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Watching Giants

Watching Giants: The Secret Lives of Whales

With Photographs by Doc White
Additional Photographs by François Gohier
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Watching Giants
    Book Description:

    Personal, anecdotal, and highly engaging,Watching Giantsopens a window on a world that seems quite like our own, yet is so different that understanding it pushes the very limits of our senses. Elin Kelsey's colorful first-person account, drawing from her rich, often humorous, everyday experiences as a mother, a woman, and a scientist, takes us to the incredibly productive waters of the Gulf of California and beyond, to oceans around the world. Kelsey brings us along as she talks to leading cetacean researchers and marine ecologists about their intriguing discoveries. We encounter humpback whales that build nets from bubbles, gain a disturbing maternal perspective on the dolphin-tuna issue, uncover intimate details about whale sex, and contemplate the meaning of the complex social networks that exist in the seas. What emerges alongside these fascinating snapshots of whale culture is a dizzying sense of the tremendous speed with which we are changing the oceans' ecosystems-through overfishing, noise pollution, even real estate development.Watching Giantsintroduces a world of immense interconnectivity and beauty-one that is now facing imminent peril.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94221-9
    Subjects: Zoology, Aquatic Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiii)
    (pp. 1-6)

    This is a picture of my daughter, Esmé, whale watching. She is three and a half, and as her six-year-old brother, Kip, will tell you, if you want to get Esmé to go to sleep, all you need to do is turn on theGoodnight Moontape or put her on a whale watching boat.

    The waters surrounding Mexico’s Baja Peninsula are the best in the world for seeing the greatest diversity of whales. Little did I know, when I began scheming to bring my children with me to the Gulf of California to interview whale researchers for this book,...

  5. 1 Extreme Motherhood
    (pp. 7-11)

    The cartoon gracing the cover of the May 2006 issue ofThe New Yorkerdepicts an exhausted mother pushing an immense stroller overflowing with kid paraphernalia. The load is reminiscent of the one Max, the Grinch’s dog, had to drag away from Whoville. My friend Heidi’s jogging stroller makes such images look spartan. The back pouch strains under the weight of juice boxes, water bottles, and snacks of the fruit, cheese, cracker, carrot, snap pea, and cookie variety. An umbrella, flip-flops, wet wipes, and sunscreen struggle free of pockets on the sides. The lower net contains a noisy clatter of...

  6. 2 A Sea of Milk
    (pp. 12-23)

    Wearing your baby is all the fashion these days. Kate Hudson does it. Gwen Stefani does it. Brad Pitt does it. BabyBjörns, Moby Wraps, slings—products that let you hold your baby close—are the most exciting parenting concept to hit the Western world in years, according to baby care experts Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears.¹ Baby wearing is a visible manifestation of a popular parenting style called “attachment parenting.” Its primary aim is to help parents and babies connect. I wrapped my children, Kip and Esmé, throughout their first years of life and swear by its ease and...

  7. 3 Looking for Whales in All the Wrong Places
    (pp. 24-30)

    These past few years I’ve been thrust, like so many other parents, into rediscovering nature inmy own neighborhood. Not necessarily because I wanted to, but because the two-year-old I was walking would throw herself onto the ground and simply not budge until the ant crawling ever so slowly made itallthe way across the sidewalk. Why such “moments of wonder,” as an old naturalist friend of mine calls them, typically occur when I am desperate to get another child to school or myself to a meeting without any stains on my clothing is unknown. Perhaps it’s because we always...

  8. 4 Resident Aliens?
    (pp. 31-38)

    It’s a conversation I know by heart. I bet you know a version of it too. This time it’s being told by a farmer’s wife from outside Boise, Idaho; she leans over to chat while we’re waiting for our plane to be repaired at the airport in Guaymas, Mexico. “We’re just here to check out our friend’s new condo development,” she tells me. “ I’m in real estate too, and I made more money in the last six years than my husband did his whole life farming, and I only work three months a year!” She adjusts her heavy frame...

  9. 5 How to Make a Really Rich Sea
    (pp. 39-43)

    Steve Webster is in love with the Gulf of California. “It’s one of those magical places,” he says. “You know you belong there when you get there. In fact, it happens to me about the time I stop for gas and pick up a lobster burrito in El Rosario.” Steve is an accomplished marine biologist and director of education emeritus at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He felt the pull of the place the first time he drove down a little stretch of rough road south of San Felipe to Bahía de Gonzaga. It was a Christmas trip with a couple...

  10. 6 Popular Mechanics
    (pp. 44-49)

    I love the feel of our rented house in La Paz. The air is so hot, so dry, that we hang wet clothes at midnight and pull them stiff from the line before sunrise. Water is precious and so hard to come by that we shower together, shivering as the drops remove all evidence of our salt-and-sand adventures in the Gulf of California. We memorize the 1950s jingle that signals the arrival of the water truck and race to greet it with the joyful sense of anticipation previously reserved for the ice cream van. There is the stink of gas...

  11. 7 Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Smartest of Them All?
    (pp. 50-56)

    The other morning Esmé raced into the bathroom, climbed up onto a stool, gazed into the mirror, and announced in a very disgruntled voice, “I look like a girl!” Apparently she had her heart set on seeing a boy gazing back at her. It was only after she’d gone off to rummage in her big brother’s dresser and come back wearing a basketball singlet and baggy red jeans that her reflection produced a smile. She climbed back off the stool and proceeded to spend the next ten minutes eating breakfast as “Alex,” her favorite big boy alter ego. Later that...

  12. 8 Building Nets from Bubbles and Other Mysterious Humpback Whale Talents
    (pp. 57-64)

    Humpback whales blow bubbles ranging in size from small enough to get under the shell of a shrimp to as large as a party-sized pizza. But not all the bubbles come out of their mouths. Like all whales, humpbacks breathe through an opening called a blowhole on the backs of their heads. By tightening the muscles around their blowhole, whales change the shape of the opening and the size of the bubbles that come out.

    Fred Sharpe knows more about humpback bubble blowing than anyone. The first time I met him, in the late 1980s, he was leaning over the...

  13. 9 Do Baby Sperm Whales Suck Milk through Their Noses?
    (pp. 65-69)

    Jeremy Bowen, the Middle East editor for the BBC, is talking on the car radio as I navigate the morning rodeo of cars vying for the coveted curbside parking spot outside the localjardín de niños(kindergarten) near our home in La Paz. I double-park, struggle to help Kip and Esmé across the busy traffic lane, and watch as they disappear through the gates into a sea of dark-haired children. The contrast between the playful shrieks of the children and Jeremy’s description of the horrors he has witnessed while reporting on more than a dozen wars is so poignant that...

  14. 10 Deep Culture
    (pp. 70-82)

    Many years ago I joined Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist studying the pharmacological properties of rainforest plants, on a group expedition to Borneo. We traveled by longboat down rivers choked with logs destined for the Japanese forestry market searching for the Penan, one of the few remaining nomadic peoples of the rainforest. Their homeland in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is undergoing one of the highest rates of deforestation on the planet, and the goal of the expedition was to learn more about their traditional uses of plants and to draw attention to the political plight of these displaced indigenous people....

  15. 11 What’s the Use of Granny?
    (pp. 83-88)

    “Three years ago I had my feet in these stirrups for a completely different reason,” I lament to my ob-gyn. Then I was delivering a baby. Today, according to this exam and the blood test results she holds in her hand, I am in menopause. I glance over at my preschooler doodling on her Etch A Sketch in the corner and am surprised by the power of a single-word diagnosis to make me feel suddenly and unspeakably old. If I were any other species of mammal, I remind myself in silent consolation, this announcement would be really bad news. It...

  16. 12 Dolphin Snatchers
    (pp. 89-98)

    It’s kind of like being mugged: you never see it coming. We are skipping across the surface of the southern Gulf of California, a flash of blue boat on a blue, blue sea, fourteen eager whale watchers and two experienced guides squinting through their polarized sunglasses into the white-hot glare of sunlight that bounces off the water. Nothing. Thenwham!Hundreds of bodies shoot from the sea and spill alongside the bow of the boat, crowding so close we see the glint of their eyes. They know what they want, and they know how to get it. We are compelled...

  17. 13 Friendly Mothers, Friendly Calves?
    (pp. 99-112)

    At sunset, it shimmers like a silver thread, snaking across the cactus-covered flatlands and up through the gently undulating hills. It is prettiest then. Low lighting covers many blemishes, and this is no less true for roadside litter. By day the endless pieces of broken glass and plastic bottles that line the Baja highway are a foe to be wary of: “Be careful where you step!” I shout when Kip hops out to pee behind the car door. “Don’t walk outside without your shoes.” Yet when the sun sinks low in the sky, we speed through the heat of the...

  18. 14 The War on Fish
    (pp. 113-124)

    Ocean watching is a mysterious pastime. It’s one of the few activities I can think of, other than the game of cricket, in which you can spend hours looking at something and still learn nothing about it. Swirl your fingertips across the ocean surface, and you can’t tell if the water is fresh or foul. Is something in the ocean that shouldn’t be there? Is something missing? Water, though transparent, hides its ills.

    Marine ecologist Boris Worm knows more about the state of the world’s oceans than most. His research focuses on the conservation of marine biodiversity on a global...

  19. 15 Why Blue Whales Gotta Be Big
    (pp. 125-131)

    Every naturalist on a whale watching boat has a favorite way of explaining the gigantic proportions of blue whales. A blue whale’s heart is as big as a Volkswagen. You could fit an elephant on its tongue. The body of a male blue whale is as long as three school buses and weighs as much as thirty thousand house cats. Eight kids could stretch across a tail. In the wonderful David Attenborough series,Life of Mammals,David wanders through the corridor of a blue whale skeleton while computer-animated graphics layer on fire hose–sized blood vessels and an aorta wide...

  20. 16 What You Can See by Listening
    (pp. 132-141)

    How do whales contend with an environment where things are constantly moving? A world where nothing is fixed? I ponder this dilemma as I race around the house in search of an overdue library book. Story time starts in seven minutes. I want to take the bikes, not the car. And unless I return the missing book, we can’t take out the armloads of new books I know Kip and Esmé will be eagerly selecting from the shelves. Esmé likes to shift things around. She’s a collector. Well, more of a bagger, really. She loves to fill things with a...

  21. 17 What You Can Learn from the Dead
    (pp. 142-151)

    Sometimes when I’m trapped in a long lineup, as I am today in an attempt to register Kip for swimming lessons, I while away the time by mentally compiling a list of the people I know with “special” talents: the fellow who makes the greatest three-layer dip; the woman who can spontaneously recite an appropriate line of poetry, no matter the occasion; the kid who rides a unicycle in our local parade; the gal with the inside track on the best income tax deductions. I vary the order, but there is one person who is always near the top. He...

  22. 18 Let’s Talk about Sex, Baby
    (pp. 152-160)

    You can spot them a mile away—the mothers who don’t get out to dinner very often. Faces flushed with excitement, bodies dressed in whatever was in style the year before they got pregnant, they teeter into a restaurant on unaccustomed high heels or scurry quickly to a seat, anxious to hide those “only-things-my-feet-will-still-fit-into” shoes beneath the table. I know these women. I am one of them.

    But you wouldn’t guess it tonight. Tonight even the stylish businessmen in the next booth are leaning toward our table. I am tempted to credit this unexpected attention to my new underwear—like...

  23. 19 Missing Meat
    (pp. 161-168)

    It’s a FedEx delivery nightmare. A piece of flesh from one of the world’s rarest whales is lost in shipping. Luckily it’s on ice. But its destination, Washington, DC, is in full summer swelter. If the flesh thaws, valuable genetic data will be lost. And whatever room the package lands in will stink to high heaven. As anyone who has ever tried to retrieve a lost package from FedEx knows, there is a vast thicket of bureaucracy to be navigated, and even then, the best you can hope for is the voice of a kindhearted but disempowered clerk speaking to...

  24. 20 Shifting Scale
    (pp. 169-176)

    Systems. Links. Connections. In a world where ecologists spin threads between human activities, earth, and ocean systems on a planetary scale, Exequiel Ezcurra must surely be the master weaver. His tapestry is the Gulf of California. For thirty years he has studied the intricacies of its regions, the individual threads of its biologies and its politics. Now he’s tackling the grand picture: understanding the Gulf of California as one big ecosystem. “We have to seriously start looking at things at the scale of regions or even the whole earth,” he tells me as we make our way past a fossilized...

  25. NOTES
    (pp. 177-190)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 191-201)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 202-202)