Viking, New York. 322 pp.
This is a superbly written one-volume introduction to whales through the personal experiences of the author’s adventures and hard work in studying them, whether the whales in question are fossilized (the author is a paleontologist and the fossil marine mammal curator at the Smithsonian) or living.
He describes numerous challenges in the fossil-hunting field, like trying to get a stunning bonanza of fossils weighing countless tons out of Chile before the area was bulldozed, and smaller but memorable moments like having his four-year-old son discover a fossil whale skull.
He relates his first adventure in trying to tag a whale (he did) and some pioneering work at an Icelandic whaling station. (He wondered if it was ethical to work with a whale “fishery,” and finally decided the whales would be killed no matter what he did, so it would at least give their deaths some meaning if scientists used them to learn about the animals and contribute to knowledge useful for conservation.) There he and a colleague discovered that, after a century-plus of killing hundreds of thousands of whales, some species had a sensory organ connecting the jawbones at the tip that was not only undescribed in any of the literature, but was a TYPE of organ never described in any animal. (You can think of it as a jelly doughnut with fibers (papillae) inside, all of which grow out of one side and connect to the other side.) It’s amazing how recent much of our knowledge of whales is and how much we have yet to learn.
When trying to understand the behavior of whales, he discusses a problem I’ve never seen explored in any depth in many years of reading on cetaceans: we don’t know what “natural” behavior for the great whales looks like. No one knows how feeding, diet, migration, ranges, etc., looked like before humans started the wholesale slaughter. The behavior and habits we are still trying to document might be radically different from what they were in, say, 1700. This applies to their only predators, the orcas, too. Did the orcas which today specialize in salmon or seals always feed on those, or was it different when there were many times (almost a hundred times, for blue whales) the number of baleen whales available to pursue today? What were the deepsea floor communities that gather on “whalefalls” like when thousands more whales every year were dying natural deaths and sinking?
Pyenson effectively traces the failure of conservation efforts until recent decades and the problems whales still face from many human-caused effects. He also recounts being part of the fundamental work of figuring out the nutrients vs. metabolic costs involved in lunge feeding on fish and shrimp by the giant rorquals. One of the outcomes of this analysis concerns the maximum size of whales: it turns out the largest blue whales are about as big as whales can be. Any bigger, and the energy expended can’t be adequately recouped. Pyenson thinks the measured maximum length for a killed blue of 109 feet is about the limit, while the largest whale ever cut up and weighed piece by piece, at 136.4 tons, is somewhat short of the maximum, as this whale was “only” 89 feet long. (He wrote about this in the New York Times, and I blogged on it here.
His work on this topic is also a reminder of how the sciences can cross-fertilize each other. When trying to understand how whales’ pleated throats expanded to take in swimming pools full of water and then contracted to strain it, the whale scientists brought in Jean Piven, a “particle physicist turned parachute experimenter.” Piven joined with them to help calculate, from his design and testing of many types and sizes of parachutes, how the throat expanded, what the energy expended was, how challenging it was to filter that mass through the baleen, and what the muscles and the tongue had to do to make this system work. Pyenson also describes the information gained from some of his fossils at the Smithsonian, explaining technical biological terms and functions in language non-experts can understand.
The bottom line: I learned things on every page and had a fascinating time doing so. While Pyenson doesn’t try to cover every species, I ended up with a much better idea of what a whale really is and why whales look and act as they do. A marvelous achievement.