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Saturday, April 29, 2000

Photographer finds a big friend

Staff writer

"The boy's grandfather is a brave whaler. But the boy is scared of whales. They both start pulling a tiny boat out to sea, searching for whales."

This is how the picture book "Makko no Uta -- Shiroi Okina Tomodachi (Song of a Sperm Whale -- Big White Friend)" begins.

Created by wildlife photographer and writer Hiroya Minakuchi, the book was selected from among 744 picture books published in Japan in 1999 as the grand prize winner of Nihon Ehon Taisho.

"Song of a Sperm Whale" is nothing like a regular children's picture book, however. With no visual images of the boy and old man, it looks more like a collection of science photos of sperm whales, but manages to draw in readers until they feel as if they are actually on the boat and sharing the boy's experiences. The panel of judges recognized the book as a pioneering work that redefines the picture book genre.

"I had never regarded it as a picture book until I won the prize," says Minakuchi. He has pursued sea mammals such as whales and dolphins for over 20 years, and has published many books, photo collections and videos.

"Song of a Sperm Whale" is his first "fictional" work. "Photographs are generally considered nonfictional material, but I wanted to try using them as fictional material," he says.

The photographs used in "Song of a Sperm Whale" were taken from 1996 to 1998 around the Azores Islands, near Portugal, where whaling was still conducted until several years ago.

When Minakuchi encountered a milky white albino whale in 1996, he vaguely considered writing a story. The idea became more concrete through discussions with his editors.

"I can say this is another 'Moby Dick,' " he says referring to the albino whale of Herman Melville's famous novel. However, the fierce creature of Melville's story has little in common with the gentle, approachable mammals Minakuchi photographed.

When the character of the boy first encounters the whales, he is overwhelmed and intimidated by their massive size. On the third day, he discovers a baby white whale, and his grandfather urges him to swim with it, saying, "You will never know what whales are really like unless you see them in the water."

The boy slips into the ocean and he and the white whale swim together, looking into one another's eyes. When he comes back to the boat, he finds his fear for whales has disappeared.

Sperm whales are in reality very cautious, and even a slightly unusual sound is enough to scare them away, Minakuchi says. The photographer himself has never felt threatened by wild-sea mammals while working in the field, saying, "Whalers must have had dangerous experiences with whales, but for me, wind and waves are more scary."

At the end of the story, the boy's grandfather gives readers a message on behalf of Minakuchi. He says to his grandson: "You are no longer afraid of whales. Nothing can scare you once you know its reality."

Minakuchi points out that we tend to be afraid of anything that is unfamiliar. "Racial prejudice is also the same. It comes from ignorance," he says. "It is important to try to see the world without bias."

The Osaka-born photographer has loved observing marine creatures ever since he was 7 or 8 years old. As a boy he made up his mind to pursue a career related in some way to the sea. He majored in marine biology at the University of Kyoto and researched the behavior of coral fish. At heart he was more interested in whales and dolphins, but thought they were too inaccessible.

After graduation, Minakuchi was employed by Kodansha, a major publishing company, as an editor. For his first vacation after joining the company, he went to Hawaii and took part in his first whale-watching tour. Once he saw whales swimming around the boat slowly, unafraid of the people on board, he knew he could handle documenting them.

While still working at Kodansha, he pursued cetaceans all over the world for several years. In 1984 he became a freelance photo journalist, and since then has documented the activities of whales and dolphins.

It is, however, becoming difficult to take dynamic photos of sea life, Minakuchi says. In response to the increased popularity of whale-watching, laws have been established to protect their ecology, which limits photographers' access.

Fortunately, he has taken many photos over the last 20 years. "It's a great advantage for me," he says. "I would like to create more entertaining stories using those photos, while introducing the latest research of the world's marine biologists in the books."

Minakuchi publishes the magazine Sphere, which features his photos. For more information about the magazine, visit the Web site at www.mmjp.or.jp/sphere/

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