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Review: The Last Whale by Chris Pash

last whale chris pash 197x300 Review: The Last Whale by Chris Pash

This book review is published as part of the EcoLibris campaign to raise consumer awareness about considering the environment when making book purchases. All books reviewed as part of this campaign have been printed on eco-friendly paper. For links to the other 199 blogs participating in this promotion, please visit the EcoLibris website. Please feel free to leave a comment or to participate in any discussion about this book or about EcoLibris.


Holidaying south of Perth last year, I visited a lighthouse that had once run on whale oil, a clean and bright burning oil that was a popular choice for illumination at the time. While such lamps clearly no longer rely on animal sources for fuel, its surprising to realise for just how long whaling persevered in Australia. Western Australia is known for its remote towns and cities, and perhaps its this very remoteness that led to the general lack of awareness among Australians that whaling was still alive and well in the small portside town of Albany until the late 1970s. The last whale killed by Australians, in fact, was in 1978, many years after other western countries desisted from such approaches, and its a sad fact that our tardiness in taking a stand is echoed throughout many other social and environmental issues. Unlawful whaling, however, remains an issue in and near Australian waters, and Chris Pashs The Last Whale is a timely reminder of the issues and constructed norms surrounding such an occupation.

Pash was a young reporter in working in Albany in the mid-to-late 1970s, a time during which Australian and international activists took interest in the whaling that continued to take place off Australias western coast and began sustained and comprehensive efforts to raise awareness about these practices on both a social and political level. Curiously, Australias laissez faire perspective towards whaling was apparently less to do with general public attitudes and more to do with the fact that few people were aware that whaling was still taking place at all in Australia. As such, the activists, who together formed what was to become Greenpeaces first direct action, met with a fairly receptive audience in doing so. Receptive, of course, except for those whose livelihoods depended upon continuing current whaling practices.

Pash recounts the events that led from sudden piqued activist interest in whaling in 1977 to its eventual outlawing in 1978 from multiple perspectives, weaving together a narrative that takes into account a vast number of actors and participants in this scenario. Its a surprisingly balanced approach given what is ultimately quite an emotional issue, and Pash elucidates the key perspectives with unemotional matter-of-factness. We hear of how the various activists came to trek across Australia to Albany, collecting in the sleepy town and raising media and political awareness; we are also taken on board the whaling boats to face the day-to-day lives of men struggling to earn a living in the face of Soviet poachers, watching them battle the elements and the gruelling existence that can comprise life at sea. We shift from time to time to bit players, such as Malcolm Frazers then young daughter Phoebe, whose avid interest in whaling due to a school project helped shift the slowly snowballing awareness of whaling into the public sphere.

This isnt, though, an attack on whalers and whaling. Pash rather spends time examining the motives and the lives of those on both sides of the battle, and rather movingly addresses the issue of unemployment and loss of personal identity that occurred amongst the whalers of Albany once whaling operations were shut down. Interestingly, were given an activists words to explain the feelings of the whalers, and these words highlight the need to not simply make something verboten and shift direction without warning, but rather the need to put in place a series of checks, balances, and alternatives. Albany, as a result of this sudden shift in industry, was left to flounder and flail, and while some efforts were made to provide the newly unemployed residents with work alternatives, these were typically undesirable positions that were frequently turned down.

The Last Whale is a moving and thoughtful account of the history and context of wailing in Australia, but readers should note that Pashs background as a journalist is clearly evident in its pages, and that the prose is subsequently rather flat and workmanlike. The book itself also feels rather like a series of stitched together feature articles, with one from each major perspective, and progresses a little unevenly as a result. If youre after astonishing prose and a beautifully wrought anthropological and ecological account of a similar issue, you may wish to try John Vaillants stunning book The Tiger instead, but if youre likely to be satisfied with a thoughtful, factual account of whaling in Australia, The Last Whale will be more than adequate for most readers.

Rating: star Review: The Last Whale by Chris Pashstar Review: The Last Whale by Chris Pashstar Review: The Last Whale by Chris Pashblankstar Review: The Last Whale by Chris Pashblankstar Review: The Last Whale by Chris Pash

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With thanks to Fremantle Press for the review copy.


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  1. it sounds like an interesting and informative book, even if not the most elegantly written!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Juliet. The subject matter is fascinating, as is the very matter-of-fact account of life on the boats as a whaler. Its strange to have it humanised like that.

  2. Sounds like this book contains a lot of history, and Im glad to hear the author focus on the facts, rather than merely bashing the whalers of Australiaeven if they were tardy in stopping the practice.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Serena. It is informative, and the account is quite balanced, which must have been hard for the author given that its such a sensitive issue. I for one cant believe that we were whaling for so long!

  3. Oh geez. I read your review two days ago, started to comment, and then my internet ADD kicked in somehow. Why does that happen? This book sounds so interesting. I have a small obsession with whales and I am not put off by workmanlike writing (I sometimes rather like itIm a weirdo). I had no idea that the Greenpeace movement really started in Australia. That is pretty neat!

  4. Stephanie /

    Thanks for popping by, Carin! Greenpeace came out of Canada, I think, but this incident was the beginning of the Australian branch of Greenpeace. :)

    The prose style is very much a simple recount of what happened, and may work perfectly for a lot of readersits just not my thing, personally.

  5. David Roberts /

    Greenpeace did indeed start in Canada; Vancouver, I think. A group of San Franciscans later took control. Re: your comments about the prose and the authors background as a journalist. Maybe Chris Pash should keep on writing. Ernest Hemingway, also once a journalist, said it took him many years to work his way out of writing in a journalists style; a similar experience was shared by that master of the short story, James Thurber.
    Frankly, I would prefer a book such as The Last Whale to be written in a flat, unemotional and workmanlike (workpersonlike?) way. If I wanted astonishing prose Id prefer to read a stunning fiction book. And, yes, I was very satisfied with the thoughtful, factual account of whaling in Australia in The Last Whale.
    Next book please Mr Pash. And do try to use astonishing prose and make it a beautifully wrought account of whatever!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment David, and for your insight into moving between different styles of writing. Youve definitely highlighted the fact that this book will likely work for a lot of readersoverall, the approach is interesting, and the subject matter fascinating, so it seems like perhaps personal taste is whats driving my review (as is invariably the case).

  6. This does sound like an interesting topic to read about. Sorry to hear the writing was a bit flat at times.

  7. Stephanie /

    I think the writing style is probably quite hard to balance in a genre like this. Youve got to walk that line between being informative and factual and humanising your content without romanticising. No doubt its easier said than done!

  8. I can understand the loss of identity. Most people involved in the primary industry (resource harvesting) identify SO strongly with what they do for a living!

  9. Stephanie /

    Thanks for your comment, Jennifer. Its very true, and its interesting that the same issue was raised in the other book (The Tiger) that I mentioned in this review. Its something that Id scarcely considered, which is remiss of me given that many of my family are farmers and have relied on hunting and so on to supplement their incomes during hard times.

  10. I do like to be flat (horizontal) much of the time. However, there is no like about it; i am a workman.
    The Last Whale is entirely nonfiction. nothing made up or fictional about it. A major and difficult task to get the two points of view across without me or my views intruding. then theres the poor reader to think about. you should see the material I cut and left out.

    • Stephanie /

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for visiting! Its lovely to see you here.

      It is a very difficult line to walk, as weve been discussing here in the comments. Whaling is a very sensitive issue, and one with myriad viewpoints that are no doubt confoundingly difficult to stitch together into a narrative such as this. You definitely did a fabulous job of balancing the different sides of the argumentat no time did I feel that you were supporting or condemning one or both sides. :)


  11. Whaling is a highly emotive issue and on ehtical grounds alone it would have been too easy to write the whaling is bad book with accompanying gore and horror. No news in that really. but to write a book getting inside the lives of the whalers and the activisits is something special and hard to do. The people in the book trusted me. I had to be true to their experience and add nothing extra such as a litle tweaking to make it sensational. When you read The Last Whale you can be sure thats what it was like or at least what it was for a group of people on two sides of an issue in the 1970s. I got lucky in that I went out whaling at the time as a reporter so I could draw on my own notes and memory. But the bulk of the book is constructed from the memories of those who were there.

  12. It is a more powerful story to show the lives of those who went whaling and those who tried to stop them. it gives the reader understanding on how whalers came to be whaling. This applies to the Japan whaling fleet today. The first step in any negotiation is to understand the other side.

    Interesting to note that the two surviving Australian whaling ship captains now both speak out against whaling. And Paddy Hart, the former master and gunner of the australian whaling ship the Cheynes II, went to Japan two years ago to protest against whaling.

    And it was a high moment in my life when i introduced the key activisit (Jonny Lewis) and the whaling ship captains 30 years after they duelled at sea. they apologied to each other. they now speak fondly of each other.

  13. I find that really interesting that Mr. Pash likes to write flat (horizontal). I know that its drier to read, but at the same time I feel like a well written non-fiction book has journalistic integrity. His comments made me want to read the book all the more because I think that journalistic integrity is sorely lacking now. I like when writers and journalists want to report the story that IS and not the story that they want it to be. I admire that and appreciate that. This book is going on my wishlist!

  14. Stephanie /

    Hi Carin,

    Thanks for your comment. This is certainly turning into an intriguing discussion! Youre not the first person who has mentioned preferring the flatter writing styleI think its definitely a personal preference issue. Its a very thoughtful and compassionate book, and well-balanced, too, so I think you might enjoy it.