The Eye of the Whale is a beautifully illustrated children’s book that describes a 2005 incident off the coast of San Francisco in which divers freed a humpback whale caught in the tangled lines of crab traps. Near drowning, the exhausted whale lay still in the water as her rescuers cut the ropes. After she was freed, instead of leaving, she circled the divers as if in celebration and gently nudged each of them before swimming away. O’Connell’s rich and skillful illustrations enhance this deceptively simple tale for students (the publisher suggests ages 5–8), giving a tangible sense of the size and strength of the whale, the vast ocean, the urgency of the rescue, and the uncanny connection made between the trapped whale and her rescuers.
It is this important connection that is central to the story, as important as the rescue itself. Certainly the lesson of humanity’s responsibility to the natural world is an important message. However, the whale’s seemingly joyful “dance” after being freed, her gentle touching of each of the rescuers in turn, and the strength of the shared gaze between human diver and whale all raise another fundamental question: To what degree do the humans and whale share feelings? And by extension: What emotions are common between humans and animals? A page of notes at the end of the book gives details of the incident and the divers, and prompts the reader to think about the issues of conservation and animal emotions and understanding raised by the incident. Tilbury House, a Maine-based independent publisher specializing in books about cultural diversity, social justice, nature, environment, and maritime history, has developed a supporting “Teachers Take Note” page on their website that includes discussion prompts, notes about the emotional capabilities of whales, additional picture-book references, and several possible classroom activities related to whales, the ocean, and environmental stewardship. The Eye of the Whale is lovely in story and illustration. Particularly with such supporting background material, this story could be the focal point of a rewarding classroom unit on environmental responsibility and shared experience across the animal kingdom.