Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: The Great Sperm Whale

The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

by Richard Ellis
 U. of Kansas, 2011
Herman Melville said of the sperm whale, "Of all the great whales, his is an unwritten life." Not anymore.

I'm a longtime fan of Ellis' writing, so it was no surprise I loved this entry in his works on marine life. I'd read a great deal on this animal, including Ellis' own earlier books, but I had no idea just how bizarre Physeter macrocephalus really is. It has countless features (like the single forward spout) that don't appear in other whales, and a nose/spermaceti organ so remarkably weird it belongs on a creature from another planet. It wasn't until the last decade that scientists gave credence to the startling fact that sperm whales hunt squid in darkness by finding and then stunning them with sound. The sperm's evolution is very well traced, showing many transitional forms (including the fearsome Livyatan melvillei), but there is still a lot we don't know about how this animal came to be so unique.

As always with an Ellis book, this one is a mini-reference library, with a bibliography running 23 pages. Also as always, Ellis' own drawings and paintings bring the whale to life in a way the photographic record (which was sparse until remarkably recently) can't quite capture. (Ellis' postscript on how one paints a whale mural is a fascinating bit of "bonus footage" that comes with the book.)

Everyone is curious about how big the whale gets. Ellis rejects the idea that bull sperms were historically larger than the 62-foot modern record, but he admits that a pair of 11-inch teeth in a museum (8 inches is big) make one wonder just what the all-time record was. Ellis does not mention one oddity, the old reports of aberrant sperm whales with true dorsal fins - these may be in error, but I would have liked Ellis' analysis.

I gave this 4.5 stars on Amazon rather than 5 on a couple of minor flaws - the occcasional wrong word has slipped through editing, and there is some repetition. Another odd slip is that Ellis gives Charles Townsend's estimate of the casualties of New England Yankee whaling on page 238, but doesn't point out it's drastically wrong until page 291.

The sperm whale really is, as Ellis says, "The ocean's most magnificent and mysterious creature." Pick up this remarkable book and meet the monarch of the seas.

The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

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