Spying on Whales

Spying on Whales.jpg


The Smithsonian's star paleontologist takes us to the ends of the earth and to the cutting edge of whale research

Whales 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 entire ocean basins. Whales fill us with terror, awe, and affection--yet we know hardly anything about them, and they only enter our awareness when they die, struck by a ship or stranded in the surf. 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? Why do they beach themselves? What do their lives tell us about our oceans, and 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. Nick's rich storytelling takes us to the cool halls deep inside the Smithsonian's priceless fossil collection, to the frigid fishing decks on Antarctic whaling stations, and to the blazing hot desert of Chile where scientists race against time to document the largest fossil whalebone site on earth. Spying on Whales is science writing at its best: an author who is an incredible, passionate writer, at the forefront of his field, on a topic that invokes deep fascination.


Genres: Nonfiction / Science / Environment

Author: Nick Pyenson

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published June 26th 2018 by Viking



My Review

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 tour guides 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:

”…from Antarctica to the deserts of Chile, to the tropical coastlines of Panama, to the waters of Iceland and Alaska, using a wide variety of devices and tools to study whales: suction-cupped tags that cling to their backs; knives to dissect skin and blubber from muscles and nerves; and hammers to scrape and whack away rock that obscures gleaming, fossilized bone.”

– Nick Pyenson

Check out the Peyenson Lab

Spying on Whales is divided into parts.

Part I tells us about the PAST. 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

Part II tells about the PRESENT. 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?


Part III explores the (uncertain) FUTURE 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.


“My hope is that this book says as much about the inner lives of scientists as it does about whales.”  

– Nick Pyenson


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 respectively 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 and our future.

I am not a scientist, for certain. I merely have a general interest or thirst for knowledge. This book gives a glimpse into the life of whales and the study of paleontology that 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 audience, instill awareness and hence spread knowledge in the general populous.

Give it a try. TODAY :)

Other noteworthy articles / sites that pertain:

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Paleontology Department

Science Friday

Smithsonian image data base



A note on my part

A small personal side note: I want to venture and say that most people don’t actually know how fierce the competition in the field of science is. This is rather sad. It has nothing to do with the above book nor was it discussed in it… Nor does it EVER get discussed! Coming from a student source close to me deciding to enter graduate studies in a natural science field, I am told that researchers are marginalized in their work and findings. That is, a hypotheses / test / discovery has to fit into the mold of the funding operation. I certainly do not know enough about this but I would be interested in knowing what it takes to make it over that hump to discover and present unbias research. From what I am hearing it turns undergrads off from pursuing these fields since it takes away from unveiling truths and leaves little room for new discoveries.

I commend people that work in science fields specifically in the study of animals. Not many make it past cleaning lab equipment, zoo pens or the (yet meaningful to the cause) everyday tasks of care taking. Achieving a degree in the natural science field requires many, many lab hours and field research on top of regular studies. The time requirements and investments are immense.

STEAM studies are highly driven subjects in elementary schools through High school to evoke a love for learning and challenge young minds. Contrary perhaps, ideology or passion have no place in the pursuit of research. Yet that is how students decide to go into the study of animals in the first place. Unbiased funding persists to be a problem. Sad for those students pursuing animal sciences when they hit that wall and receive a wake-up call only to abandon their track of study in exchange for a more assured venture and job security. A loss to everyone.