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

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  1,333 ratings  ·  239 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,…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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3.76  · 
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 ·  1,333 ratings  ·  239 reviews

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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
Dec 21, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: animals, non-fiction
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 for
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
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
Peter Tillman
Sep 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
✨    jamieson   ✨
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
Jan 22, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: audiobook, biology
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
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.
Cheeky Cher
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
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
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
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 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
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
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
With a glut of science books focused on humans’ curiosity with the animal world, I am in awe. The ocean is just one big ball is amazingness that has yet to really be explored because it tests our limits, so it wasn’t hard to read this book when a Smithsonian scientist wanted to talk whales. And the title just was icing on the cake. Yes, that’s all humans are really doing- spying. Because we can’t do anything else at those depths and with our technology.

But we sure as heck are leading them to ex
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 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.
Will Kent
Jul 24, 2019 rated it really liked it

Rosie Lane
Jun 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 - an extra half star because I love whales and I learnt many new whale facts 🐳
Kitri Miller
Feb 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This was a good solid book on both paleontology and the evolution of whales. Often dinosaurs steal the show as far as this subject goes, but we sometimes forget that there are other interesting stories out there. There are a lot of good interesting little tidbits about other animals that lived around whales that you could learn about as well.
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
Sep 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
SPYING ON WHALES: Teaching the Heart of Science
The author and whale paleobiologist provides a fascinating look at the when and what of his work.

I voluntarily reviewed an advance readers copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.

At the heart of this book is the young man, the boy, whose curiosity led him to become a paleobiologist. Dr. Pyenson tells the story of whales with a childlike enth
Jul 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Pyenson is a paleontologist and gives us a long look at the past starting almost 52 million years ago with the Pakicetus, about the size of a large domestic dog, having four weight-bearing legs. He talks about the known but extinct evolutionary stages, continues following their descendants through the decimations of the whaling era, and brings them into the present. He also writes about their future with a focus on qualities of whales that may be expected to survive climate change and those that
Emma (M)
Jan 19, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2019
I really struggled with this one, it was incredibly dry and I found myself drifting off constantly. It may be the fact that it was the audio version I listened to and I would have enjoyed it more in written form but I listen to audio all the time without an issue. There was some interesting information about whales in there, however the way it’s presented is just too blah and I missed a lot of it during my mind’s wandering. Be prepared for lots and lots of talk about the fossil record and the au ...more
Edward Canade
Aug 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
I liked it. I like whales and I felt like I learned some about their evolution, habits and and the effects of whaling and climate change on their chances for survival. Nick Pension intentionally wrote in a style any layperson can understand. The author shares his personal experiences in his quest to learn about whales from direct interactions with both living and fossils of Cetaceans. Not only are some whales the largest beings to ever roam the earth, but some also can live to 200 plus years. (N ...more
Dustin Rottier
Aug 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Won this book in a Goodreads giveaway from Viking books. This is a relatively quick, easy read packed with scientific data and anecdotes. Author is a paleontologist and rightfully includes his expertise to help explain the natural history of whales and highlight many of the questions still not 100% understood about these marine giants. I love that the author shows how a scientist works through a problem through what may be taught as the scientific method.
Mar 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Won from a Goodreads' giveaway

I've seen that many people didn't care for this book as much as they expected, because it tends to wander off of the straight and narrow path of being all about whales, and I can agree with that point. The author does give us a look into the work he does, both in the Smithsonian and out in the field, his personal thoughts, the discoveries he has been part of, etc.

Honestly...I loved that. His descriptions of the places and events that happened pulled me into that ve
Jun 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: animals
This book was totally different from what I was expecting but not in a bad way. It covers the evolutionary history of whales and also covers some of their unique anatomical features. It was interesting learning about them through a paleontologist vs biologist. I also enjoyed the last section which was on the future of whales. Hopefully they will continue to rebound.
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
I listened to this book and though there were some spots that were a little hard to follow, it was still very interesting. In the last chapter the author brought out some fascinating facts:
For instance, a right whale was found around the beginning of the 21st century with a nineteenth century harpoon head in it. That would have made this whale over 150 years old.

Definitely worth the read (or listen).
Sep 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, easy read about these majestic animals. I found the evolutionary history and the author’s guesses as to where the different species of whales may lead to be the most interesting aspects of the book. Worth the read.
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“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.” 4 likes
“We, as paleontologists, are used to asking questions without having all the facts.” 2 likes
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