Giants of the Deep

How technology has changed the way we look at whales—and ourselves

A group of whales and a robot whale crowd the sea. A red ship peacefully sails in the distance.
Lily Padula

Had you been alive in the early 19th century and in want of a sea monster, you might have summoned one via the apparatus of a dead whale. Take a colossal rib, a narwhal’s spiral tusk, a gray whale’s eyeballs, bristles of baleen stripped from a humpback’s jaw or armfuls of its spooling tongue—how disquieting these discards from the whaling industry must have appeared to those who had never seen a whale whole, in the flesh. Scraps retrieved from the decks of harpoon ships, or sold by savvy beachcombers, could be credible props to mobilize a mythical beast. The rest relied on a story. Swindlers in dim backstreets and taverns learned to articulate whale leftovers as parts of stranger animals yet: Here were bits of mermaid, ocean centipede, sea swine, saltwater salamander, and serpent; remnants of turtles as large as houses and of aquatic owls once believed to have ambushed boats in the Northern Hemisphere. Before a spellbound audience, a sperm whale’s penis (as pale and hefty as daikon, but dexterous) readily transformed into a segment of a kraken’s mortifying tentacle.

We may now be a modern and scientific people, but standing beneath a whale skeleton in a city museum, who isn’t still drawn into a reverie of wonder and speculation? How whopping were those tail flukes, long since decomposed? How might it feel to be alive on that scale—to experience the world in such stupendous dimensions of sensation and action? What dark, red secrets lie in the cubicles of a whale’s heart? Nick Pyenson, a paleobiologist and the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian, knows well the tug of whale remains on the imagination. In his debut book, Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, Pyenson sets out to place whales within a natural history of ancient environments, and to predict how whale species will respond to burgeoning ecological pressures. The author’s examination of the anatomy of present-day cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) takes us back to the evolutionary origins of these ocean-borne mammals. What roamed then proves to be an astounding array of real chimera, as evocative as any marine monster of myth or fiction.

Start, say, with this revelation: Once upon a time—in the Eocene epoch—whales were quadrupeds. They walked on land. One primitive cetacean ancestor, Pakicetus, is thought to have been a canine-size, shore-living creature with a doggy tail and clawed paws. It probably had fur (hair typically fails to fossilize, so on this point there is debate). With its tiny, wide-set eyes, Pakicetus displays a sheepish expression in many artists’ depictions—as if ashamed at having gone extinct.

Pyenson describes another protowhale that appears to have stalled mid-phase between a prodigious crocodile and a leopard seal: Basilosaurus had a bite force that, pound for pound, exceeded that of any other known creature. It retained the diminutive hind limbs its forebears had deployed to kick off from their terrestrial habitat and rummage in shallow reefs, though Basilosaurus occupied open waters, where it is believed to have hunted other prehistoric whales. (A few years ago, a Basilosaurus skeleton with a second whale inside it was exhumed from the floor of an Egyptian valley, a kind of ossified cetacean turducken.) Basilosaurus bones can still be found in the southern United States. (Basilosaurus is the official state fossil of Alabama.) Paleontologists have sometimes discovered their vertebrae, not lodged in sedimentary rock or tumbling from eroded riverbanks but repurposed as andirons in fireplaces, foundation stones in buildings, or parts of furniture. Basilosaurus is a sea monster we’ve unknowingly domesticated.

Forty million years ago lived whales that looked rather like today’s iguanas, albeit larger. Others appeared more fishy. Some resembled an elongated hippo whose body tapered into the snickering head of an oversize ferret. By the time of Odobenocetops, the walrus-faced cetacean of the Miocene epoch, the course of evolution had streamlined whales’ bodies and dispensed with the back legs. Odobenocetops had two asymmetrical tusks protruding downward from its squashy muzzle. The right tusk grew twice as long as the left for reasons unknown (perhaps it had to do with its diet of mollusks, or with courtship displays the males performed). To the 21st-century viewer, these tusks give Odobenocetops the lopsided charm of an oracular character in a Hayao Miyazaki film.

As far as researchers are aware, more than 80 species of cetacean inhabit modern-day oceans and estuaries. But the seas are deep and resist surveillance. It is possible that yet more whales swim below, awaiting discovery. Genetic analysis is recategorizing misidentified remains: Hitherto unknown cetaceans are being discovered in bone and tissue samples. The geologic record that Pyenson sets out to explore documents some 600 prehistoric whale species that no longer exist, and reveals evidence of bygone eras during which whale ancestors occupied a wide range of ecological niches worldwide. Many of the bones that prove pivotal to verifying cetacean evolution are as small as tokens from a board game.

Beneath the lower spine of some modern rorqual whales remain the vestigial knobbles of two back legs, folded up like an airplane’s landing gear. These defunct hindquarters are fleetingly visible on the exterior of the animal in the womb (when, for a time, a whale fetus looks a lot like a huddled piglet). This is the magic of whales: They contain forms both familiar and stupefying. Dissecting the innards of a minke in Iceland, Pyenson discovers at least one organ whose specific function remains mysterious—a gelatinous sphere the size of a volleyball, capsuled in the tip of the whale’s chin. Cellular bundles in the organ turn out to be pressure sensors. Figuring out what this large structure might indicate about how whales perceive their ocean habitat, and how their senses developed over eons, is the ongoing labor of Pyenson and his peers. However far into the flesh of whales they plunge, they find only more questions to wonder at.

Oh, but it’s all too easy to get caught up in the spectacular oddity of prehistoric cetaceans, when what Spying on Whales is about, at its core, is technology. Pyenson may have embarked on an investigation into how whale physiology and evolution divulge ephemeral aspects of marine environments lost to time, but as the book progresses it is the shorter history of human innovation that comes to the fore. The sublime dimensions of the whales themselves are superseded by the scope, and astonishing acuity, of the instruments used to surveil them.

Fossilized cetaceans contained in the elemental hardscape of the Atacama Desert, in South America, are laser-scanned—permitting paleontologists to view, on their screens, the orientation of overlapping skeletons and small facets of fragile structures. Meticulous data-point renderings of whale bones in museum collections, and of bones that prove too brittle to transport from sites of discovery, are relayed across the globe to 3-D printers. Great white whales surge from machines via processes that compress the biggest animal bodies ever to populate the planet into STL files. During the 19th century, our profoundly visceral relationship with whales spawned dreams of sea monsters. Now cetaceans give rise to specters that are digital.

Whales have become signals not just in cyberspace but in real space, too. Electronic tags once recorded only the slenderest facts of animal migration, verifying the miles traveled, and over what durations. Today, biologging tags (some satellite-linked) have advanced to the point that scientists are capable of observing the physical oscillations of an individual creature in a single act of feeding. Whales can now be outfitted with video recorders, GPS devices, and accelerometers. Pyenson envisages a future in which gray whales, creatures of the Pacific for centuries now, return to the Atlantic accompanied by drones.

The monitoring technologies Pyenson describes provide ever more fine-grained access to subsea worlds, pulling us alongside whales and into environments rarely accessed by humans. These instruments are designed to be temporary. Biologging devices fall off without causing significant harm after a set amount of time. Drones zip through the vaporous columns of whale exhalations, taking samples of breath for microbial analysis, and retrievable darts are used to collect tissue. (Is the buzz of drones more or less perturbing to a whale than the pain of a dart? The sensory lives of whales—how whales experience and cogitate about their surroundings—remain inaccessible.)

However well these technologies enable the voyeuristic fantasy of spying on pristine, animalian wilderness, they also deliver evidence of our presence in the sea. Surveillance of whales becomes surveillance of us when, in tandem with technology, the animals reveal how the oceans are altered by human activity. We may not physically go to the places whales do, but the trace of our industrial and manufacturing past has found its way there. In his latter chapters, Pyenson considers whale bodies from a different angle: how they register pernicious dissipations of pollutants, and may bear the isotopic imprint of fossil-fuel burning and the nuclear age.

Parts of whales, it turns out, are monitoring devices of a different nature. Cetacean blubber, and the fibrous baleens that some whales use to strain their prey from seawater, can be assayed to chronicle agrochemical use, carbon emissions, and atmospheric-weapons tests. Stashed in museum archives around the world are old pieces of baleen, detached from their hosts in the decades when whale blubber was a source of oil for lighting and machine lubrication. These shaggy baleens, some as long as surfboards, have acquired an unanticipated significance. They capture “environmental signals from a world before the widespread release of carbon dioxide from industrial fossil fuels,” Pyenson writes. The specimens are, in other words, a valuable data set for ecological scientists charting the extent to which our oceans are changing.

How apt that these baleens—a reminder of the whaling business that predated the global petroleum market—should help testify to the ongoing impact of the energy and extractive industries. When Pyenson is called on to exhume a phenomenal set of whale skeletons in Chile, the work of understanding one prehistoric ecology bumps up against human endeavors more directly. These primeval whales tell an important story about oceanographic dynamics, corroborating periodic flare-ups of ancient toxic algae and the offshore churning of nutrient-laden waters that, over time, evolved into what is now recognized as the modern Humboldt Current. (One of Earth’s most productive cold currents, the Humboldt supports some of the planet’s densest concentrations of marine fish.) The site—called Cerro Ballena, or “Whale Hill”—provides a snapshot of how oceanic biodiversity responds to shifts in climate. While Pyenson is engaged in scrutinizing these fossils, helping to hindcast prehistoric marine conditions, the fossils’ preservation, documentation, and removal become an urgent issue: The Pan-American Highway is being widened to allow for the passage of large mining machines, a development soon to disturb the site. The project of mapping out a long-disappeared ecosystem is crosscut by the enterprise of making space for a new, industrialized landscape to come.

Though Pyenson is a biologist, the language he uses to describe whales is often mechanistic. Whales appear variously as “time machines” and “spaceships.” Gray whales are “ecosystem engineers,” and other large whales are biological “pumps” transporting nutrients up from the lightless layers of the sea, by feeding at depth and excreting their waste nearer the surface. These are not the monstrous whales that once loomed on the margins of seafarers’ maps, whales that indicated what might exist beyond the borders of the knowable. Pyenson’s terminology is telling. The whales in his purview—in a metaphorical, if not a physical, sense—are constructed by humankind.

This is an important cue to the central message of Spying on Whales. Humans are reconfiguring their relationships with whales of both the prehistoric past and the present. We will continue to shape the ecosystems whales exist in, determining, however inadvertently, which whale species flourish and which decline. Evidence we collect from these wild animals illuminates not only the mysteries of their vast and wondrous lives, but the marvel of our own technological prowess. The data now also attest to the extent of our impact on the bodies, habits, and habitats of other species, even creatures that roam in distant seas. Pyenson, as an explorer of ancient environments unseen by any human eye, reaches back into prehistory to bring into focus our responsibility for the far future of the natural world.

This article appears in the September 2018 print edition with the headline “The Whale, Surveilled.”