"The Two Headed Whale: Life and Loss in the Deepest Oceans" by Sandy Winterbottom is a remarkable book that I know will live on in my memory for quite some time to come. Many books can be ephemeral, even some very enjoyable ones. Others, far fewer in number, draw you in and exert a grip you know will leave a mark. Sandy Winterbottom has written a book that succeeds beautifully in combining a personal travelogue, a historical biography, an environmental call to arms and a detailed and gripping account of a way of life whose continuing existence in the years after World War Two will come as a surprise to many.
Whaling? I suspect that most people with an interest in Scottish maritime history will know that the Scots long had an association with an industry that to modern eyes seems abhorrent. I have mental (always monochrome) images of sailing ships departing Dundee for the far north. And the lone chimney standing beside the shore at Bunabhainneadar on Harris in the Western Isles, all that remains of a whaling station established there by a Norwegian company in 1904, serves as a stark reminder that the industry did come very close to home.
But I was unaware that after the whales in the Arctic had been hunted to near-extinction, whale hunting continued on an enormous scale in the Antarctic. And I was especially unaware that it had continued on that scale into the 1960s, well into my own lifetime: and that there are many Scots still alive who took part.
It seems that Sandy Winterbottom was similarly unaware of all this until she landed in South Georgia in 2016 while on the trip of a lifetime, a six-week tall-ship voyage from Uruguay to Antarctica. There she was brought face to face with the shocking remains of the industry, remains that made the scale of what took place very obvious. Enraged by what she found, she was quick to blame the men who undertook this wholesale slaughter. But then she stumbled upon the grave of an eighteen-year-old whaler from Edinburgh who had died in April 1952 and things started to become more complicated.
"The Two Headed Whale" cuts back and forth between two parallel stories. First there is an account of Sandy Winterbottom's trip from Uruguay to the Antarctic Peninsula and back to the southern tip of Argentina, via a number of islands including South Georgia. This account is largely factual, save for her renaming and splicing together some of her fellow guest travellers. And then there is the story of the young whaler who died, Anthony Ford. His life and experiences appear in the book "reconstructed from a scaffold of scant facts wrapped in stories from contemporary sources and the memories of men who were whaling at the same time as Anthony." The bare facts of Anthony's short life are his own, but in terms of his detailed experiences, he is something of a composite of contemporaries who, unlike him, have survived to tell their tales.
Both strands are vivid and compelling. It struck me as slightly ironic that an author so fervently opposed to whaling should have produced such a detailed, fascinating and sympathetic account of the life of someone involved in the industry. But then, as Sandy Winterbottom quickly realised once her initial anger had passed, this was never really about the men who were involved in the appalling day-to-day work. They come over from her account as victims too: not as much as the whales, of course, but victims nonetheless.
It perhaps says it all that even the inscription on Anthony Ford's grave marker on South Georgia gets the spelling of his first name and his age wrong. "The Two Headed Whale: Life and Loss in the Deepest Oceans" is a fitting memorial to him: and a stark reminder of a dark time that ended much more recently than most of us believe. It is also a great read that I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest mankind's impact on the world around us.