When a paleontologist writing about whales begins by quoting naturalist Henry Beston—“They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time”—you know you are in for a wondrous read. And Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures by Nick Pyenson is indeed that.
Pyenson is the curator of marine mammal fossils for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and here he recounts discovering the fossils of whales’ ancestors and following today’s whales with tracking technology. He reveals evidence-based predictions about the future of whales, and his obvious passion for these magnificent creatures makes the scientific research enthralling. Readers learn that whales once walked on land (yes, with feet), blue whales were not always giants, and killer whales sometimes travel in packs, like wolves. Pyenson’s enthusiasm is contagious.
Pyenson confesses that “whales aren’t my destination: they are the gateway to a journey of discovery, across oceans and through time,” and he excels in taking his reader along on this journey.
The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft carry whale-song recordings as greetings to alien life-forms, although their meanings are yet to be understood. Despite all that humans have learned about whales, these sounds remain as mysterious as their makers.