Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson

Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson. In this book the author familiarizes his readers with the history of whales. He writes about his fascinating work and what he is doing as a scientist. He works with bones - preferably with skulls - as they tell a story. Which stories they tell, you will hear in the book.

Spying on Whales

Title: Spying on Whales - The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures
Author: Nick Pyenson
Imprint: Penguin Books
Length: 336 pages
Published: 2019
Language: English


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.

Thoughts about the book

Nick Pyenson is a scientist who studies the past of whales. Thus, he has a broad knowledge to share in his book Spying on Whales. The book is challenging to read, but if you take your time, you will discover many interesting facts about whales and their history. The author uses technical terms - like, for example, the names of early whale genera like Pakicetus (probably semi-aquatic or terrestrial with four legs) or Basilosaurus (probably one of the first fully aquatic early whales) which are now extinct - but he wraps all these words in a great storytelling.

The author also takes the reader to some of his adventurous field trips like to Sharktooth Hill in California, Cerro Ballena in Chile, or Iceland. Just to name a few.

In the author’s words I could perceive his fascination for the history of whales. Especially when he went to a field trip to Cerro Ballena where he was stunned by dozens of complete whale skeletons found on that site. This dense concentration of whale bones also let him to ponder: probably, the story of Cerro Ballena is not unique and there might be other fossil highways elsewhere.

On his field trip to Iceland he studied the past of whales by dissecting fin whales, as the anatomy of a whale might reveal more secrets about their past. How does filter feeding work in baleen whales nowadays? And thus, how might it have worked in the past?

In Iceland, the author was working on a commercial whaling station. This led him to go deeper into the topic of whaling. He emphasizes how devastating whaling was in the 20th century and which ecological consequences these removals might have had until today...

As Nick Pyenson is a scientists who studies the past of whales, he deals with questions like "Who are the ancestor's of whales?", but also "What is whales preventing from growing bigger?" or "Is there a trade-off for being large?" and "How does climate change affect whales in future? May there be whales that benefit from climate change like bowhead whales?".

In the book you will encounter many, many questions. When you are finished with the book, you might put aside the book with even more questions...

Although the book is challenging to read, I could take away a lot of information from the book. I have learned that the earliest whales spent part of their lives on land. Or that marine mammals like whales, sea otters, seals, sea cows, and polar bears are distantly related to each other and according to DNA, hippos are the closest living relatives of whales (but they are not the ancestors of whales). I also learned that we live at the moment in the age of giants and that cetaceans attained their greatest diversity during the late-Miocene. By the way, blue whales are the most massive animals ever lived on the planet, and apparently, fossil whales did not become as large than the whales of nowadays. I also learned that bowhead whales can reach an age of over 200 years.

There is so much to learn in the book.

Not to forget the important role of whales for our ecosystems, as whales bring nutrients from the bottom of the sea to the surface, and thus, fertilize the food web...

I could go on like that for much longer. There is so much information in the book worth to get a mention.

But I have to come to an end...

In his last chapters, Nick Pyenson goes into some recent stories like the baiji - a river dolphin believed to be now extinct. Or the vaquita that is on the brink of extinction. And how are humans connected to these stories?

Most importantly, Nick Pyenson does not forget to emphasize the pressure humans exert on many whale species. Be it through bycatch (see the vaquita) or through habitat modifications (see the baiji), but also pollution or noise. Probably the four main reasons why a whale species might go extinct in the future in the age of humans...

It is a very complex book, but Nick Pyenson is doing a great work in giving his readers an insight into the past of whales.

Take your time reading the book. There is so much to learn, think about and look up more things later in the web.

If you want to get more insights into the book before reading it, check the National Geographic article about the work they have done in Cerro Ballena.


Challenging to read. Fascinating with many facts to discover. And full with cutting-edge science of whales. If you are keen on learning more about whales, read the book.

Have you read the book Spying on Whales? What could you learn from the book? Or is there another book about whales you can recommend? Please let me know in the comments.



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