Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson
Is there anything more awe-inspiring than watching a whale, the largest creature on earth, gliding through the ocean and breaching, slapping its flukes onto the water? We travel and pay good money to go to sea in hopes of sighting whales. Nick Pyenson’s marvelous Spying on Whales illuminates their majesty.
In Teaching a Stone to Talk Annie Dillard asks, “What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are not they both saying: Hello? We spy on whales and on interstellar radio objects; we starve ourselves and pray till we are blue.” Henry Beston writes in The Outermost House, “For the animal shall not be measured by man…they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” These two epigraphs illustrate the focus of Pyenson’s book, which he describes as “a selective account, a kind of travelogue to chasing whales, both living and extinct.”
Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. His spellbinding narrative (he wanted a book that would be “read, or at least, be readable”) traces whales from the distant past through the present, and into the future. Noting that “the quest to understand whales is a human enterprise,” Pyenson relies on scientists of many disciplines, from “cell biology and acoustics to stratigraphy and parachute physics” to tell their story. Their research is presented in a narrative that mixes the scholarly and the personal, all bringing the story of whales to vivid life.
Pyenson recounts his experiences tagging whales and the difficulty of retrieving data. “Whales aren’t my destination; they are the gateway to a journey of discovery across oceans and through time….Whales have a past that reaches into Deep Time, over millions of years, which is important because some features of these past worlds, such as sea level rise and the acidification of ocean water, will return in our near-future one.” In the last fifty million years, for example, whales have evolved from semi-aquatic, four-legged creatures to purely aquatic animals with vestigial hind legs deep within their blubber. He notes that DNA has shown that “hippos are the closest living relatives to whales” while other mammals, such as deer and cows, share a relationship based on the shared existence of multi-chambered stomachs.
As a paleontologist, Pyenson focuses on the search for bones. In more than twenty years of searching for and excavating whale fossils, he had found “zero intact skeletons.” Then a colleague called him in to examine a site where land was being removed in order to add more lanes to the Pan American Highway (it came to be known as Cerro Ballena in the Atacama Desert of Chile). Ten intact skeletons of large marine mammals plus other sea creatures were found, measured, and removed for more detailed study. His account of the steps taken to obtain funding, permissions, and equipment for a proper dig while under impossible time constraints beautifully conveys the tension and suspense that he and his colleagues felt. In too many cases scientists are in a race between progress and research. Supplement Pyenson’s riveting account by going to http://cerroballena.si.edu/ for a series of pictures and more detailed information.
Pyenson places the future of whales—and indeed, the future of our oceans—in the context of bowhead whales that live their entire lives above the Arctic Circle. In lives that can regularly span more than 200 years, they have seen the many changes that have developed over several human generations. Scientists can, for example, trace the presence of various environmental factors, including the rising effect of fossil fuels by combining records of climate change and food cycles. Melting ice caps means ships may finally be able to traverse the elusive Northwest Passage regularly, and that brings increased opportunities for collisions between ships and whales and the potential for oil spills such as the Exxon Valdez disaster. Add more efficient industrialized whaling methods and the growing volume of plastic pollution on oceans around the world and one begins to see the magnitude of the problem. As we learn more about whales, “the more it is apparent that the legacy of whaling has far broader consequences than we might have originally imagined.”
Of course it is possible that the scenario presented above is wrong; however, let Pyenson have the last word: “Science works by eliminating bad explanations until we’re left with the simplest argument (or the fewest steps) with the broadest explanatory power.”