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Book Review: Spying On Whales by Nick Pyenson

My aunt sends us books for Christmas every year, a.k.a. the best kind of holiday presents. In this year’s box was Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson, and I sat down to start reading it that very night.

In some ways, I’m the perfect audience for this book. I’m interested in nature, natural history, and evolution, but I actually didn’t know much of anything about whales.

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Whale territory. You just can’t see them because they are under the water – as Pyenson discusses, this is one of the things that make these giant animals so mysterious and compelling.

In November I had gone on a whale-watching boat ride in northern Norway, and more or less everything I knew came from the Ukrainian guide on the boat. It wasn’t much, but before and after the trip, I thought whales were cool, when I thought about them at all.

If you are already a little obsessed with whales, then I think you’ll like the book too. All the facts are there for you to nerd out on.

9780735224568But Pyenson writes impressively well, and the book is never bogged down in this nerdery. Instead, it’s fun and adventurous. Chapters sometimes end in cliffhangers – I certainly couldn’t stop reading. And at times, it’s quite a moving read.

In the prologue, Pyenson describes how the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft are carrying whalesong into the outer reaches of the solar system. We may not understand what whales are saying, but we intuitively feel that they are intelligent and powerful – and that their communication is not only beautiful but probably important.

“They’re so compelling that we imagine aliens might find them interesting,” Pyenson writes of whales.

And yet, he continues, we know very little about whales, either the ones that live in our oceans today or the whales of the past.

I’ll admit: I didn’t actually really realize that.

Pyenson fills in details that I never knew I didn’t know, and certainly didn’t realize were so recently discovered. He discusses what things we still don’t know, and what mysteries will be exciting to solve. This book is filled with behavior, anatomy, and evolutionary history, as well as discussions of how all three connect to make a modern whale.

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, foundational biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote as the title of one of his essays.

In my fields – ecology and evolutionary biology – this is tossed back and forth. “Nothing in ecology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” an evolutionary biologist will say, scoffing at ecology as boring (yes, this has happened to me, in person).

“Well, nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of ecology,” a ecologist might retort.

Pyenson’s book is a great demonstration that both are true. In trying to piece together – literally, based on fossil fragments – how whales went from living on dry land to being the biggest animals in the oceans and indeed on the planet, ever, both ecology and evolution are needed. The two are woven together throughout the book as Pyenson describes working with one collaborator after another.

“The trip was an opportunity to push at the questions sitting on the edges of our disciplines, at the intersection of Ari’s understanding of behavior and local ecology, Jeremy’s grasp of physiology and biomechanics, and my background in paleontology and Earth history,” Pyenson writes at one point. “The basic questions about how whales do that they do require all these fields of understanding, and I’ve always thought the best way to answer them was through this Venn diagram of disciplines and personalities.”

Now that’s a scientific approach I admire, and he demonstrates that it’s fun, too. Minus the part at the whale slaughterhouse.

How does this approach deliver answers? Here’s an example question. If whales have gradually evolved to be bigger and bigger, why aren’t they even bigger still? That evolutionary question has an ecological answer.

The first two-thirds of the book are about the past and the present of whales. But my favorite part was the last third, about the future of whales, and of us. Whales live a very long time, sometimes two hundred years. There is a beautiful description of all that a 200-year-old whale has seen in its lifetime.

And then, a description of what today’s whales might see in the future, things that you and I will not live to see.

“Any bowheads living today do so in a liminal gap between a familiar past and a potentially unrecognizable future,” Pyenson writes of climate change in the Arctic. “A bowhead calf born today will live in an Arctic that, by the next century, will be a different world than that experienced by all of its ancestors.”

Maybe that sounds trivial – like, duh, climate change is happening fast – but after reading a hundred pages about all of the different environments that whales have encountered through their long evolutionary history, it is powerful when you reach this point.

And that is one of the things that kept me reading this book. It is peppered with fun facts – large baleen whales grow at a rate of a hundred pounds a day before reaching maturity, dang, that seems impossible! – but also with profound observations and good writing.

Finally, as a field ecologist, I really enjoyed Pyeson’s descriptions of fieldwork trips. He takes us to Chile, Panama, Iceland, and Antarctica, as well as more familiar-to-Americans spots like California and North Carolina. All of his descriptions of the challenges and successes of fieldwork, the camaraderie between colleagues, and even that one wonderful-but-definitely-weirdo collaborator (we all have at least one), feel authentic.

If you like science and nature writing, and compelling nonfiction in general, I think you’ll like this book. I did. Thanks Lizzie!

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