Chasing Whales Both Living and Extinct in Nick Pyenson’s Epic Travelogue

Spying on Whales is an exciting exploration through the evolutionary history of whales. Author Nick Pyenson takes his readers along to spy on scientists digging up fossils in the field and tagging whales from the deck of a ship.

Pyenson, curator of fossil marine mammals for the Smithsonian, studies whales both living and extinct as a marine paleobiologist. His book almost feels like a memoir, giving readers a glimpse into the inner life of a scientist: the gritty details of fieldwork, his friendships with colleagues, the way his mind puzzles together fossils to make sense of their mysteries.

Mystery might be a good way to describe Spying on Whales. Upon discovering the Cerro Ballena (“Whale Hill”), an incredible fossil site in Chile’s Atacama Desert with many whale fossils and threatened by the impeding development of a highway, Pyenson and his team work against the clock collecting massive fossilized whales. Puzzled by the extraordinary find, he and the researchers try to make sense of their discovery and how the various fossils came to be there. Through simply riveting storytelling, Pyenson presents a mystery thousands of years in the making.

“And it made no sense that there were so many [fossils], so close together. I couldn’t think of any other field site of fossil whales like it.”

In the beginning of Spying on Whales, Pyenson paints a picture of strange, ancient land-dwelling whales while he walks through their evolution and transformation. Today all marine mammal lineages, he notes, are actually distantly related to each other — even polar bears and whales.

Cetaceans act as Pyenson’s “vehicles for understanding life over geologic time”, and are what ultimately led him to the Smithsonian to curate the world’s great collection of fossil whale skulls. And perhaps what Pyenson is best at is bringing these ancient whales to life for his readers, connecting them with a fantastically strange prehistoric earth.

For example, his vivid description of the Basilosaurus brings an ancient whale to life in the reader’s imagination:

Basilosaurus hardly seems like a whale — saying it’s almost like a whale would be charitable. It had a toothy, snout-dominated head, looking something like a giant leopard seal, except its nostrils were located not at the tip of its snout but about half-way farther back. It had a visible neck, unlike most of today’s whales. While its fingers and hands were probably encased in flesh, forming a paddle, it could bend its arms at the elbow, as no living whale can. The most remarkable thing about it was its long, eel-like body — most of its length came from its tail. Basilosaurus probably had a tail fluke, but it also had cartoonishly small hind limbs. These hind limbs were vestiges from its land-dwelling predecessors; as mentioned previously, they could not have held up Basilosaurus’s enormous weight (about six tons) on land. In other words, Basilosaurus was fully aquatic, living its entire life underwater.”

In addition to these vivid and engrossing descriptions, Pyenson’s text is illuminated by wonderful illustrations by Alex Boersma that seem to embed themselves in the reader’s mind. Boersma, a scientific illustrator and scientist who has done research in Pyenson’s lab, delivers artwork that is incredible delightful to encounter throughout the text.


One of the most interesting and unique aspect of Spying on Whales is that it gives readers insight into the lives of scientists and the everyday reality of research and fieldwork, like the technology and effort required to excavate massive fossil whales. For those of us who are not scientists, it’s an opportunity to peer through the window and into the lab and life of a real scientist, which is arguably more fascinating than the science itself.

Take, for example, the thrilling discovery Pyenson and his colleagues had when they sliced open a whale’s chin while conducting research at an Icelandic whaling station. Examining freshly caught whales is an opportunity to study the anatomy and biology of these incredible creatures — and the researchers had the opportunity of a scientist’s lifetime when they discovered something strange inside the whale’s chin.

But I’ll leave you to read the book for more on that one.

Visiting whaling stations was a chance to better understand the inner workings of a whale, helping scientists throughout history answer questions about how these leviathans live the way they do. Whales have succeeded in capturing the imaginations of humans for centuries. Pyenson mentions the astonishing picture of a blue whale taken by photographer Frank Hurley, one that is difficult to forget:

“Few people alive today, if any, can relate to the sight of a carcass that massive” writes Pyenson. “While only about 150 blue whales were ever killed at these lengths, over 325,000 blue whales of all sizes were killed during Southern Ocean whaling in the twentieth century; today blue whales are a rare sight in these waters. It’s quite possible that the gigantic, limit-pushing blue whales have had their genes removed from the population by whaling. At the least, it will take a few more decades for any surviving calves from that era, now fully mature adults, to reach the lengths of their ancestors.”

Full of Pyenson’s voice and personality, Spying on Whales is accessible and friendly, an epic story that will take readers around the world in a quest to understand the massive marine mammals that captivate our minds and imaginations.

Do you want to win your own brand-new copy of Spying on Whales? 

Sign up for the Read More Science Book Club to be entered for a chance to win Nick Pyenson’s book — plus two science stickers from Two Photon art! By subscribing, you’ll also be automatically entered in the club’s monthly book giveaways.

Published by Sarah Olson Michel

Science writer and professional bookworm. Wrangling horses and microbes in the Pacific Northwest. Aspiring old cat lady. Genderqueer (she/they).

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