Spying on Whales

The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures
Narrated by: Nick Pyenson
Length: 7 hrs and 26 mins
4.4 out of 5 stars (170 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

“A palaeontological howdunnit...[Spying on Whales] captures the excitement of...seeking answers to deep questions in cetacean science.” (Nature)

Called “the best of science writing” (Edward O. Wilson) and named a best book by Popular Science, a dive into the secret lives of whales, from their four-legged past to their perilous present. Whales are among the largest, most intelligent, deepest diving species to have ever lived on our planet. They evolved from land-roaming, dog-size creatures into animals that move like fish, breathe like us, can grow to 300,000 pounds, live 200 years, and travel entire ocean basins. 

Whales fill us with terror, awe, and affection - yet there is still so much we don't know about them. Why did it take whales over 50 million years to evolve to such big sizes, and how do they eat enough to stay that big? How did their ancestors return from land to the sea - and what can their lives tell us about evolution as a whole? Importantly, in the sweepstakes of human-driven habitat and climate change, will whales survive?

Nick Pyenson's research has given us the answers to some of our biggest questions about whales. He takes us deep inside the Smithsonian's unparalleled fossil collections, to frigid Antarctic waters, and to the arid desert in Chile, where scientists race against time to document the largest fossil whale site ever found. Full of rich storytelling and scientific discovery, Spying on Whales spans the ancient past to an uncertain future - all to better understand the most enigmatic creatures on Earth.  

©2018 Nick Pyenson (P)2018 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“A palaeontological howdunnit embedded in a travelogue devoted to chasing living and extinct whales...[Spying on Whales] captures the excitement of suction-cup tagging of humpback whales, and of digs in Panama, seeking answers to deep questions in cetacean science.” (Nature)

Spying on Whales represents the best of science writing. The subject is inherently fascinating, the author is an authentic scientist by virtue of his personal research on the subject, and the text reads like the epic it truly is.” (Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer Prize-winner and New York Times best-selling author of The Origin of Creativity and The Meaning of Human Existence)

"Pyenson sheds light on the mystery of life below the seas without dimming its majesty.” (Library Journal, starred)

"Contagiously enthusiastic.... A fascinating and entertaining look at whales and the scientists who study them." (Publishers Weekly

What listeners say about Spying on Whales

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  • KJ
  • 01-09-19

Not really what I was expecting...

Whales are fascinating creatures, and with this book I was hoping to learn more about them. But this book is missing so much information. The author barely touches on the phenomenon of whale song, their family and pod structure, their migrating habits or really much information about LIVING whales. The book is mostly about prehistoric species of whales, bone hunting, the science of fossils and the evolution of whales. It's not a bad book, but it's not really want I wanted. The author reads the book and I had to speed his voice up because he speaks so slowly it drones on and on. Overall, if you want to learn about modern whales skip this, if you want to learn about fossils and evolution, give it a go.

11 people found this helpful

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The title of this book should be Catfish

I heard this guy on NPR and got the book because I thought it would actually dive into the mysterious and differing habits of whales and dolphins... he hardly talks about their communication, family structures, and historical relationship to humans (beyond whaling). This book was more about him and "the science" and beaurocracy of bone hunting. I'm glad he contextualized his passion and the work that goes into it but come on... there was never enough detailed about what whales do, why they behave the way they do, how they interact with us and other animals, and what we can learn from them.

19 people found this helpful

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Didem

I have an incredible love to whales. While I see how important his research and efforts are. I have been tortured emotionally on some part of the book. I have so much mixed feelings towards research on a whaling ships. Yes, thanks to him we understand some physical attributes of whales better and yes whaling was not his decision. Still, I do not need to approve it. I have learned a few new things about whales without no so much their behaviors, emotions, communication skills etc. jaw bones were not my real interest really.

2 people found this helpful

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wow. love this book! informative, engaging,

love this book! informative, engaging, inspiring, relevant to our current world, i.hope to read more from this author! I will see the whale exhibition at the Smithsonian with new eyes!

3 people found this helpful

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Too much Nick Pyenson, not enough whales

The author's narration grated on me at certain points. He comes off a little too self-satisfied for my tastes. His accounts of his own research are interesting, but he presents them in, my opinion, a kind of smug way. Whales are great, though. I guess I was expecting more whales and less Nick Pyenson.

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Less then Expected

There was not much spying on the whales. I did not learn much and most who already have an interest in whales will not learn much. There is basic information on the evolution of whales and how baleen evolved and works. I expected a lot more on intelligence, whale song, communication, and socializing. The narration was clear and reasonable but not outstanding.

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Beautiful, fascinating and interesting.

This is a beautiful account of whales. It was truly inspiring, and did not disappoint me. There were so many interesting facts and it provided an insight into the field of our biggest mammal ever.

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Was hoping for more history

Very glossed over history of industrial whaling. A nice glance into the past present and future of whales but not very deep.

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A Whale of a Story About Whales

Whales are huge and they are cool! But what else to we really know about them. Dr. Pyenson's book tells us that whales have been studied extensively and a lot is known about them. But, for every fact uncovered there seems to be 10 or more questions that arise that require further research. Dr. Pyenson obviously is fascinated with whales and has the skill to explain them to just about anyone. This book has been written to be understood by laymen. If you like whales, you should read/listen to this book as you will probably find it just as fascinating as I did. A couple of parts that I found particularly interesting are: The research that took place to determine whether a baleen whale controls the flow of water into its throat when feeding or is the throat expanded due to shear volume without any control of the water by the whale. Doesn't sound to significant until you realize that the amount of water taken in during each jaw opening is the equivalent volume of a nominal living room in a house and that from opening to closing of the jaw takes place in less than 15 seconds. Amazing! Btw, the research calculated that the whale must control the flow as the forces are so significant that if they didn't control it the back of their throat would blow out. The second item was about a whale graveyard found in South America. Just before reading "Spying on Whales", I had finished "This Is Your Brain on Parasites", which identifies just how much impact micro-organisms can have in our world in the past, presently and in the future. Regarding the whale graveyard, this impact was in the past. The whale graveyard is unique in that there are several layers of whale fossils/bones in this graveyard. Each event that caused the whales to die (referred to as a whale fall) are thousands of years apart. The quality and quantity of the whale remains indicates that the cause of death was quite rapid. The theory is that the weather pattern had changed and caused substantial rain in the mountains which caused a micro-organism that inhabited the mountains to be washed out to the ocean shore. Much like a red tide is today, the micro-organism quantity proved to be substantial enough to cause the water that the whales were swimming in to become toxic. It is amazing that one of the smallest living organisms can kill one of the largest living creatures on the planet. There are plenty of other things to learn about whales in this book. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in whales. I listened to the audio version and recommend it to those that like listening to a very good story.

1 person found this helpful

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Feeling clarity and intrigued by cetacean science

Definitely for all of us effected by our world of water and species we love.