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.