Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises by Mark Carwardine

No cetacean has become extinct in modern times

That is one of the claims made in Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, a field guide published back in 1995. Less than twenty years later, that statement no longer holds true. At some point at the turn of the millennium, the baiji became extinct. Also known as the Yangtze river dolphin, the final blow was delivered to this species through the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China.

Whales Dolphins and Porpoises cover

As an iconic species, the baiji had featured in Last Chance to See, a radio series produced by this book’s co-author Mark Carwardine in conjunction with Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame). Sadly in this case, the title of the show rang true.

Today, a further species is in terrible danger. A small porpoise, the vaquita, has only a limited range off the shores of Western Mexico. This shy, tiny animal is under threat not through hunting but through accidental capture in fishing nets. Last month, naturalists warned that its numbers were down to less than a hundred. It too will perish forever unless action is taken as soon as possible.

Fortunately,this book is slightly out of date in positive ways too. One happy example is the 2012 discovery of a new species of whale that doesn’t even appear here: the spade-toothed whale,  a beaked whale. Other beaked whales listed separately here are actually now believed to be the same species. Ludicrously, some online commentators criticise Carwardine for this slip. Ludicrously, because Carwardine makes it clear that much of his evidence is still conjecture, and also, a lot of online sources have clearly taken his book as their “source”.

Despite those caveats, this is still an essential field guide for those setting out into the open sea in search of whales, dolphins and porpoises (the only difference in terminology is down to their size). Using easy-to-use sections, the book summarises the essential details regarding each mammals’ appearance, life cycle, diet, range and behaviour.

It’s also packed with factoids, such as the one that beluga whales in St. Lawrence, Canada

have such high concentrations of chemical contaminants in their bodies that they are treated as toxic waste when they die.

The design and illustrations are now comfortingly retro, with glorious paintings from wildlife artist Martin Camm. These more than make up for a lack of photos, owing to the difficulty of sighting any of these animals in their natural habitat. A particular favourite of mine was the bowhead whale, which only lives in the Arctic:

Bowhead whale

Once upon a time, the bookshops were full of similar Dorling Kindersley books with their classic design of annotated illustration on a white background. That was until the 1990s when they almost became an endangered species themselves, all thanks to Jar Jar Binks.

Dorling Kindersley had gained the rights to develop guides to the new Star Wars movies, and anticipating a hit, they printed thousands of copies of the books. When The Phantom Menace failed to make the jump to hyperspace, Dorling Kindersley were left with piles of unsold copies mounting up in their warehouse. The losses ran into the millions.

To that extent, we have to be grateful that this book is still on sale, although I was only able to get a copy from the United States via Amazon.

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