Spying on Whales Reveals the Greatest Survival Story Ever Told

I’ve been on a science reading kick lately, following up last year’s reading of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus (a fascinating psychological study of octopi and the people who love them) with Nick Pyenson’s enthralling Spying on Whales. Pyenson weaves a fascinating adventure tale, as he globe-hops from archaeological digs in South America to whaling stations in the arctic, in his insatiable quest to track the past, present, and future of the largest animals ever to inhabit the earth.

Clearly blessed with the spirit of an adventurer and a natural-born storyteller, Pyenson is able to revel in the scientific details without losing the lay reader. His personal thoughts on the matters are often poignant, sometimes puzzling. As a new father, I was heartbroken by his personal anecdote of his young son writing him a “I miss you” letter while he was on a mission thousands of miles away. I can’t ever imagine that kind of lengthy separation. But later in the book, he walks with his son on a beach, and his son discovers a fossil that turns out to be of a previously unknown species of whale, and the fossil gets classified under the boy’s name, providing a kind of longer view outlook on the impact of his life’s work on his family. What a memory for a child to have! What type of legacy is Pyenson leaving in his both his professional field and at home? What types of adventurers will his children become?

The center piece of the book is the vivid depiction of a sprawling archaeological dig in the Atacama Desert of Chile poetically called Cerro Ballena, where excavation of a new highway has uncovered layers upon layers of complete whale skeletons – a historic find that not even Indiana Jones could’ve imagined. In a race against time and human expansion, our fearless scientists must salvage as many fossils as they can. These chapters unfold in thrilling fashion while perfectly blending in colorful side-characters, political intrigue, science, and adventure.

But then in a rather disturbing section of the book, Pyenson and a partner spend time at a whaling station dissecting carcasses and discovering some fascinating things previously unstudied. Pyenson reckons these whales would’ve been murdered had they been there or not, so why not be there and try to understand the whales some more? But it gave this reader a queasy feeling…is this that much different from those scientists who worked with the Nazis and used concentrations camps as their fields of study? Much like I couldn’t imagine leaving my son behind to go on some scientific quest for months, I couldn’t imagine being this kind of scientist either. Yet it’s been through meticulous whaling records and whaling station “ride-alongs” that scientists have learned as much as we have about whales.

Pyenson doesn’t shy away from these ethical questions, and he spends a good length of the book talking about the sentience of whales, their intelligence, their resiliency, their culture. He charts the impacts of environmental changes and other species on whales in the distant past through fossil records, while studying first-hand the impacts of environmental changes (like global warming) and other species (specifically man and his whaling blood lust that decimated populations in recent history) on present day whales (some of whom can live up to 200 years!), and then he plots what the future might hold for whales.

And in talking about how whales will likely survive in spite of man’s continued destructive influence, rising sea levels, and changes in the availability and types of prey – just as they have survived threats and changes for millions of years – he is also talking about our own survival. Species go extinct all the time, even species of humans like Neanderthals have gone extinct…but some branch of the family tree finds a way to adapt and march on into the future. Pyenson doesn’t worry himself with trying to solve any problems of today (or the future). In understanding our world is always changing, and by not applying a lens of “good” or “bad” change, but instead focusing on the adaptability and survival of certain species who have the ability to adapt, he paints one of the most optimistic pictures of the future I’ve come across.

In Pyenson’s future world, global warming has dramatically changed the landscape, and not everyone and everything survives…but man, in some form is still there, and so, in some form, are whales. And there we are, our future selves, ever fascinated by our resilient brethren in the oceans, wondering how did we both get to where we are today? Where did we come from? Where will we go?

The story of whales, the story of humans…let’s hope they continue to be the greatest survival stories ever told.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

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