As a child, Philip Hoare was always scared of water.
But he was always fascinated, too — specifically by the creatures dubbed the "leviathans of the deep."
So how did this frightened boy who didn't learn to swim until age 25 end up snorkeling with sperm whales?
That's just one of the story lines that flows through his new book, The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea.
Hoare tells NPR's Guy Raz that the whale "represents this huge paradox: It's the world's greatest animal, hugest animal, and yet we hardly ever see it. When we do, we just see this jigsaw component — a fluke or a dorsal fin or a pectoral fin. We can never put this jigsaw together."
In fact, the author says, "The notion of seeing them as a natural wonder is a very recent thing. It really started in the 1960s. No one had filmed a sperm whale underwater at all until long after we'd landed on the moon."
The reason, the author says, is that whales were long considered just a source of raw materials, mysterious creatures targeted by the whale-hunting industry.
It wasn't until 1859, eight years after Herman Melville published Moby-Dick, that petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania. Before that, as Hoare puts it, "The industrial revolution was lit and lubricated by the oil of whales."
Melville's masterwork was Hoare's greatest source of literary inspiration.
"It's a sprawling monster of a book," Hoare says about Moby-Dick. "It's like he had a 19th century search engine and put "the whale" in and just gathered everything he could find out about whales and put it into one book."
And Melville's masterpiece, which didn't earn its iconic status until long after its author died, shaped how we've seen whales ever since.
"We're kind of haunted by Moby-Dick," Hoare says. "We live with this notion, still, of the whale being a ferocious creature. I've been in the water with sperm whales. They are the most timid animals. They're freaked out by a dolphin. They are not these leviathans of yore."
Still, up close, these massive mammals can't help but inspire awe — and fear — as Hoare discovered a few years back, during a trip to the Azores, islands off Portugal's coast.
"I was snorkeling toward this pod of 12 female sperm whales," Hoare says. "As I swam to them, one of them detached from the pod and came swimming toward me, at which point I lost control of my bodily functions. I was utterly terrified. It was like having a granite cliff swimming toward you.
"At the last moment, as it came close to me, it turned and looked at me directly in the eye — the most challenging encounter that any writer could have with his subject. And then it dove ... and just vanished."