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‘Spying on Whales’ a cetacean deep dive

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Writing about science in a manner that is entertaining and accessible while also conveying the desired information with clarity and concision – not an easy task by any means. Finding the proper balance of wonky jargon and narrative engagement requires a backwards-and-forwards depth of knowledge about the subject matter AND significant storytelling acumen. It’s a shot at harmony while dodging discord.

In short, there’s a real art to science writing.

Nick Pyenson’s new book “Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures” (Viking, $27) is a prime example of getting it right. Pyenson is unabashedly wonky for long stretches (though he does come by it honestly - he’s Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian and a noted paleobiologist), but he also allows his personal passion for the work shine through. True passion is infectious, and that’s what he brings to the table – the reader can’t help but be drawn along.

The book’s format is precisely what its subtitle tells you it is. “Spying on Whales” comes in three parts, each section an exploration of the past, present or future of the largest creatures on Earth.

In Part I, we get a good look at Pyenson’s work with fossils. We pay a visit to an unexpected treasure trove of ancient whale bones discovered in Chile and watch as he’s forced to rely on unconventional solutions to ensure the future educational possibilities of the site. We follow him deep into the nooks and crannies of the Smithsonian, learning about the multitude of whale artifacts therein. We even get a couple of deep dives (pun intended) into how whales have come to be and how they’ve impacted the ecosystems in which they exist over the millennia.

With Part II, Pyenson gives us a closer examination of whales as they are today. These whales are true giants of the seas; the biggest of them are arguably the largest creatures to ever exist on this planet. Seriously – the largest recorded blue whale is basically the same size as the largest of the dinosaurs. And so many others are also gigantic, so big as to beg questions with regards to the logistics of their existence. We also spend time with Pyenson at an Icelandic whaling operation where he and his team are able to explore whale biology in ways that hadn’t been done in years if at all.

As for Part III, we get a glimpse at some of Pyerson’s thoughts about the future of whales. With the changing nature of the climate, there are some ecological shifts that impact whale life (some positively, others negatively). The population devastation wrought by the relentless overkill of the whaling industry’s peak has some major consequences for species viability going forward as well. The seas were once teeming with whales, but mankind’s interference – filling the seas with noise and trash and carbon dioxide – may ensure that such a day never returns.

Full disclosure: were it not for my job, I might well never have picked up “Spying on Whales” in the first place. While I have my affection for science-oriented nonfiction, I can’t say that I’d ever given whales much thought. And there are plenty of other new books out there to review. Yet this is the one I started to read.

And I’m truly glad I did.

What “Spying on Whales” does so beautifully is convey the seemingly boundless passion of a scientist in a way that is true to his work without sacrificing accessibility. Despite the fact that Pyenson does get a little wonky at times, the book continues to engage. The specifics and minutiae being shared are a delight, but even if they’re a bit too much, their presence never impacts a more general understanding.

Anyone who has spent even a little time thinking about it is aware that whales are fascinating creatures, but what books like this one do is shine a light on that fascination. Pyenson loves them and loves learning about them … and wants the reader to love it too. Academic joy is weird and niche, but it’s also pure and entertaining as heck.

“Spying on Whales” is prime science writing, a distillation of a subject that is neither condescending nor exclusive. It’s a lovely piece of nonfiction, one that educates and entertains. Lovers of science – especially biology – will adore it, but even absent those interests, a reader possessed of simple natural curiosity might well find themselves diving deep.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 July 2018 16:15

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