A paleontologist and self-styled whale chaser weaves his own adventures into a rich account of the largest creatures on our planet.
Pyenson, the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and prolific author of scientific articles in newspapers and popular magazines, is both enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable about whales. His research has taken him around the globe, from the Atacama Desert in Chile to examine newly discovered whale skeletons to a whaling station in a fjord in Iceland, where whalers carve up freshly caught whales. He has looked for answers to his questions about their evolution, biology, and behavior in the Arctic and Antarctic, Panama, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He vividly shows how scientists work and the significant physical demands required to extract fossils from sand and rocks and dissect blubber and flesh from bones. Pyenson divides his account into three parts: the past, the present, and the future. He asks questions about how whales evolved from four-legged land animals, how they grew so big, how and what they eat, how they live today, and what the age of the Anthropocene holds for them. Although the book is packed with information, the author is quick to remind readers that, even among scientists, much about whales remains unknown. Many fossils that would reveal their evolution have not been found, and their behavior is often hidden in the deep ocean world. One particularly intriguing question arises: What can humans learn about surviving in a changing world from these creatures who for millennia have survived on a planet where oceans rose and fell and land masses shifted?
What keeps readers going in this occasionally challenging work are Pyenson’s clear love of his subject, his thrill at making a scientific discovery, and his depiction of the world of scientists at work.