Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. X No. 3 - July 2001


Reviews by William Rossiter

The "World of Whales" is a very new and extremely well prepared teacher-friendly kit of student activity and research programs. Included are a research booklet, resource book, charts of whales and the sea, and some incredible images. The "World of Whales" was created by Barbara Todd, of the U.S. and New Zealand, after decades of cetacean research and teaching expertise. For more information or to place an order please contact CSI. The unit price is US$39.95, but discounts may be available through CSI.

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Dolphins of the World, Ben Wilson, Voyageur Press World Discovery Guides, 2001, paperback, 19.95, 132 pgs, 80 color photos, index, bibliography.

Whales of the World, Phil Clapham, Voyageur Press World Discovery Guides, 2001, paperback, 19.95, 132 pgs, 80 color photos, index, bibliography.

For the price of a good dinner you can have a basic library of information for any whale and dolphin enthusiast, with only two books newly issued in paperback! Written with different styles but impressive expertise, Dolphins of the World and Whales of the World don't try to be encyclopedias, yet even for the serious student there is something to learn on every page.

Underlying both books is the theme that science has a long way to go to understand whales and dolphins, that the budding scientist with years of study ahead will have many opportunities for answering intriguing and significant questions. Give these books to an inquisitive mind and a lifetime of rewarding challenges could be launched.

These two enthusiastic authors show why they admire and respect the creatures they study, and flow purposefully to our need to conserve cetaceans, and our shared resources. That's the other gift from both books: the powerful yet humble message of conservation. They show what humans have done, suggest what must be done about it, and give ample reason to care. Neither book flinches from the unknowns or the problems. For example, Dolphins of the World says that "(w)e can now say with depressing accuracy that every dolphin alive today is affected by human activities".

I enjoyed the very expressive analogies in this book, such as equating the river dolphins' home to the mazed undergrounds of London and subways of New York, or a pelagic dolphin's dive to a human taking a breath at the top of the Empire State Building, running to the basement, and back to the top for another breath. Wilson's lyrical descriptions of species and their environmental adaptations could fill many school reports. The photographs are incredible and beautiful. Not every image identifies the species, challenging the reader to learn enough to figure it out.

In Whales of the World, Clapham gently lays out so many facts with such style that any reader will enjoy filling up. With the authority of an established expert, the humility of a man in awe of the creatures he studies, and a hint of the cryptic British humor that made the underground journal "Cete Scat" so infamous, Clapham writes so that the reader thinks. I suddenly realized that the relatively tiny throat of baleen whales is a necessity, to keep out sea gulls, logs, garbage bags, sharks and whatever else might also be with the mouthful of prey they must swallow. He even explains away why the book had to ignore beaked whales and the pygmy right whale. All other species are treated royally.

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Killer Whales, Sara Heimlich and James Boran, Voyageur Press, 2001, 72 pgs, 50 color photos, $16.95.

This Killer Whales is an updated version, one of Voyageur Press' WorldLife Library on specific species. It presents a fuller review of the species than the more general Whales of the World above, enough to satisfy an orca fan. Written by two scientists with extraordinary familiarity with orcas, this book will please all readers with the presentation of facts, experiences, and incredible photographs. Issues and controversies such as captivity and fisheries interactions are reported objectively. The authors clearly held back their subjective opinions. I would have welcomed a little limb hanging; it would have helped to show how much they care, and stimulated more readers to get involved. Science is learning so much so fast that no book can keep up. Some recent research from New Zealand and Latin America are examples for the next update, but don't hesitate to get this book now.

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The Bottlenose Dolphin: Biology and Conservation, J.E. Reynolds, R.S. Wells, and S.D. Eide, University of Florida Press, 2000, 288 pp. $34.95. Whimsically illustrated with wonderful sketches of dolphins by Mayra Willis-Glowha.

I was eager to learn from the The Bottlenose Dolphin, thinking it an update of the 1980 classic of the same title edited by Leatherwood and Reeves. The authors declared that "(t)o help people, the dolphins, and the issues we wrote this book." But I puzzled who the book was really written for from the start, as it stumbled into surprising turf on page two, asking if "people want to release captive dolphins into the wild to make themselves feel virtuous or do what is most humane for the captives and the wild populations?" By page four they fell off the wall, with "(i)s the natural world a healthier place to live than the captive environment?" With seven dolphins cooking in the Mexican sun, another two abandoned in the mountains of Guatemala, and a Japanese drive fishery scheduled to kill many and sell a few to Asian dolphinariums, I felt some chagrin that the authors didn't seem aware of the realities of dolphin captivity today, at least beyond Florida and the captive dolphins they rely on for much of their research.

Too many examples were polarized or incomplete. For example, while it is true that a wild dolphin killed a man, it might have been added that the man was drunk, trying to stub out a cigarette in the dolphin's blowhole, and had a heart attack as the dolphin reacted to escape. He died waiting for the Brazilian ambulance. Perhaps I'm just upset because they even misused an out-of-context quote from CSI's 1983 "Whales Alive" conference.

The better title for this book would be "The Bottlenose Dolphin and Us", referring in part to the personal experiences that shaped the authors' opinions, and in part for the problems humans are causing this species. These three eminent scientists, with so much to tell us about this species, instead spent much effort on an agenda to defame those who oppose captivity, and to deflower anyone with a delight in myths. But they didn't do very well at either. Their agenda only got in the way of the reason most people would want to read this book, unless it was required reading. That's it! Suddenly the language, style and presentation made sense; this book is like a series of lectures, aimed at a captive audience. But the serious lay student of dolphins is not captive, and expects better of science.

The core of the book finally does get down to basics. There is much to learn from it. The review of scientific research and conservation issues is superb. The many references could take a serious student very far. But then the authors began a section on intelligence and cognition, including a vengeful review of Lilly's now ancient ideas as a basis for cetology's failure to understand the real dolphin's cognitive adaptations and abilities. To be blunt, the innovation and inquiry necessary for today's science to advance our knowledge of what dolphins might think about is stunted at the top. These authors are among the senior peers of the discipline, and should be aware that many aspiring graduate students have been culled for considering cognition an interesting dissertation subject. Perhaps they truly don't know of the perception by students that a small number of established scientists have declared and limited what is acceptable in cognitive studies. I was there when they did it, and watched the defeated faces of grad students eager to explore. Dolphin cognition deserves better study, if only to gently put away the myths. After all, the core fault is our inability to ask the right questions.

This is an expensive book that doesn't meet its promise.

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