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Isabel of the Whales    by Hester Velmans order for
Isabel of the Whales
by Hester Velmans
Order:  USA  Can
Yearling, 2006 (2005)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Hester Velmans merges fantasy and reality in her appealing story of Isabel and the Whales, which in itself is a study of marine mammals. On the verge of extinction, whales came under the protection of the International Whaling Commission. Yet, there are nations that refuse to accept said guidelines, and still allow whale-hunts, using modern weapons such as exploding harpoons. The mammals are also threatened by a vessel's propellers, entanglement in fishing nets, and water pollution.

Eleven-year-old Isabel of Provincetown, Massachusetts always believed she was destined for something extraordinary. Isabel's love of marine mammals, specifically her study of whales, and a fifth-grade whale watching class trip lead her on an unexpected, unique journey. From the vessel Explorer, Isabel smells 'salty, fishy, mysterious air, the stiff breeze filling her eyes and nose'. She tells us 'I stepped onto a moving platform that was about to take me on the greatest ride of my life.' On the horizon appears the first whale with its double blowhole and spray coming out in two jets. One whale soon becomes many, as they congregate around the Explorer, bumping the boat. As Isabel stretches out for a better view, she goes 'hurtling through the air ... falling down into the cold seawater.'

When Isabel falls, the whales form a protective ring around her. She hears, 'Iz-zabel ... We are your friends ... You are a whale now ... You are one of the Chosen.' Isabel's assigned guide tells her to listen to her heart and teaches her of other Chosen Ones like Jonah, who returned to land to spread wisdom to others. Isabel's body changes to a whale's form, and she's initiated into the pod of an undersea family, a species of humpbacks known as Sirens - the Singing Ones. Though missing her land family, Isabel learns the mammals' ways, and, in turn, teaches them human ways.

Isabel meets sperm whales, orcas, minkes and finbacks, pygmy pilot whales and snow-white belugas, grinning fat bow-headed whales and gigantic blue whales, recognizing their magnificence and majesty. She learns to communicate through echolocation, and is trained in the three ings - ringing, pinging, and singing, important to the survival of the Sirens. They travel north to the Arctic, where they build up their bodies with blubber. When it is time, they travel south again, for mating and the birth of their young. Isabel rescues friends caught in a net, experiences shark attacks, and the seldom-meeting of a Narcorn (called Narwhals by humans).

In her Afterword, Hester Velmans offers insights into the humpback whales, saying that what sets the humpback apart from other species of whales is its song. 'The males sing during mating season, and the song is the longest and most complicated in the animal kingdom - more sophisticated than any bird's song.' Amazingly the sound 'can travel as far as six miles underwater, each group has its own distinct song ... and in those bursts of dreamlike sounds, a mysterious, spellbinding story is transmitted'. Isabel and the Whales is a tantalizing tale of the sea, and of a girl who believes! May we each have in our dreamworld what Isabel experienced in the ocean.

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