Among Whales

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Overview

Among Whales presents the state of our most advanced knowledge about whales, but in doing so also embraces a rich variety of subjects and disciplines. It is a work of biology - cetacean, marine, and human; of exploration of sociology, of cultural mythology, of philosophy, and most certainly, of literature. As Payne takes us on a journey from the home territory we thought we knew and across the spectrum of life forms, we realize we are also on a journey of the heart, of discovery about the larger questions of life...
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Overview

Among Whales presents the state of our most advanced knowledge about whales, but in doing so also embraces a rich variety of subjects and disciplines. It is a work of biology - cetacean, marine, and human; of exploration of sociology, of cultural mythology, of philosophy, and most certainly, of literature. As Payne takes us on a journey from the home territory we thought we knew and across the spectrum of life forms, we realize we are also on a journey of the heart, of discovery about the larger questions of life on earth. Among Whales addresses a broad scope of important and penetrating questions: How will the evolving composition of seawater affect life on earth? What is the device by which whales sing, and why do they do it? How can we know that whales use rhyme if we don't understand their language? For what purposes do dolphins use their unparalleled large and complex brains? What is the purpose of the human brain? What is the nature of wilderness? How and why do creatures come together in peace? Among Whales is unique in its scholarly integrity and breadth of vision, biologically absorbing and humanly rich.

Taking readers on a journey across the spectrum of life to discover the answers to the larger questions of life on Earth, an eminent field biologist addresses a wide range of subjects--from the purpose of the brain to the possibilities of peaceful cohabitation among the world's creatures. 9 charts.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From a leading whale biologist comes this wide-ranging account of cetacean behavior. (Oct.)
Booknews
Payne, an activist, romantic, explorer, and musician as well as the world's leading expert on whales, embraces a rich variety of subjects and disciplines in his presentation on the state of our knowledge about whales, touching on biology, sociology, cultural mythology, philosophy, and literature. He considers questions concerning the evolving composition of seawater, whales' songs, and the purpose of the human brain. The appendix offers a primer of ocean acoustics. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From Barnes & Noble
A work of biology, exploration, sociology, cultural mythology, philosophy, & literature, this book presents the state of our knowledge about whales, delving into such associated topics as whale-song, the nature of wildness, & the purpose of the brain.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385316590
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/1/1996
  • Pages: 431
  • Product dimensions: 6.15 (w) x 9.19 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Roger Payne is the world's leading expert on whales, having devoted the better part of his life to their study. He is president of the Whale Conservation Institute in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and a scientific advisor to the International Whaling Commission. Payne first rose to prominence in the late 1960s for his discovery that the vocalizations of humpback whales can be classified as songs. The songs were later distributed as a bestselling recording entitled The Songs of Humpback Whales. More recently, Dr. Payne's work has focused on developing benign methods of whale research that nullify the argument for "scientific" whaling. Roger Payne has led over one hundred expeditions to all oceans and has studied all species of large whale in their natural environments. He lives mainly in London, and occasionally in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
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Read an Excerpt

The deep sea. When we think of it, it is usually the surface we picture; an area of sparkling sunlight and ceaseless motion, of dancing waves and teeming fish moving in shoals like showers of silver. We forget that this is only the very thinnest, uppermost layer, only 5 percent of the mass, and bears no relation to the deep bulk of the ocean, a place that is perpetually dark, cold, and still, stirred only by slowly drifting currents. By comparison with the surface film there is little life in the abyss. It is sparsely populated by a variety of outrageously baroque, inordinate fish adapted to live under the immense pressures of its major depths. Some of them live in little bands, and most have tiny lights sprinkled over their bodies with which they are presumed to light their way and keep in touch as they move in concert through the void, like slowly drifting clouds of stars or majestically wheeling galaxies.

One of the most intriguing creatures in the void is a small squid that glows so faintly its light can only be perceived with dark-adapted eyes. This animal lives at great depths and adjusts its dim glow to match the faint light falling upon it from the surface so far above. Were it not for its faint luminosity, the squid would be seen by prey below it as a silhouette against the surface. But when such prey looks up, the squid is invisible, the light it produces exactly matching the amount of light penetrating from the surface.



In the darkness of the abyss another manifestation of life permeates everything--the calls of distant whales. They carry over vast distances, the sounds traveling in long, majestically curving paths and completely filling the vast,vaulted spaces--at times echoing off the ceiling a mile or two overhead, or off the oozy floor as far beneath. To many human ears these sounds are very beautiful, even though whales and people have vastly different evolutionary histories and therefore might be expected to appreciate very different kinds of sounds.

Many people view the ocean as a flat and featureless plain. But this is an erroneous perception. In truth it is a place of great complexity and diversity, filled with excitement and hidden drama. The extraordinary things that occur within its vast spaces and corridors must in most part be deduced, for the sea is not a great communicator but the strong, silent type--a mute and patient (though sometimes wildly destructive) companion.



There are two major groupings of whales: the toothed whales, which have teeth (e.g., dolphins, porpoises, killer whales, sperm whales, beaked whales, etc.), and the baleen whales (which include the biggest whales), which contain baleen strainers instead of teeth in their jaws. (The term cetacean is used to indicate the entire group--toothed as well as baleen whales.)

The largest species of whales are called the "great whales"--a loose association usually considered to contain (in rough order of decreasing length of large individuals) the blue whale (30.5 meters long), fin (26.8 m), sei (21 m), bowhead (19.8 m), sperm (18 m), (right 17 m), humphack (16 m), gray (14.1 m), Bryde's (14 m), minke (10.7 m), and pygmy right whales (6.4 m), that is, all the baleen whales plus the sperm whale. This is not a very logical list since it omits species like the bottle-nosed whale (9.8 m), which is larger than the pygmy right whale. However, by the standards of the terrestrial animals with which we are most familiar the great whales are, undeniably, "great" in size--the smallest of them weighs more than some adult elephants.

As a consequence of their great size, whales escape much turmoil. With increasing size comes increasing serenity. Large creatures find less and less that is significant enough to be annoying and therefore experience fewer extremes, less upheaval. Small things lead frantic lives. When a passing ant sets its foot in a drop of water, the amoebas in that drop experience raging tidal waves, while to the ant the footsteps of a mouse on the roof of its galleries must rattle all the cupboards and shake the pupae off the walls. Consider the effects of a thunderstorm on these same amoebas--a disruption of such violence as to be beyond not just human experience but human comprehension.

With size comes tranquility. For a whale a passing thunderstorm is but the footfall of an ant, and a full gale an annoying jiggling of its pleasant bed. If you were a whale, all but the grandest things would pass beneath your notice. As the largest animal, including the biggest dinosaur, that has ever lived on earth you could afford to be gentle, to view life without fear, to play in the dark, to sleep soundly anywhere, whenever and however long you liked, and to greet the world in peace even to view with bemused curiosity something as weird as a human scuba diver as it bubbles away, encased in all that bizarre gear. It is this sense of tranquility--of life without urgency, power without aggression--that has won my heart to whales.

Conducting scientific research on this most difficult of groups can be compared to viewing a whale through a keyhole. The bulk of the animal glides past from time to time while we try desperately to figure out what on earth it is. In spite of lots of sparks and smoke, we have so far accomplished little more than a small enlargement of this keyhole. Someday--perhaps in the next hundred years--we may have a picture-window-sized keyhole and will finally see what the whole whale looks like. But even then the enigma of the whale will still stand, undecoded, before us.

I have been studying whales continuously since 1967. One of the delights of that experience has been discovering that there is no way to get a whale to adopt a human time scale. This is no more possible than it would be for a human to adopt a weasel's speed of living. Whales are unhurriable. It's one of their most endearing traits. Nowhere is this more engagingly seen than in trying to figure out what a whale is doing when what you are watching is, say, play but you have not yet figured that out. The difficulty comes from the fact that one of the major clues to the function of a behavior pattern is the rhythm of its occurrence. Because we commonly associate play with quick motions, the key to being able to recognize play in whales is learning to think differently--in terms of long, slow rhythms, where things occur very lingeringly (it would be a comparable problem to learn to recognize play in snails, or sloths, or tortoises). To understand whales one must be deeply patient, must slow way down and be content to observe passively for a long time. Only at the end of, say, a day may one say to oneself, "Now let me see; what did I see? Well, I saw the whale do this . . . and then it did this . . . and then this . . . and then . . . For heaven's sake, it was play I was looking at. " In order to observe whales, you must be willing to set your metronome on adagio. Then, to understand what you have seen, you must fast-forward through your observations by setting your metronome on allegro.

During the first ten years of my career in biology I was an experimentalist. I worked in neurophysiology and behavior and did experiments on how bats determine the direction from which a sound is coming, how owls locate their prey in total darkness by hearing it, and how moths determine the direction from which a bat is approaching (so they can make evasive maneuvers to avoid it). When I started studying whales--a group of species upon which it is all but impossible to experiment--I worried whether I would find the work stimulating enough or whether it would seem boring simply observing, without ever being able to manipulate anything--or do an experiment. I had enjoyed experimental work--at that time of my life I liked manipulating things, but I had very little idea of how to make good, passive field observations. But one does, eventually, grow up, and I soon appreciated the greater rewards of finding things out through passive observation. It's a lot like astronomy--another field in which you can never perform an experiment but must wait for nature to present you with something interesting to observe. I soon realized that the constraints posed by passive observation can be more challenging than those posed by experimental work. It is rather like the constraints of the sonnet form, which make composing poetry exquisitely challenging. Passive observation is a different kind of challenge than experimentation, but I believe it requires a subtler way of thinking, and that the result can be sonnets rather than ballads.
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Table of Contents

Preface 15
1 Whales 19
2 Living Among Whales in Patagonia 57
3 Behavior of Right Whales 93
4 The Songs of Humpback Whales 141
5 A Heard of Whales 168
6 Making Friends with Whales: Laying Our Fears to Rest 212
7 Whaling and Other Delights 253
8 Killing Whales Accidentally 302
9 Saved by the Whales 324
Appendix: A Primer of Ocean Acoustics 359
Notes 403
Index 413
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2000

    Among Whales -- Put This One on Your List

    Being in awe of whales, I was naturally drawn to this book. Having read it, I have a an even greater awe and appreciation of them. Roger Payne invites the reader into his world to see the whales from a scientist, environmentalist and a world citizen view point. This is an engaging book that is both educational and a good 'read'.

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