Environmental consultant Kelsey (Environment and Sustainability/Royal Roads Univ.; Canadian Dinosaurs, 2003, etc.) drifts between meditations and hard research in her wide-ranging work on various aspects of the lives of whales.
Each of the 20 chapters explores with a suitable measure of awed fascination some aspect of cetacean study. Several are given over to the simple miracle and wonder of whales. The size and engineering of their sexual organs begs for attention, of course, but then so too do the bone-eating zombie worms that take a 100 years to break down a whale carcass in the deep sea. Without stretching the exercise too far, Kelsey tries to get into the head of a female whale to understand the acts of cooperative care and nursing of babies, to reflect on the effects of menopause and the wisdom of granny whales and to consider what it is like for a boy never to leave home. Killer whale sons off the coast of Washington and British Columbia “stay with their mothers their entire lives,” she writes. “They’re the only male mammals in the world to do so.” (For the moment, the author has apparently forgotten about the human species.) Kelsey demonstrates how shifting baselines, slowly getting smaller and smaller, have skewed our expectations of natural, healthy population numbers, and she does a convincing job describing how humpback whales use bubbles as tools to catch their dinner. She is a restless investigator, moving comfortably from the head to the heart. One moment she’s bending the reader’s mind by suggesting that blue whales might actually be able to hear the ocean processes that produce thick patches of krill; the next she is undone by the destructiveness of humans, ignorantly fouling our nests as no other mammal in the world ever does. The havoc we have wreaked on ocean fisheries is like war: “Everywhere there are unspeakable numbers of dead and dying.”
An appealing, agitating foray into the world of whales that ignites both protective instincts and a hungry curiosity to know more.