Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures

The Smithsonian's star paleontologist takes us to the ends of the earth and to the cutting edge of whale researchWhales are among the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species to have ever lived on our planet. They evolved from land-roaming, dog-like creatures into animals that move like fish, breathe like us, can grow to 300,000 pounds, live 200 years and roam en...

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Title:Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures
Author:Nick Pyenson
Rating:
Edition Language:English

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures Reviews

  • Juli

    I've always had a fascination with whales, dolphins and other mammals that live in the sea. I think maybe it's because they are so like us, and yet so different at the same time. When I saw this book written by a Smithsonian paleontologist, I knew I had to read all about the past, present and future of whales. I'm glad I did -- this book is fascinating!

    Nick Pyenson shares so many facts about whales...species that still swim in our oceans and ones that are long gone. He discusses the

    I've always had a fascination with whales, dolphins and other mammals that live in the sea. I think maybe it's because they are so like us, and yet so different at the same time. When I saw this book written by a Smithsonian paleontologist, I knew I had to read all about the past, present and future of whales. I'm glad I did -- this book is fascinating!

    Nick Pyenson shares so many facts about whales...species that still swim in our oceans and ones that are long gone. He discusses the ancestors of the whales we know today, the life of whales now and what the future might be for some of the largest creatures on the planet. There is still so much about whales that we don't know because they spend most of their time in deep ocean where even modern humans have a hard time following. I found it fascinating that Pyenson shared the fact that some whales can live more than 200 years...so there are some still swimming that saw wooden ships with sails skimming across the ocean. It made me wonder with awe what experiences the oldest whale in the world might have had over its long life.

    There is a lot of information and facts shared in this book, and at times Pyenson does get a bit academic. I read this book in small pieces, not in large chunks. The information is interesting and fascinating. But at times, the author let his ego show a bit. I don't fault highly educated people for this at all....they have a lot of knowledge and experiences that I don't. For me, small doses is best with information dense nonfiction like this book. Every night I would read a chapter or two while the HD television across the room showed an ocean documentary for ambiance. It just so happened that I was reading this book while Shark Week was on Discovery Channel....so it worked out perfectly. Sharks aren't whales of course...but the lovely ocean scenes made a perfect background for my enjoyment of this book.

    Lovely book! A nice blend of Pyenson's personal experiences and facts, history and information about whales themselves. He presents the information in an interesting way. Pyenson actually gives tours at the Smithsonian. After reading his book, I imagine he is an awesome guide! Great read!

    **I voluntarily read a review copy of this book from Penguin/Viking via NetGalley. All opinions expressed are entirely my own.**

  • Peter Tillman

    First-rate popular-science book, the best I’ve read in 2018. Highly recommended, if you are interested in whales, marine biology and/or paleontology. If, like me, you like all three — don’t miss! 4.6667 stars.

    The author, a paleontologist, is Curator of Marine Mammal Fossils at the Smithsonian, a whale-family enthusiast, and a fine writer. I almost always prefer pop-science written by active scientists. Even better if they are doing field work, as that's what I did. You will learn a g

    First-rate popular-science book, the best I’ve read in 2018. Highly recommended, if you are interested in whales, marine biology and/or paleontology. If, like me, you like all three — don’t miss! 4.6667 stars.

    The author, a paleontologist, is Curator of Marine Mammal Fossils at the Smithsonian, a whale-family enthusiast, and a fine writer. I almost always prefer pop-science written by active scientists. Even better if they are doing field work, as that's what I did. You will learn a good deal about how science is actually done in his book.

    This time, I’m doing a meta-review, with photos!

    Here’s the long review at the Atlantic, which led me to read the book:

    A fine short review:

    And read Scarlett’s, here, with illustrations, links and details:

    Nice author interview, with link to the Fresh Air podcast:

    The book has woodcuts and linocuts for illustrations, but could have used some actual photos. So here are some:

    Explore these 3D images of three of the best skeletons found at Cerro Ballena (Whale Hill), Chile. Very cool stuff. More at

    — which is only partly working, for me anyway.

    Basilosaurus was a truly bizarre ancestral whale, discussed at some length in the book. It was first thought to be a marine reptile, but was definitely a mammal. Here’s a reconstruction of a pack:

    -- they may have hunted in packs, like todays killer whales. Open image full screen for most impressive effect (all three).

    The first and best complete skeletons were found at Wadi El Hitan (Whale Valley) in Egypt:

    Maybe more than you want to know at

    And, finally, four humpbacks blowing and diving in Seymour Canal, Alaska: a prime whale-watching area where the author worked tagging humpback whales:

    Bonus: Cool National Geographic humpback video, also in Alaska:

  • Scarlett Readz and Runz....Through Novel Time & Distance

    Spying on Whales is a beautifully written introduction to the immersive world of whales. From their ancestry to their future, the beauty and evolution of these magnificent creatures as well as their adaptability, influence and importance to their and other ecosystems is explored in easy terms anyone can understand.

    This is the endeavor of Nick Pyenson, a paleontologist and curator at the Smithsonian Institute, who shares his passion for whales and the history their bones tell us. He himself cons

    Spying on Whales is a beautifully written introduction to the immersive world of whales. From their ancestry to their future, the beauty and evolution of these magnificent creatures as well as their adaptability, influence and importance to their and other ecosystems is explored in easy terms anyone can understand.

    This is the endeavor of Nick Pyenson, a paleontologist and curator at the Smithsonian Institute, who shares his passion for whales and the history their bones tell us. He himself considers paleontologists

    , since they are used to asking questions without having all the facts. Fossils studied are often removed from context, and therefore only give clues to draw inferences from. In this book, Pyenson presents a selective account of chasing whales, both living and extinct. Otherwise you would find yourself reading an encyclopedia for each whale species. He describes his experiences:

    Check out the Peyenson Lab:

    . A chronicle of whale history from mammals walking on land to their transition to aquatic animals. This is the part scientists rely mostly on fossil records. It therefore explains how paleontologists look for clues and what questions they have to ask themselves to uncover the details presented. This information borderlines with other sciences and tells us about whales in geological time. Pyenson specifically spends a greater part of detail on the discovery and his works at Cerro Ballena, the world’s richest fossil whale graveyard.

    Here is the link for Cerro Ballena:

    . How did whales become the biggest creatures ever in the history of life? What are the challenges of sustaining such enormous sizes? Here is where we learn about biological processes of whales and Pyenson’s work at a whaling station. What are the challenges of studying organisms of such size? What are his newest discoveries?

     

    of whales. It informs of population rates, climate change, new habitats, other species affected, changes in the oceans and new unusual whale sightings.

    We have all heard, read and seen the tragedies unfold by the hands of humans affecting whales and their co-inhabitants of our oceans. Therefore, I want to assure those that have asked me if it is a depressing book to read, that there are no horrific pictures or scenes depicted in this book. Part III acknowledges this, but does not harbor on these. Rather it explains scientific works needed, the news of other scientific findings and the collective deduction that perhaps gives hope to further investigations.

     

     

    I was fortunate to have two copies of this book available to me. One was the audio book version and the other a copy from the library. The narrator on the audio book was Nick Pyenson himself. That is always a plus. To hear the author express his writings in his own voice made it conversationally easy to understand and added emphasis on what was most important to him scientifically as well as distinctively convey his message to the reader. As I was finishing up my listening and began to dig into some of the author’s research, I became aware that there are drawings in the book that I did not want to miss. Lucky for me I was able to get a copy of the book at the library.

    There are many interesting facts that come into play in Spying on Whales. More then I can list here. Upon reading this book and discussing it with others, I was confirmed that whale bones in particular are a great example to study evolutionary history on. Pyenson presents this with clear examples, his love and experience for paleontology and the changes that have occurred over time. Not only in whales, but in mammals and other aquatic animals. From bone structures (skulls, hips, tails, fins) to senses like eyesight, hearing and blow holes and to communication, order of species and socialization.

     

    The fact is, the oceans are like the frontier that still offers plenty of room for discovery. My take-away from this book is that there are passionate people around the world working tirelessly in their respective fields. It is not only a race against time, but a journey to understanding more of the past that tells the story to our now.

    I am not a scientist, for certain. I merely have a general interest or thirst for knowledge. This book presents a glimpse into the life of whales and the study of paleontology and it quenches this desire for a little while, till I discover another topic and book to delve into. It certainly suits as an introduction for curious students perhaps to pursue the sciences, research, fieldwork if not at least create compassion for living things. I certainly would recommend it as such.

    My awe for whales has only been fueled thanks to the things I learned and did not know before this book. I would love for everyone to read it as it reads effortless and interestingly. It is books like this one that lead to more searches online, create more engagement by its audience, instill awareness, hence spread knowledge in the general populous. Give it a try. TODAY :)

    More sites listed here:

  • Science (Fiction) Comedy Horror and Fantasy Geek/Nerd a.k.a Mario

    Flipper is far overrated, the underrepresented (except Free Willy) whales are at least as astonishing.

    Luckily the creepy days of mass whale slaying are over, just the rusting remains of the huge whale processing facilities stay as a warning against the overexploitation of nature. The few remaining countries with traditional or so-called scientific whaling are the least problem. Instead, the ever-louder ocean with stronger communication tools for the growing world ship population, pol

    Flipper is far overrated, the underrepresented (except Free Willy) whales are at least as astonishing.

    Luckily the creepy days of mass whale slaying are over, just the rusting remains of the huge whale processing facilities stay as a warning against the overexploitation of nature. The few remaining countries with traditional or so-called scientific whaling are the least problem. Instead, the ever-louder ocean with stronger communication tools for the growing world ship population, pollution and the unknown, coming effects of climate change and global warming are and are becoming a problem. Maybe a more whale friendly navigating technology may be found or the whales adapt to the new circumstances by altering their communication process or even physiology. Who knows, nature is very creative in dealing with new circumstances. Intuitively one might probably think that such a large animal might take longer to change ist behavior, but their brain is not just big, but smart too, although sometimes size certainly matters.

    There is big and there is whaleBIG. Just the numbers how quick they grow while they drink vast amounts of milk (more than 250 Liters a day) until becoming really huge and eating until a stomach that can hold two tons is full.

    An interesting question may be how big they are going to get. Assuming the climate change may improve the conditions and turn large enough areas of the oceans in a kind of underwater rainforest paradise( a cold one, cause the colder the climate, the bigger the animals) where they have enough food all the time, they might get even bigger. Or the whole oceanic foodchain may collapse otherwise.

    It is immense how much can be reconstructed just by analyzing and comparing fossils. With today's modern technologies and coming help from AI the few lonely, unrelated skeletons and open questions may be solved soon. How animals went on land and off the land or stayed in the coastal zone or thought, "Damn it, I am going to adapt to the highlands or deeper areas of the sea where I can live in peace.", is just amazing.

    How their bodies adapted to each new environment and still adapt at this moment, how each climate and food availability could be made a home with ingenuity. Especially whale graveyards are both a great possibility to study the history and a reason to ask the question, how intelligent and sensitive whales might be. If it might turn out that they go to die in certain places and/or these places are visited by their family, that might be a milestone. The development of blowholes, the adaption of bones that were originally built for a higher gravity, how the body and organs deal with the extreme freediving trips. And, of course, epic fights to the death between a sperm whale and giant squid. It might get even more entertaining if the squid lived in one of the many areas where nuclear waste used to (or still is) be stored temporarily until a secure form of final disposal will be found. Many deep seas creatures are bioluminescent, but that might add a special touch. Probably even the legendary octopus/ Kraken, now with glowing, nuclear superpowers, who cooperates with the giant squid against the sperm whale.

    The look in a far future, million years from now, is even more interesting with an animal that has already been on land in the form of Pakicetus, got better adjusted to the sea as Ambulocetus and finally became a real whale with all the different adaptions to eating just plankton or meat. Out of that grew more pacifistic or aggressive species of whales and one cannot imagine what will come. I mean, freaking gangster, Chuck Norris style Orcas have begun killing white sharks cause they like their liver and other organs. All other marine animals think "Oh my god, a shark, we are all gonna die.", and the killer wales like "Hold my kelp beer and my seal burger for a moment..."And after the massacre, the orca thinks: "Nah, I wasn't even hungry, I will just eat the most delicious parts an leave the rest behind." Sharks are really poor victims, humans cut their fins off from above and the orcas come coordinated from all sites. One must be a smart badass to do that. And just like chimps and dolphins, especially Orcas may tend to be cruel for no reason too.

  • Sud666

    This book was recommended to me by a colleague. An excellent, non-technical, introduction to the marvelous animals known as whales. But, Pyenson's love of his field, paleontology, is obvious and it opened up a new insight for me as to how this field functions. Quite well done!

    Pyenson's time at the Smithsonian has been instrumental in the creation of this book. We learn about the different types of whales and how they evolved over the millennia. Pyenson explains the various field prog

    This book was recommended to me by a colleague. An excellent, non-technical, introduction to the marvelous animals known as whales. But, Pyenson's love of his field, paleontology, is obvious and it opened up a new insight for me as to how this field functions. Quite well done!

    Pyenson's time at the Smithsonian has been instrumental in the creation of this book. We learn about the different types of whales and how they evolved over the millennia. Pyenson explains the various field programs he has been on and what he has found. We accompany him to the Atacama desert where he looks at fossils and explores his inner thoughts about the longevity of whales (some can live to be 200 years old!!), all the way to the Antarctic where he looks for more evidence of whale evolution. His love of his field and whales shines through.

    He breaks the book down into three parts: past, present and future.

    The past covers how whales went from four-legged animals to the majestic water dwellers we know today.

    The present looks at the state of whales currently and the future ruminates on how humanity and whales can co-exist and what humanity can learn about these amazing creatures.

    A great book for anyone interested eiother in whales or in paleontology.

  • Mary  Carrasco

    When I think about whales, I get excited. What amazing, majestic HUGE creatures! They hold a very symbolic meaning for me and so I couldn't wait to get this book. The book itself is still fascinating but exciting? Not so much. Written by a scientist, it reads a bit like a science book. Nick Pyenson was extremely thorough in laying out the evolution of whales. I'm sorry to say it wasn't enough to keep my attention for long periods of time. I'm still in absolute awe of whales. I mean, look at that

    When I think about whales, I get excited. What amazing, majestic HUGE creatures! They hold a very symbolic meaning for me and so I couldn't wait to get this book. The book itself is still fascinating but exciting? Not so much. Written by a scientist, it reads a bit like a science book. Nick Pyenson was extremely thorough in laying out the evolution of whales. I'm sorry to say it wasn't enough to keep my attention for long periods of time. I'm still in absolute awe of whales. I mean, look at that book cover, wow! 2.5 stars rounded up.

  • ✨    jamieson   ✨

    So, whales are one of my favourite animals like they are so beautiful, so majestic, and some of them are so huge it's mind-boggling! I was definitely one of those kids reading those huge whale encyclopedias in primary school (you know the ones where it lists all the species and shows their size compared to school buses). Yeah, so I've never got over that, I love whales!

    is a book I saw get a lot of hype last year after it won a Goodreads Choice Award, so I really wanted to pick it/>Spying

    So, whales are one of my favourite animals like they are so beautiful, so majestic, and some of them are so huge it's mind-boggling! I was definitely one of those kids reading those huge whale encyclopedias in primary school (you know the ones where it lists all the species and shows their size compared to school buses). Yeah, so I've never got over that, I love whales!

    is a book I saw get a lot of hype last year after it won a Goodreads Choice Award, so I really wanted to pick it up and see what all the hype was about! I can see why people enjoyed this, it's a really short book that packs in a lot of information, and has a strong personal voice that runs through the entire book. Pyenson is obviously really passionate about his work, and infuses this book with a lot of personal stories and research that helps fill between the jargon and academic sections.

    Some of my favourite sections included the evolution of whales, and how they went from land mammals to aquatic mammals. The small discussion on the ethics of killing endangered whales for scientific research, and some of the new research emerging about whales, like how some live for 200 years!

    But even though I liked this book overall, I did have some issues. For one, this wasn't structured well. Even though it's separated into past, present and future, there isn't really much distinction in the sections. The present section I expected to be about the future of whales, but a lot was about extinct whales of the past, which was weird.

    The author also would start on a topic, then randomly cut to another without a proper linking topic. I also found the heavy focus on the author's stories kind of annoying - I personally don't like science books that focus more on the writer than the research. The way the story cut between a story the author was telling, and the factual bits, annoyed me and again, really needed more linking and structure to make it less choppy.

    That said, this was still a nice, short non-fiction with some really interesting tidbits about whale life that were definitely fascinating. It just wasn't my favourite in terms of writing and structure.

  • Jenna

    I was really excited when I saw and read about this book. Whales are such majestic and mysterious creatures and I thought it would be a fascinating read. Unfortunately, no.

    was actually quite dull and boring. How is that even possible for a book on

    ?? This book was all over the place rather than written in any type of linear fashion. It jumped from paleontology to whaling expeditions to stories about scientists to the evolution of whales to their anatomy and back and forth and arou

    I was really excited when I saw and read about this book. Whales are such majestic and mysterious creatures and I thought it would be a fascinating read. Unfortunately, no.

    was actually quite dull and boring. How is that even possible for a book on

    ?? This book was all over the place rather than written in any type of linear fashion. It jumped from paleontology to whaling expeditions to stories about scientists to the evolution of whales to their anatomy and back and forth and around and around. Just when I started to get interested in something, the author would jump to another topic. Rather than answer questions, he simply framed more. I learned little about whales in this book, sadly. I realise that partly this is because there is much about whales that we humans still do not know; however, the blurb of the book was quite tantalizing, dangling the promise of answers, compelling me to read the book.

    OK, I went and read the synopsis again. Perhaps I should have read it better before; it says, "Nick Pyenson's research has given us the answers to

    of our biggest questions about whales". So there it is: This book has

    (very few) answers. Maybe I'm just greedy and expect too much, but when I read a science book, I want to actually learn something.

    There were a handful of interesting tidbits, making this not a total wash-out:

    •The record of time a whale has been recorded holding its breath is 137.5 minutes. That's over 2

    ' worth of oxygen sucked into its lungs!

    •Whales have the same individual finger bones as humans (though they are flat, wrapped together in flesh, and streamlined into wings).

    •Whales have culture, culture being defined as the "kind of information stored outside an animal’s DNA that can be transmitted across individuals or generations".

    •Whales can live to be over 200 years old.

    Unfortunately, the book contained much more about paleontology and stories of bone-collecting expeditions than whale facts. If you're into paleontology, you might like this book more than I did. 2.5 stars rounded up to 3 (half star awarded for the gorgeous cover).

  • Steve Nolan

    I think having read "The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs" right before reading this really soured this one for me - there was more paleontology in this book than there was in the dino book.

  • Radiantflux

    13th book for 2019.

    One of my jobs as a scientific journal editor was to commission review articles on topics of general interest from leading scientists in the field. A surprising number of reviews were unusable because the author decided to base the entire "review" around their own work. And this is a major problem with Pyenson's book. Most of the book is a somewhat rambling collection of his own experiences as a scientist without any real breadth. So there's lots about his own exca

    13th book for 2019.

    One of my jobs as a scientific journal editor was to commission review articles on topics of general interest from leading scientists in the field. A surprising number of reviews were unusable because the author decided to base the entire "review" around their own work. And this is a major problem with Pyenson's book. Most of the book is a somewhat rambling collection of his own experiences as a scientist without any real breadth. So there's lots about his own excavations of whale skeletons and somewhat random facts about whale anatomy (basically facts pertinent to his own previous research), but very little about other scientists work. Not even very systematic facts about the life cycle of whales, their distribution, their social networks; presumably because that was the work of other scientists. And he is constantly name dropping the fact that he's working for the Smithsonian. Get over it!

    Nice cover though!

    2-stars.

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