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 – Spying on Whales

I’m usually so glad to have a place like McDay to post science type treatises on subjects that none of my friends ever want to hear about. But whales? Everyone I spoke to when reading Spying on Whales, by Nick Pyenson, had a “whale story” of their own to share.


Most claimed that the fascination began in childhood, perhaps during a visit to the beach. What goes on under our vast oceans is still mostly a mystery. Whales dive to places deep enough that we don’t, to this day, know a lot about what they really do down there. So, no mystery as to why the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species, that can grow to 300,000 pounds and live 200 years, enthralls us, adults and children alike?


Anthropologists, paleontologists, marine biologists, and museum curators all come together in this part-memoir, part-history book, part-dinosaur-like children’s book that follows what it is actually like to study the largest animals the world has ever seen. There is even a mystery/thriller angle, as scientists unexpectedly discover an incredible bed of whale fossils in Cerro Ballena, Chile and only have weeks to free them.


Talk about obscure science? Learn about a new field of study called taphonomy, which is the study that determines how the dead enter the fossil record, focusing on the entire pathway that filters the information we know about an organism, from death to discovery (by humans). “Taphonomy is really the study of information loss in anatomy and ecology. Ideally we want the whole picture of the ancient worlds we study, but we don’t every truly get that, because of the vicissitudes of how living things fall apart after death,” writes the author.


The author, Nick Pyenson has received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and is a curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural Museum of History in Washington, D.C.


Nick weaves stories about sperm whales, gray whales, and every other species of whale, living now, migrating now, and back through the Ice Ages. The author ponders how the warmer waters of climate change might allow the gray whale, once a citizen of the Atlantic, and now confined to the Pacific, an opportunity to come back to the East Coast (they can migrate 24,000 miles in a year), traveling through soon to be ice-free oceans in the Arctic. For someone who tries mightily to always look at the bright side, that was an enormously comforting climate change thought.