at a forty-five-degree angle in the singing posture. As he sang, Elizabeth's rib cage began to vibrate. She recorded every discrete sound, every phrase, and tried to remember each of the recurring themes from her earlier recordings of this year's song. She drifted closer, the song growing louder.

High-pitched whistles and ethereal, ghostly moans surrounded her, vibrating through her. The deeper grunts and groans felt like a pressure wave, similar to the bass of a giant speaker pinning her to a wall. Her whole body shook, and her teeth started to rattle. The song began to overwhelm her senses as it spilled into her middle ear, disorienting her balance, invading her. She had never been this close before. She tried to steady herself but didn't know if she could withstand the intensity of the vibrations.

She was panting through her snorkel and starting to sweat under her mask. She needed to back up, but she did not want to leave, to miss anything. It was her last day of the season with the whales, and she would have to wait a whole year for another opportunity like this. She focused her mind on the sound, closing her eyes, becoming a part of the song.

When Elizabeth opened her eyes, she saw another whale swimming toward Echo. Her heart beat even more wildly. Interaction between whales was always the most dramatic and potentially important part of her work. It was where her research on communication came alive, and she said a scientist's prayer to the whales to give her something good, something she could write up and use to convince her department to give her another extension on her dissertation.

As she watched the languid aquatic dance of the two gentle giants,Elizabeth forgot about her deadlines. She knew that the function of the songs was one of the great mysteries of the ocean, with courtship and competition as the two predominant theories. What she was about to witness might reveal a piece of the puzzle.

Elizabeth released some of the air in her lungs and sank below the surface. If she was to understand the interaction, she had to know the sex of the new whale. Almost immediately, she could see the hemispherical lobe on its belly, revealing that this was a female. Elizabeth let out more air and sank down farther, holding the video camera out in front of her with rigid arms and pointing it where she was looking. The whale swam right next to her. Although four thousand times more powerful than Elizabeth, the female did not knock her out of the way. Instead, she gracefully raised her fourteen-foot flipper up over Elizabeth's head. And that was when Elizabeth saw it.

"Oh my God," she sputtered into her snorkel. She looked closer to see if she was imagining it. No researcher had ever seen what she was about to record on film.

Copyright © 2009 by Idea Architects

Meet the Author

Douglas Carlton Abrams is the nationally bestselling author of The Lost Diary of Don Juan, which has been published in thirty languages. He writes fact-based fiction and did extensive research for his new novel, including swimming with and recording humpback whales, meeting present-day whalers, and cage diving with great white sharks. Previously an editor at the University at California Press and HarperCollins, he is the cofounder of Idea Architects, a book and media development agency.

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Eye of the Whale 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
roseofscotland More than 1 year ago
Excellent read. Opens your eyes to the reality that global warming is not our only problem! We don't have to look off planet for the enemy. The enemy is us. Reminds us that we do not own this planet but that we share it with many species which are being hurt by our greed and vanity.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Scientist Elizabeth McKay's basic hypothesis is that if we can understand the complicated songs of the humpback whales, we will geometrically improve our comprehension of the animal kingdom. Her Research turns into an obsession that devastates her marriage and costs her friends who believe she breathes solely to prove her theory. However, she finds her on site work disturbed by whaling interests. Business and fishing interests push to hunt whales and begin a marketing campaign to turn the watery mammal's whale meat into an acceptable delicacy. When a humpback becomes endangered by swimming up the Sacramento River, McKay notices the song changed making her wonder what's going on; dramatically she concludes the whales are mourning the loss of clean oceans as human pollution has led to birth defects. This action-packed eco-thriller contains an intriguing premise in which the whales warn humans through their songs that the oceans needed for life to thrive are dying. However, the cautionary warning at times is like a tsunami overwhelming its own message. Still overall this is a fun tale that pays homage to the movie Star trek IV although only Elizabeth and the whale in the Sacramento River are fully developed. Fans will enjoy Douglas Carlton Abrams' entertaining EYE OF THE WHALE as the humpbacks alert the human scientist that the end of days is upon us as they sing their version of Marvin Gaye's still fresh and even more relevant Mercy, Mercy Me The Ecology Song. Harriet Klausner