Spying on Whales|
The Past, Presesnt, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures
Viking, 2019, HC, 336 pp, $27.00
Nick Pyenson's Spying on Whales, is an overarching and cohesive look into the deep history of whales, when they actually walked on land, some 50 million years ago, to their present and uncertain future. Nick Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine animals at the Smithsonian. His vast knowledge and experience in paleontology give a unique insight into these aquatic mammals.
Why are we so fascinated by whales? We have only just begun to scratch the surface of these intelligent animals. We are so intrigued by them that we think species on other planets would be too. In his prologue Pyenson notes that "Spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are meant as messengers: they carry information about our address in the solar system, building blocks of our scientific knowledge and a small sampling of images, music and greetings from around the world. They also carry whalesong." In parts of his book Pyenson addresses these questions. As land mammals ourselves, of course we more easily identify with others like us. We are able to study and catorgorize and even invite furry creatures to live in our homes. Whales live in a different world; however they "still breathe air, give birth, nurse their young, and keep company with one another over lifetimes."
As a paleontologist much of the journey Pyenson takes us on is one of the discoveries of whale bones. In Chile an unprecedented find of entire whale skeletons raises questions of why whales strand. Through a Herculean effort using laser scanners, laptops, and 3d imagery and 3d printing the find at Cerro Ballena uncovers that there are actually four layers of whale fossils in this one area; and perhaps the most likely culprit of these strandings is toxic algae.
Throughout Spying on Whales Pyenson brings us with him to Antarctica, Panama, Iceland and Alaska. He describes the impact of the whaling industry and devastation it wreaked on whale populations, but takes it a step further, to the impact of the oceans environment. He addresses other human impact such as fishing nets and global warming.
However most interesting, to me at least, is the evolution of whales. How some evolve echolocation while others hunt in packs. How their phalanges are wrapped in muscle and blubber forming blade like wings; while nostrils slowly slide from their front to up over their eyes for easy sounding.
Pyenson writes with a scientific acumen that is accessible. As a layperson I found myself learning without trying. He describes his personal experiences, travels, collogues and discoveries as though he is talking to a friend.