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Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  2,968 ratings  ·  445 reviews
The Smithsonian's star paleontologist takes us to the ends of the earth and to the cutting edge of whale research

Whales are among the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species to have ever lived on our planet. They evolved from land-roaming, dog-like creatures into animals that move like fish, breathe like us, can grow to 300,000 pounds, live 200 years and roam ent
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published June 26th 2018 by Viking
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Nicholas Deceptively tricky question, but a pretty simple response: I like figuring out the answer to mysteries in evolution. With whales there's mysteries to …moreDeceptively tricky question, but a pretty simple response: I like figuring out the answer to mysteries in evolution. With whales there's mysteries to nearly every aspect of their lives -- and certainly about their evolutionary past and future too. Focusing on whales, as a scientist, means that there's a lot still yet to uncover. Also, a big part of the fun is working with other scientists, who bring different expertise and viewpoints to the effort. I hope the book successfully conveys the fun of how scientists figure things out about these mysterious organisms.(less)
Nicholas I'm a bit biased, but I wrote the book because I mainly wanted to share stories about how scientists figure out mysterious things -- in this case, som…moreI'm a bit biased, but I wrote the book because I mainly wanted to share stories about how scientists figure out mysterious things -- in this case, some of the most mysterious mammals on the planet. So, yes, if you're into nature, but also if you're into detective stories, and the thrill of making new discoveries. Hope that helps, and hope you find a copy! (less)

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Mario the lone bookwolf
Oct 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 0-biology
Flipper is far overrated, the underrepresented (except Free Willy) whales are at least as astonishing.

Luckily the creepy days of mass whale slaying are over, just the rusting remains of the huge whale processing facilities stay as a warning against the overexploitation of nature. The few remaining countries with traditional or so-called scientific whaling are the least problem. Instead, the ever-louder ocean with stronger communication tools for the growing world ship population, pollution and t
Scarlett Readz and Runz....Through Novel Time & Distance
Spying on Whales is a beautifully written introduction to the immersive world of whales. From their ancestry to their future, the beauty and evolution of these magnificent creatures as well as their adaptability, influence and importance to their and other ecosystems is explored in easy terms anyone can understand.

This is the endeavor of Nick Pyenson, a paleontologist and curator at the Smithsonian Institute, who shares his passion for whales and the history their bones tell us. He himself cons
Jenna is buying a house and mostly too busy for GR ❤ ❀  ❤
Whale Orca GIF - Whale Orca Jumping GIFs

I was really excited when I saw and read about this book. Whales are such majestic and mysterious creatures and I thought it would be a fascinating read. Unfortunately, no. Spying on Whales was actually quite dull and boring. How is that even possible for a book on WHALES ?? This book was all over the place rather than written in any type of linear fashion. It jumped from paleontology to whaling expeditions to stories about scientists to the evolution of whales to their anatomy and back and
Aug 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I've always had a fascination with whales, dolphins and other mammals that live in the sea. I think maybe it's because they are so like us, and yet so different at the same time. When I saw this book written by a Smithsonian paleontologist, I knew I had to read all about the past, present and future of whales. I'm glad I did -- this book is fascinating!

Nick Pyenson shares so many facts about whales...species that still swim in our oceans and ones that are long gone. He discusses the ancestors of
Jan 22, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: biology, audiobook
13th book for 2019.

One of my jobs as a scientific journal editor was to commission review articles on topics of general interest from leading scientists in the field. A surprising number of reviews were unusable because the author decided to base the entire "review" around their own work. And this is a major problem with Pyenson's book. Most of the book is a somewhat rambling collection of his own experiences as a scientist without any real breadth. So there's lots about his own excavations of w
Peter Tillman
First-rate popular-science book, the best I’ve read in 2018. Highly recommended, if you are interested in whales, marine biology and/or paleontology. If, like me, you like all three — don’t miss! 4.6667 stars.

The author, a paleontologist, is Curator of Marine Mammal Fossils at the Smithsonian, a whale-family enthusiast, and a fine writer. I almost always prefer pop-science written by active scientists. Even better if they are doing field work, as that's what I did. You will learn a good deal abo
Mary  Carrasco
Aug 24, 2018 rated it liked it
When I think about whales, I get excited. What amazing, majestic HUGE creatures! They hold a very symbolic meaning for me and so I couldn't wait to get this book. The book itself is still fascinating but exciting? Not so much. Written by a scientist, it reads a bit like a science book. Nick Pyenson was extremely thorough in laying out the evolution of whales. I'm sorry to say it wasn't enough to keep my attention for long periods of time. I'm still in absolute awe of whales. I mean, look at that ...more
Nov 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This book was recommended to me by a colleague. An excellent, non-technical, introduction to the marvelous animals known as whales. But, Pyenson's love of his field, paleontology, is obvious and it opened up a new insight for me as to how this field functions. Quite well done!

Pyenson's time at the Smithsonian has been instrumental in the creation of this book. We learn about the different types of whales and how they evolved over the millennia. Pyenson explains the various field programs he has
L.G. Cullens
Mar 01, 2021 rated it really liked it
An interesting and informative read for those that appreciate the natural world, and pertinent to our futures.
Written with the perspective of a paleontologist, one can see the depth in natural world awareness.
✨    jami   ✨
So, whales are one of my favourite animals like they are so beautiful, so majestic, and some of them are so huge it's mind-boggling! I was definitely one of those kids reading those huge whale encyclopedias in primary school (you know the ones where it lists all the species and shows their size compared to school buses). Yeah, so I've never got over that, I love whales!

Spying on Whales is a book I saw get a lot of hype last year after it won a Goodreads Choice Award, so I really wanted to pick i
Apr 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful book about whales. Mostly focused on whale fossils and the paleobiology of whales. Well written, great information. Beware: there are some graphic passages about whales being processed by a whaling ship. Definitely recommended for biologists interested in cetaceans. There's also a nice reading list at the end with some great suggestions for follow up reading! ...more
Nov 13, 2018 rated it it was ok
I wanted very much to enjoy this book, but it was dry and poorly focused. The emphasis was on personal experiences and the paleontology/taxonomy, without strongly addressing the compelling questions in the jacket blurb. Although there are some illustrations, they are overly simplistic and seemed to be decorative and not informative.

The notes section is good and provides interesting references and additional resources.
Apr 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
I sat transfixed by a sea littered with a million fragments of ice, all rising and falling in time with the slow roll of the waves. We had spent the morning looking for humpback whales in Wilhelmina Bay, threading our rubber boat between gargantuan icebergs that were tall and sharp, like overturned cathedrals. We had come to the end of the Earth to place a tag on one of these massive oceangoing mammals.

Written by the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian, Spying on Whales is a
Camelia Rose
Nick Pyenson is a paleontologist and the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

If you are interested in whales as I am, this is a book you. In Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures, Nick Pyenson talked about the major evolution changes of whales by examining whale bones: how whales became aquatic mammals; how blue whale became the largest animal on earth; what does the future look like for
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Nick Pyenson is the creator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian, and this book is the story of everything scientists have learned about whales from the fossil record. Pyenson draws upon his own work and the work of others to tell the story of whales in the distant past, whales of today, and whales in the future. It's surprisingly readable, and it's full of lovely personal stories of Pyenson's own fossil hunting, especially his time in Chile at the site of the world's largest whale fossil ...more
Steve Nolan
Jul 09, 2018 rated it it was ok
I think having read "The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs" right before reading this really soured this one for me - there was more paleontology in this book than there was in the dino book. ...more
May 21, 2019 rated it liked it
If I wanted an analytical and purely scientific examination of whales' history and evolution, I shouldn't have picked up this book. If I wanted an objective and comprehensive evaluation of scientific research, I shouldn't have picked up this book. Instead, you get a narrative of one scientist's traipse across the world and self-promoting research. Rather than a clear and impersonal account, you get a narcissistic, author-centric novel about his own grandiose work.

Now, that isn't to say that Pye
Kerri Anne
This book was more than I imagined it would be. I've read plenty of books about whales (and loved pretty much all of them). But I've never read a book about whale fossils, which is largely what this book is about.

Pyenson is a paleontologist and curator of fossil marine mammals for the Smithsonian. He's also a skilled and interesting storyteller, as evidenced by how little I wanted to put this book down once I started reading. There were a handful of words I had to look up (something I hope to b
Dec 27, 2018 rated it liked it
Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

Pyenson is clearly obsessed with whales — with the idea of them, with studying them, with understanding them and sharing that understanding. In this volume, he does his best to share all those things: his enthusiasm for whales as much as his academic interest, his wonder at them as much as his understanding of them as part of their environment. He tours through whales of the past through their fossils (so if you’re a palaeontology nut, this one’s for you too!), wha
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
4 stars - It was great. I loved it.

Did you know that whales used to walk on land before returning to the water?

Oh the rabbit holes this book led me down….googled until my googler was sore. Easy to read (not dry at all) with fascinating tidbits. I love that the author makes you aware of what has been done by humans, along with what might happen due to humans (pros and cons), without being preachy or condescending.

Favorite Quote: We sent whalesong into
Sep 22, 2019 rated it liked it
It was interesting to learn that there used to be Walrus-faced whales (Odobenocetops*), that had the right tusks longer than the left. The image in the book (page 104) shows the walrus digging for mollusks using the left tusk. There was no date that I could find indicating what period these creatures existed. It mentioned on a page about walruses and krill, typical of the book jumping around in subject matter. The three groupings "Past, Present and Future" made little sense to me as in each chap ...more
Mar 05, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cetaceans
I'm not into paleontology so I found it incredibly boring. Guess I'm more interested in whale behavior and the history of human-whale relations than in whale physiology and anatomy.

2.5* rounded up because #whales
Jul 27, 2022 rated it liked it
This was a great book to read on studying whales. Pyenson kept it interesting while talking about scientific methods used and the different type of scientists that study whales. However, there is only so much excitement a non-scientist reader about finding a bunch of whale bones. I know that there is a lot of information that can be gathered from them. My, a non-scientific person, had my attention held for a good portion of the book.

How did I find this book? This was selected for the Topeka Shaw
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jan 03, 2022 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2021, non-fiction, science
Pyenson is the Smithsonian Curator of their whale collection, and one of the foremost authorities on whales. This book is tour through the recent science of whales, structured around his personal discoveries. The love of science comes through, but Pyenson is a paleontologist, and in his own words he’s not a whale hugger, so there’s an intellectual distance here.

Whales as a clade are roughly 50 million years old, descending from a creature that looked more like a modern dear than their current oc
I have been fortunate to see dolphins in the wild twice, but as yet have not seen any whales. It is one thing that I would love to do one day, assuming that we ever get back to anything resembling normal. These amazing creatures are the largest species that have ever graced our planet, the largest of which is the blue whale. Their size means that they can only live in the water, but they have adapted to this hostile environment perfectly. This is even more amazing when you think that they are no ...more
Sophy H
If you like whales, and paleontology, you'll probably like this book some!

Pyenson uses archaeological and paleontological evidence to back up observations made in the field about whales, from feeding habits, to sleeping positions to singing across miles of ocean!

The issue I have with the book (which I find with quite a few nature writers actually), is the acceptance and almost indifferent attitiude towards the ongoing brutal practice of whaling; so much so that Pyenson and his colleagues "borro
Dec 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Maybe a 3.5, but this book teetered between more exciting descriptions of expeditions the author had been on to sections which were pretty dry and academic.

If you are interested in whales, especially Orca, read Carl Safina's books. His intensity and beautiful writing made this book suffer by comparison IMHO.

When I first started the book I saw the three main sections, past, present, and future and thought this would be organized as such, but it seemed to skip around. Given that Pyenson is a Pale
Apr 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I liked this one. I found the search on whales fascinating, especially a whale that can live over 200 years. I grew up in Alaska and I learned about the wildlife in and around that great state. I've seen whales in the far distance, but never up close until two years ago when I went up for a visit and we went out on Resurrection Bay. It was quite amazing. They are so large, playful and an awesome sight.

The author did his own narration and he did a great job. You could hear his passion for what h
Dec 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
2.5 stars. How can a book about whales be boring? Well, this guy manages it quite well. I feel like the book I listened to is not the book advertised in the blurb. There's way too much background about the author. I don't care about him. I just wanted to learn about whales. The subject matter jumps around a lot and I just found that my attention wandered all the time. ...more
Aug 12, 2019 rated it it was ok
Unfortunately, this was more about whale bones and less about whales in nature, which is what I was looking for.
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Play Book Tag: Spying on Whales by Nick Pyenson 5 stars 1 9 Sep 29, 2020 10:52AM  

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Nick Pyenson is the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His work has taken him to every continent, and has made numerous high profile scientific discoveries. Along with the highest research awards from the Smithsonian, he has also received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the Oba ...more

Articles featuring this book

Summer is a dream; summer without books is a nightmare. Prepare yourself for a blissful season of reading with soon-to-be...
224 likes · 155 comments
“We sent whalesong into interstellar space because the creatures that sing these songs are superlative beings that fill us with awe, terror, and affection. We have hunted them for thousands of years and scratched them into our mythologies and iconography. Their bones frame the archways of medieval castles. They’re so compelling that we imagine aliens might find them interesting — or perhaps understand their otherworldly, ethereal song.” 7 likes
“We, as paleontologists, are used to asking questions without having all the facts.” 4 likes
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