photo & text by nacrowe
SPYING ON WHALES: THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF EARTH'S MOST AWESOME CREATURES (PENGUIN, 2018) by noted paleontologist NICK PYENSON, curator of fossil marine mammals at the SMITHSONIAN's MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY in WASHINGTON D.C., is a compelling journey through the process of SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY and the individuals that participate in the learning and uncovering of the hidden ECOLOGICAL, EVOLUTIONARY and CULTURAL secrets of these celebrated majestic animals.
throughout the book there is much effort made to stress the importance of PHYSICAL EVIDENCE and the COLLECTION OF DATA in the generating of suppositions regarding the history of WHALES and their role in various ecosystems within the water column. as new specimens are collected and technological modeling methods perfected, more nuanced HYPOTHESES are rendered and informatively debated among experts. what is presented in SPYING ON WHALES in essence is an intelligent and complex lineage of animals who have evolved physically and tactically to exploit their unique placement in the food chain.
one aspect of such is the GIGANTISM of some species, namely the BLUE and FIN WHALES, whose size is a hypothesized reaction to being able to efficiently travel long distances at depth and take advantage of seasonal feeding grounds hemispheres away. their size also renders a sense of PROTECTION as they are essentially apex predators in that would-be predators seek easier prey that require less energy to submit to their will.
another aspect presented is the CULTURAL and interpersonal relationships among WHALES that utilize language and, in the case of ORCAS, coordinated pack maneuvering. unfortunately since we do not speak their LANGUAGE or have any insight into their coded communications, the idea of the true depths of their CULTURAL INTERACTIONS with one another is a tantalizing off-limits as of now.
the aspect i found most interesting included the ECOLOGICAL significance of BLUE WHALES in that they spread nutrients throughout the water column and serve as an integral part of multiple ECOSYSTEMS. through their feces they spread nutrients near the surface that were originally taken at depth. likewise when they perish and fall to the ocean floor as a WHALE FALL (great band name!), their carcasses serve as fuel for a whole series of creatures at various points in its DECOMPOSITION. in essence the connect the oceans and spread vital nutrients to various shareholders.
which makes CLIMATE CHANGE, WHALING and ECOLOGICAL DEGRADATION by the hands of humans such a sad point of reality in the book. as conditions change and deteriorate rapidly, many of these less flexible WHALE iterations are seemingly doomed to perish and become extinct as they are perfectly evolved for a past set of ENVIRONMENTAL PRESSURES. it seems doubtful that benevolent efforts by mankind will undo the damage our industry and petroleum-based economy has done unto the globe and its myriad of interconnecting ecosystems.
sadly this book feels like a EULOGY. at the same time the more flexible and coordinated of the WHALE species will find a way to survive. what is hopeful is that there are a series of committed scientists, like PYENSON, that are seeking to investigate and learn as much as possible about WHALES, their relatives and their vital role in the ocean (both past and present) for the sake of posterity.