Spying on Wales by Nick Pyenson

3 out of 5 stars

I have been fortunate to see dolphins in the wild twice, but as yet have not seen any whales. It is one thing that I would love to do one day, assuming that we ever get back to anything resembling normal. These amazing creatures are the largest species that have ever graced our planet, the largest of which is the blue whale. Their size means that they can only live in the water, but they have adapted to this hostile environment perfectly. This is even more amazing when you think that they are not fish but mammals.

They evolved from dog-like creatures over 50 million years ago into the animals that they are now. We are still discovering new species too, the most recent of which is the Rice’s Whale found in the north-eastern Gulf of Mexico. We know so very little about them, how they got that big, how do they eat enough to survive, and will they survive the onslaught of mankind. Nick Pyenson’s research has been looking at these and many other questions and this book is part of that story.

The begins in space of all places where he mentions that the Voyager spacecraft both carry sounds from our planet and one of those sounds is whale song. Not that anyone on this planet has been able to decipher these mournful squeaks and moans. However, they have discovered lots about the sounds, how they can travel vast distances across the ocean and that humpback songs are incredibly complex. The book is split into three sections, the first part is looking at the fossil records of whales tracing back (as much as they can) to the original species that decided that going back to the oceans was in its best interest. Ironically the best places to find whale bones in nowhere near the sea, rather it is in the driest parts of our planet; former sea beds that have been thrust high because of tectonic plate movement over thousands of years.

The second part of the book is about the whales we have here and now and how a mammal can get that big, how it breathes, feeds and thrives in the ocean. It was a bit grim as part of his research takes him onto a whaling ship where these magnificent creatures are harpooned, hauled out and slaughtered for pure greed from what I can make out. In this bloody mess though he does make a discovery about a sensory organ that now one new existed. The final part of the book is about the possible futures that whales might have. We have been particularly cruel to them, slaughtering millions of them and driving a few species to the very brink of extinction, but there is a glimmer of hope, provided we understand the interconnectedness of the ocean inhabitants.

I didn’t think that this was too bad overall. It is quite readable and full of interesting and fascinating anecdotes on whales. I thought that the prose was a little dry, but he is an academic more used to writing research papers and grant applications rather than popular science books. That said, there were parts that showed wry humour and a little humanity. It is a good introduction to whales if you have never read anything about them before.

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  1. Jason Denness

    Never seen whales or dolphins, best I’ve done is seeing a basking shark

    • Paul

      An equally fantastic spot in my book

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