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Giants of the Deep

NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY GUIDE TO MARINE MAMMALS OF THE WORLD, By Randall R. Reeves, Brent S. Stewart, Phillip J. Clapham and James A. Powell, Illustrated by Pieter Folkens, Alfred A. Knopf: 528 pp., $26.95 WHALES AND OTHER MARINE MAMMALS OF CALIFORNIA AND BAJA, By Tamara Eder, Illustrated by Ian Sheldon, Lone Pine Press: 176 pp., $12.95 paper

April 21, 2002|RICHARD ELLIS | Richard Ellis is the author of "Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea."

Before whales achieved their current position as the primary objects of environmental concern, there was no such thing as a field guide to whales. There was no need for one, because nobody cared about the difference between, say, a blue whale and a sperm whale.

Most people, if they thought about whales at all, probably conjured up an image of the creature that swallows Disney's Pinocchio: a square-headed thing with too many teeth and a water fountain spouting from its head. This changed dramatically in the early 1970s, when the world learned that industrialized whalers were killing whales all over the world, at a rate that made the Yankee whalers (such as those portrayed in "Moby-Dick") seem like amateurs.

In order to "save the whales," it was important to show people what they looked like and, furthermore, that there were significant differences in size, color and habits among the 70-odd species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

In Bermuda in 1970, Katy and Roger Payne made the first recordings of the haunting songs of humpback whales. Seven years later, Jim Hudnall's beautiful photographs of Hawaiian humpbacks, the first photographs ever taken of wild whales underwater, were published in Audubon magazine. People were then aware that whales were enormously graceful creatures and, at least in the case of the humpbacks, that they were singers too.

In 1974, I did the illustrations for an Audubon magazine article called "Vanishing Giants," about the imperiled state of the world's great whales. Because there were hardly any photographs of living whales available, I drew and painted all the whale species and, in the 1980 "Book of Whales," I did more or less the same thing. I did it again in 1982 for "Dolphins and Porpoises."

In 1983, there appeared "The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins," which contains color paintings by Larry Foster of all the cetacean species and a lot of black-and-white photographs. The Sierra Club book is small and designed to be taken aboard ship in your pocket to facilitate the identification of whales and dolphins at sea, and the editors assiduously avoided running any illustration across the gutter, so no matter how big the actual whale is, the illustration or photo is restricted to one page.

Now comes the "National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World," which leaves these publications in the dust and gasping for air. The jacket shows a common dolphin, undoubtedly chosen because it is one of the loveliest of the dolphins, with its complex color pattern and exaggerated dark eyes. (The more familiar bottlenose dolphin is just plain gray.)

The only name that appears on the cover--front, spine or back--is that of the illustrator, Pieter Folkens, which is rather curious because the book was written by four marine mammal experts: Randall R. Reeves, Brent S. Stewart, Phillip J. Clapham and James A. Powell, all of whom are respected authorities and are as well known in the right circles as Folkens. Indeed, Reeves is one of the authors of "The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins" and also "The Sierra Club Handbook of Seals and Sirenians," published in 1992.

In addition to Folkens' illustrations, the book contains 418 color photographs, all showing the marine mammals in their natural habitats. (There are four pages of photo credits, identifying some of the world's foremost nature photographers.) Some photos show the whales and dolphins at the surface, while others are underwater shots that show the animals in the medium in which they spend most of their time.

So it is not surprising that the writing is lucid and engaging, the science is impeccable, and the photographs are more than worth the price of admission, some of them so beautiful they can make you weep, including the photograph of the Yangtze River dolphin, the most endangered cetacean in the world, down to fewer than 100 individuals. Look at the spectacular photographs of sperm whales and bowheads, species that were not photographed until recently. And then gasp in delight at the photograph of the fluorescent pink humpback dolphin with its black baby.

There are few pictures of the rare beaked whales--in this book or anywhere else--so Folkens' excellent illustrations have to suffice. For the first time outside the scientific literature, there appears a picture of Longman's Beaked Whale, which has long been a subject of cetological mystery and controversy. For years, Indopacetus pacificus was known only from two skeletons, one found in Somalia and the other in Queensland, Australia. A pair of photographs of unknown beaked whales was published in Robert Pitman's 2002 article in the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, and it was suggested that these might have been the mysterious beaked whale that Pitman describes as "perhaps the largest animal left on the planet that has not been positively identified in the wild."

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