by Elin Kelsey, UC Press, December 2008, 304 pages, $24.95
Long-lived, slow to reproduce, and often hidden beneath ocean waves, whales and dolphins have remained elusive subjects for scientific study, though they have fascinated humans for centuries.
In her book Watching Giants: The Secret Lives of Whales, Elin Kelsey gives an intimate view of these charismatic marine mammals. Focusing on many species that can be seen off the California coast, scientist and educator Kelsey presents an accessible alternative perspective on the study of whales and dolphins that is shaped not only by her training as a scientist, but also by her identity as a woman and a mother. In one chapter, she focuses on whales and menopause, describing how whales, like humans, are among the few species where post-menopausal females live decades past their reproductive years. In these matrilineal societies, a whale who can no longer reproduce remains valuable to her pod, guiding it with the knowledge she has gained over a lifetime.
Many of Kelsey’s insights depend on tireless scientists doing the difficult work of studying these mammals in their natural habitat, often using innovative methods such as critter cams and satellite tags, as well as tried-and-true practices like shooting and cataloging photos of whale flukes (tail fins).
Kelsey’s sharp, vivid, and humorous search for understanding provides a memorable and unique look at these still-mysterious animals. Her goal, to underscore our responsibility for continued protection of these animals, is sensitively and skillfully achieved.