Book Report

Whales, by Seymour Simon and Smithsonian Institution

Whales, by Seymour Simon and Smithsonian Institution, (updated edition) published by Smithsonian and Collins. 2000. 40 pp. 6.99

Whale season is almost upon us once again, and the fascination we humans have for these giant mammals is also perennial. There is a mystique about the whales. We have countless legends and tales about them, from Jonah in Biblical times, to turn of the century whaling tales, to today’s whale watching tours. Considered devils and monsters for centuries, we now wonder at their friendliness with humans who once slaughtered them. They seem very forgiving.

Whenever I want to learn basic facts about a new subject, I begin my quest with a book for younger readers, and this book; Whales, fills that need and does so by presenting interesting facts in such way that students and adults will also want to read and then learn even more. 21 colored half and full page photos, an index, and a glossary of terms, (explaining terms such as krill, lagoon, breaching, and blowhole), help us understand much more about these giant creatures. The book also contains websites and a short bibliography of other publications that are available.

The author, Seymour Simon, has written more than 200 books for children and young adults, and has been called the dean of the field. Working with the Smithsonian Institution has allowed him to reach ever widening audiences through the Smithsonian’s web site, and their museums, zoo, and research centers. On the front pages before the introduction, we find mission statements for the Natural History museum and the Smithsonian, stating that “the Smithsonian offers the world a picture of America, and America a picture of the world...( and ) ...inspires curiosity, discovery, and learning about nature....”

 All mammals and birds are warm-blooded, and all reptiles, insects, arachnids, amphibians and fish are cold-blooded. To be warm blooded means to maintain a constant body temperature regardless of the temperature of the surroundings. Animals, such as reptiles, fish, and amphibians that cannot control their body temperature and therefore become sluggish in cold weather are cold blooded. Whales are warm-blooded marine mammals, despite living in the ocean and being surrounded by numerous cold-blooded animals such as fish and sharks. Dolphins are also warm blooded, as are porpoises.

 The author gives us many colorful descriptions and comparisons of different species of whales. He informs us that a humpback whale is longer than a big bus, and that the tongue of a blue whale (the biggest animal ever to make our planet its home), weighs as much as an elephant. But this is a childrens’ book so they didn’t go into the size of a whale penis. If you want to be impressed with that, stop in at the B&B with the yurts in San Ignacio half way up the peninsula. They have on their bulletin board  the most awesome whale snapshot in that regard that we have ever seen.

I also found it fascinating to read that whales have flippers, forelimbs which are believed to have once been similar to our arms, but after millions of years of evolution from land to sea animals, have evolved into flippers. The flippers help whales balance their great weight in the water and to steer and change direction. There are other nuggets of comparisons or fascinating facts. Our gray whales, coming down from the Arctic each winter to have their calves in the warmer lagoons along our Pacific Coast, are unique. They feed all summer in the Arctic, and come down to our Baja lagoons in the winter, traveling about ten thousand miles to do so.

This book gives the most information on the most common whales; the gray, the humpback, the fin, and the minke, and of course, the blue whale. Our author tells us that the largest dinosaur weighed about 100 tons, and was 100 feet long, but the largest blue whale weighs more than 150 tons, and is 110 feet long. Blue whales weigh more than 25 adult elephants, and the heart of a blue whale is as big as a Volkswagon. Statistics and comparisons like this, help us get some idea of the size and weight of whales, not long ago hunted almost to extinction, and now protected by laws banning all commercial whaling. However, a few countries still do hunt whales, and blue whales and some other whale species are still endangered.

There are two large division of whales: toothed whales and baleen whales, but altogether, there are about 90 different kinds and only the most commonly seen whales are listed and described in this book. One really interesting kind of toothed whale is called the narwhal, spotted like a leopard, and which has a ten foot front left tooth that has grown into a tusk. This whale is sometimes called a unicorn whale. Nobody knows what the tusk is used for, kind of like our appendix.

Other whales of interest are the “ right” whale, so called because, during days of whalers, it was slow, floated in the water when dead, and had lots of blubber which could then be sold for whale oil used In lamps. Because they were such easy prey, and easy to process, sailors considered them to be the “right whale to catch” They were so over hunted that of course, they are also now endangered.

The last paragraph of the last page sums up the tone and scope of the book very well “...will whales be allowed to share the world with us? The choice is ours.”

This book is available at El Caballo Blanco’ in Loreto BCS, and Sunbelt Publishing in San Diego.   ,