Book Review: Spying on Whales

Author: Nick Pyenson
Published: June 26, 2018
Genre: Nonfiction – Science
FLW Rating: 5/5

[Thanks to Viking Books for the free review copy!]

This book was truly everything I wanted it to be. Since it’s so up my alley, I set my expectations high and was so nervous to be let down. I’m here to tell you this book is immensely readable with equal amounts of technical knowledge and layman terms, something I always worry about with a sciencey-nonfiction.

Spying on Whales is a book about the past, present, and future of whales, but also about what it’s like to be a paleontologist studying whale fossils. Pysenson does a great job building the intrigue of whales, even for someone like me who is already a serious whale lover. He reminds the reader of how little we know about whales and how elusive whales really are. As the largest animal on earth that never stays in one place and never goes on land, they are incredibly difficult to study and scientists are still actively discovering new things about them.

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Besides learning about whales, I loved the tone of this book in relation to science, being a scientist, and the future of the planet.

Pyenson demostrates through his own actions and his writing how much there is to learn in the world of science. This is a personal comment of mine, but growing up I never wanted to go in to science because through the way things were presented to me in school, it felt like the whole world was already figured out. (I went in to engineering so that I could put science in to action, so I didn’t stray too far, but I’ve always felt like I was duped in school!) I love how the writing style of this book encourages curiosity in the reader. I feel like that’s how science should be viewed at all ages!

In terms of being a scientist, Pyenson references funding a couple times and I totally understand that that is a huge part of being a scientist, but he never dwells on the struggles of the lack of funding. (If you’re interested in that check out Lab Girl by Hope Jahren) I loved that he stuck to his research topics and didn’t dwell too much on personal hardship, especially since the book wasn’t pictched as a memoir.

And finally, I loved that Pyenson’s view on global warming wasn’t super apocolyptic. I really thought that that was where the “future” section would go, considering whales live in our warming oceans. I enjoyed how Pyenson acknowledged climate change while also not making the book about that.

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Overall, I learned so much from this book and had my already great interest in whales renewed! I’ll also note that this book is only about 230 pages, so easily readable in a few long sittings (I read the first section while on an airplane and it was great airplane reading!). An overly long nonfiction can quickly turn something fascinating to something that will never end – so I appreciated the concise nature of this book!

5 Stars to Pyenson and this great book – walk, don’t run to get it when it comes out next Tuesday — and then take yourself on a whale watching tour! 🙂