Whales are superlative creatures. They are among the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species to have ever lived on our planet. We have hunted them for thousands of years and scratched their icons into our mythologies. Humans have a complex relationship with whales – they fill us with waves of terror, awe and affection.
Despite centuries of observing whales, we know hardly anything about them. They live an elusive existence; 99 per cent of their lives are spent underwater. They can live human lifetimes, roam entire ocean basins, yet only enter our awareness when they die, struck by a ship or stranded in the surf. What we know about their evolutionary past is similarly inaccessible and, more confounding, incomplete against the ravages of geologic time. The rock record yields a shard of bone here, a part of a skull there, skipping over full geologic periods and oceans. All the while, whales captivate us with the little we do understand about their life below the water's edge.
The serious limits imposed on how we can study these graceful giants leave us with burning questions about their daily lives, their history and their future. Why did it take whales over 50 million years to evolve to such big sizes, and how do they manage to eat enough to stay that big? How did their ancestors return from land to the sea? Why do they beach themselves? What do their lives tell us about our oceans? Finally, the most pressing questions aim squarely at their uncertain future: In the grand sweepstakes of human-driven habitat and climate change, will any whales survive?
In this remarkable new book, Smithsonian scientist Nicholas Pyenson takes readers to the frontlines of palaeontological whale research, from the cool halls deep inside the Smithsonian's priceless fossil collection to the frigid fishing decks on Antarctic whaling stations, to the largest fossil whalebone site on Earth, in the blazing hot desert of Chile. He tells a story of scientific discovery that is equal parts field work, guidebook and memoir to bring readers closer to the most enigmatic and beloved animals of all time. He takes readers into the mysterious world of whales in this timely, unputdownable account that will attract readers interested not just in whales, but in evolution, climate change and the fate of our oceans.
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Nicholas Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His scientific research focuses on how different kinds of four-limbed animals have repeatedly invaded oceans from land ancestry over the past 250 million years – an evolutionary cross-section of vertebrate life that includes sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, including whales. A National Geographic Explorer, he has done scientific fieldwork on every continent and led over a dozen scientific expeditions during the last decade.