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 ent...

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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 ancestors of

    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, may be the best I’ve read this year. Highly recommended, if you are interested in whales, marine biology and/or paleontology. If, like me, you like all three — don’t miss! 4.5 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 de

    First-rate popular-science book, may be the best I’ve read this year. Highly recommended, if you are interested in whales, marine biology and/or paleontology. If, like me, you like all three — don’t miss! 4.5 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 skeleton at the Smithsonian:

    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:

    Life reconstruction:

    Probably 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:

  • Stephanie

    SPYING ON WHALES: Teaching the Heart of Science

    The author and whale paleobiologist provides a fascinating look at the when and what of his work.

    I voluntarily reviewed an advance readers copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.

    At the heart of this book is the young man, the boy, whose curiosity led him to become a paleobiologist. Dr. Pyenson tells the story of whales with a childlike enth

    SPYING ON WHALES: Teaching the Heart of Science

    The author and whale paleobiologist provides a fascinating look at the when and what of his work.

    I voluntarily reviewed an advance readers copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.

    At the heart of this book is the young man, the boy, whose curiosity led him to become a paleobiologist. Dr. Pyenson tells the story of whales with a childlike enthusiasm that sees the best in colleagues, endures the tough physical challenges as well as the rigorous academics involved in his position, and what seems like an endless amount of passion for passing knowledge and understanding on to people of all scientific abilities, including me.

    Despite its math and methods science is still a human endeavor, and it requires heart and passion to reach us. Pyenson offers facts and information but more importantly his writing and narration are relatable and his personality is friendly. He tells a story.

    I saw my first whale while I was listening to the book, off the Massachusetts beach where we spend a lot of time. Although it wasn’t bigger than a bus, it was as large as many of the fishing boats in the water. It was certainly the biggest animal I had ever seen in the water. We saw whales several times this past week including a breaching.

    I know more about the whale species than I did before I read the book, but, be advised that like many natural science books it can be hard to understand certain words. One term I found I had completely misunderstood as “Roark Whale” is really “Rorqual Whale.” But it also seems likely that the whale, or whales we saw were humpback or minke whales.

    I also found the colorful descriptions of how whale research is done fascinating: deserts, freezing seas, rocky roads, cliffs under tides all but once a year. It is often dangerous, most assuredly uncomfortable and dirty work. As a paleobiologist it is curious how important Pyenson’s work is to understanding how this species fares today: how it was and is affected by hunting, pollution and climate change. He offers facts, theory

    Pyenson, is brilliant, and he has a pleasant voice for delivering his words in audio format. His ability to personalize his work, tells the story of the whale and the story of science.

  • Dustin Rottier

    Won this book in a Goodreads giveaway from Viking books. This is a relatively quick, easy read packed with scientific data and anecdotes. Author is a paleontologist and rightfully includes his expertise to help explain the natural history of whales and highlight many of the questions still not 100% understood about these marine giants. I love that the author shows how a scientist works through a problem through what may be taught as the scientific method.

  • Cher

    Did you know that whales used to walk on land before returning to the water?

    Oh the rabbit holes this book led me down….googled until my googler was sore. Easy to read (not dry at all) with fascinating tidbits. I love that the author makes you aware of what has been done by humans, along with what might happen due to humans (pros and cons), without being preachy or condescending.

    -------------------------------------------

    We sent whalesong into

    Did you know that whales used to walk on land before returning to the water?

    Oh the rabbit holes this book led me down….googled until my googler was sore. Easy to read (not dry at all) with fascinating tidbits. I love that the author makes you aware of what has been done by humans, along with what might happen due to humans (pros and cons), without being preachy or condescending.

    -------------------------------------------

    We sent whalesong into interstellar space because the creatures that sing these songs are superlative beings that fill us with awe, terror, and affection. We have hunted them for thousands of years and scratched them into our mythologies and iconography. Their bones frame the archways of medieval castles. They’re so compelling that we imagine aliens might find them interesting — or perhaps understand their otherworldly, ethereal song.

    At this very moment, two spacecraft move at over thirty-four thousand miles per hour, about ten billion miles away from us, each carrying a gold-plated copper record.

  • Alicia

    With a glut of science books focused on humans’ curiosity with the animal world, I am in awe. The ocean is just one big ball is amazingness that has yet to really be explored because it tests our limits, so it wasn’t hard to read this book when a Smithsonian scientist wanted to talk whales. And the title just was icing on the cake. Yes, that’s all humans are really doing- spying. Because we can’t do anything else at those depths and with our technology.

    But we sure as heck are leading them to ex

    With a glut of science books focused on humans’ curiosity with the animal world, I am in awe. The ocean is just one big ball is amazingness that has yet to really be explored because it tests our limits, so it wasn’t hard to read this book when a Smithsonian scientist wanted to talk whales. And the title just was icing on the cake. Yes, that’s all humans are really doing- spying. Because we can’t do anything else at those depths and with our technology.

    But we sure as heck are leading them to extinction and that pisses me off. Then you become mesmerized by factoids like whales are being clocked in at 200 years old based on eyeballs, ovary scars, and teeth.

    There was quite a bit about there history and specifically excavation of bones at a few particularly rich locations in the world and while he was fantastic at telling the story, it was less interesting than discussing the present that we’re living in for obvious reasons. He spoke to several of the species and to their awesome features. I could read on and on.

    When I finished I wanted to fall down the rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos of whales but surprisingly there are not many. A few clips for National Geographic, some amateur video from whales emerging from the water in front of a boat, but not much else to be awestruck by (though there are several LONG videos claiming to have on repeat whale sounds for mediation and sleeping) and that just adds to their mysteriousness.

    Kudos to our author for bringing his A game to share with couch scientists everywhere about whales because I was completely sucked in! (wink wink for a poor joke about our lunge eaters!)

  • 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.

  • 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 for

    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.

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