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Spying on Whales
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Spying on Whales
The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures
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"A palaeontological howdunnit...[Spying on Whales] captures the excitement of...seeking answers to deep questions in cetacean science." —Nature Called "the best of science writing" (Edward O....
"A palaeontological howdunnit...[Spying on Whales] captures the excitement of...seeking answers to deep questions in cetacean science." —Nature Called "the best of science writing" (Edward O....
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  • "A palaeontological howdunnit...[Spying on Whales] captures the excitement of...seeking answers to deep questions in cetacean science." —Nature

    Called "the best of science writing" (Edward O. Wilson) and named a best book by Popular Science, a dive into the secret lives of whales, from their four-legged past to their perilous present.
    Whales are among the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species to have ever lived on our planet. They evolved from land-roaming, dog-sized creatures into animals that move like fish, breathe like us, can grow to 300,000 pounds, live 200 years and travel entire ocean basins. Whales fill us with terror, awe, and affection—yet there is still so much we don't know about them. Why did it take whales over 50 million years to evolve to such big sizes, and how do they eat enough to stay that big? How did their ancestors return from land to the sea—and what can their lives tell us about evolution as a whole? Importantly, in the sweepstakes of human-driven habitat and climate change, will whales survive?
    Nick Pyenson's research has given us the answers to some of our biggest questions about whales. He takes us deep inside the Smithsonian's unparalleled fossil collections, to frigid Antarctic waters, and to the arid desert in Chile, where scientists race against time to document the largest fossil whale site ever found. Full of rich storytelling and scientific discovery, Spying on Whales spans the ancient past to an uncertain future—all to better understand the most enigmatic creatures on Earth.

Excerpts-

  • From the book

    1.

    How to Know a Whale

    I sat transfixed by a sea littered with a million fragments of ice, all rising and falling in time with the slow roll of the waves. We had spent the morning looking for humpback whales in Wilhelmina Bay, threading our rubber boat between gargantuan icebergs that were tall and sharp, like overturned cathedrals. Now we stopped, cut the engine, and listened in the utter stillness for the lush, sonorous breath of an eighty-thousand-pound whale coming to the water's surface. That sound would be our cue to close in. We had come to the end of the Earth to place a removable tag on the back of one of these massive, oceangoing mammals, but we took nothing for granted in Antarctica. As we sat waiting on the small open boat, I came to feel more and more vulnerable, a speck floating in a sea of shattered ice. "Don't fall in," my longtime collaborator and friend Ari Friedlaender deadpanned.

    I struggled to remember how long we had been away from the Ortelius, our much larger oceanic vessel with its ice-hardened steel hull. In every direction, we were enclosed by a landscape of nunataks, jagged spires of rock that pierced the creamy tops of surrounding glaciers. Where the glaciers met the sea, they ended in sheer, icy cliffs towering over the bay. Without a human structure for scale, these landforms seemed both near and far at the same time. This otherworldly scene of ice, water, rock, and light warped my sight lines, bending my sense of distance and the passage of time.

    If you hold your fist with your left thumb out, your thumb is the western Antarctic Peninsula; your fist, the Antarctic continent's outline. The Gerlache Strait is part of a long stretch of inner passageway along the outer side of Antarctica's left thumb, and Wilhelmina Bay cuts a rough cul-de-sac off the Gerlache. The Gerlache is a hot spot for whales, seals, penguins, and other seabirds, and Wilhelmina Bay is the bull's-eye. All come here to hunt for krill, small crustaceans that form the centerpiece of Antarctic ocean food webs. Consider your hand again: individual krill are about the length of your thumb, but whales pursue them because they explode into great aggregations, or swarms, during the Antarctic summer. With the right mixture of sunlight and nutrient-rich water, dense clouds of krill form a sort of superorganism that can stretch for miles and concentrate in hundreds of individuals per cubic foot. By some measures, there is more biomass of krill than of any other animal on the planet. Calorie-rich swarms of them lurked somewhere, not far, just under our boat.

    Where there are krill in sufficient quantities, there will be whales, but the fundamental problem with studying whales is that we almost never see them, except when they come to the surface to breathe or when we dive, in our own limited fashion, in search of them. Whales are inherently enigmatic creatures because the parameters of their lives defy many of our tools to measure them: they travel over spans of whole oceans, dive to depths where light does not reach, and live for human lifetimes-and even longer.

    In Wilhelmina Bay our goal was to attach a sleek plastic tag to the back of a whale to record audio, video, depth, changes in the whale's speed, and even pitch, yaw, and roll. Our tags would provide crucial context for how humpbacks interact with their environment by relaying, in a time-stamped way, how they feed on krill. Ari and his colleagues have tagged and tracked whales along the Antarctic Peninsula for nearly two decades, charting their movements against the backdrop of changes in...

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    April 2, 2018
    Smithsonian paleontologist Pyenson winningly combines science and travel writing to create what he describes as “a kind of travelogue to chasing whales, both living and extinct.” Writing in a contagiously enthusiastic style, Pyenson brings the reader along on an exploration of the evolution of whales, from their prehistoric origins as land-roaming organisms to the at-risk aquatic species of today. He travels to, among other spots around the globe, an ancient whale graveyard on the coast of Chile to investigate fossilized skeletons and an Icelandic whaling station to better understand whale anatomy. Whether describing the technological advances that allow lasers to create 3-D replicas of whale skeletons, or old-fashioned fossil hunting with his son, Pyenson communicates a love of natural history and scientific discovery. Not shying away from charged topics, such as climate change and the human impact on dwindling whale populations, he covers these issues in an evenhanded fashion that avoids polemic. At one point, Pyenson writes, “The best stories of scientific discovery are, at their heart, stories about people.” Using this philosophy, he has delivered a fascinating and entertaining look at whales and the scientists who study them. Agent: Bridget Matzie, Aevitas.

  • Kirkus

    April 15, 2018
    A paleontologist and self-styled whale chaser weaves his own adventures into a rich account of the largest creatures on our planet.Pyenson, the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and prolific author of scientific articles in newspapers and popular magazines, is both enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable about whales. His research has taken him around the globe, from the Atacama Desert in Chile to examine newly discovered whale skeletons to a whaling station in a fjord in Iceland, where whalers carve up freshly caught whales. He has looked for answers to his questions about their evolution, biology, and behavior in the Arctic and Antarctic, Panama, and North Carolina's Outer Banks. He vividly shows how scientists work and the significant physical demands required to extract fossils from sand and rocks and dissect blubber and flesh from bones. Pyenson divides his account into three parts: the past, the present, and the future. He asks questions about how whales evolved from four-legged land animals, how they grew so big, how and what they eat, how they live today, and what the age of the Anthropocene holds for them. Although the book is packed with information, the author is quick to remind readers that, even among scientists, much about whales remains unknown. Many fossils that would reveal their evolution have not been found, and their behavior is often hidden in the deep ocean world. One particularly intriguing question arises: What can humans learn about surviving in a changing world from these creatures who for millennia have survived on a planet where oceans rose and fell and land masses shifted?What keeps readers going in this occasionally challenging work are Pyenson's clear love of his subject, his thrill at making a scientific discovery, and his depiction of the world of scientists at work.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    May 15, 2018

    With a title that borrows from a quote by writer Annie Dillard, this latest work from paleontologist Pyenson (Smithsonian: Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals) explores the rich discoveries and remaining questions about whales. From the coast of Panama to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Pyenson brings together the work of ecologists, geologists, and physicists. He examines evidence for the evolution of species from land mammals to the sea creatures we are familiar with today. The author studies migration patterns and pod behavior and anatomy to help advance current understandings of whale adaptation and socialization. He also looks to the future in order to predict how climate change, pollution, and human activity will impact how whales live, breed, and die. VERDICT Popular science readers (both adult and teens) will enjoy the way in which Pyenson sheds light on the mystery of life below the seas without dimming its majesty.--Catherine Lantz, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Lib.

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • School Library Journal

    September 1, 2018

    Pyenson, the Smithsonian's curator of fossil marine mammals, offers a captivating, accessible glimpse of the complicated, fascinating world of whales, moving from Deep Time (50 million years ago) to the present and the future. What is a whale? To answer that question, the author says, it's crucial to understand these creatures' long evolution as they moved from the sea to land and back to the sea, what they are today, and how they may change in the future as they interact with humans and a changing biome. This is no dry recitation; Pyenson treats facts the way he does life-as an adventure. Details such as blue whales having more than 300 million miles of blood vessels are woven into tales of his own and historical, exciting, sometimes dangerous expeditions in search of whales and whale fossils. VERDICT A fast, fun, and informative read that is ideal for research and pleasure alike.-Gretchen Crowley, formerly at Alexandria City Public Libraries, VA

    Copyright 2018 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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