Watching Giants by Elin Kelsey

Watching Giants by Elin Kelsey

No man is an island – but a gray whale is. In fact, it’s a whole ecosystem:

It’s a creepy concept, but gray whale skin is literally alive with other creatures. At least three species of whale lice and one species of barnacle are permanent residents, the latter boring headfirst into the skin. It’s not uncommon for a gray whale to carry more than 400 pounds [@180 kilos] of these tiny beasts.

That’s just one of many interesting facts I picked up in Watching Giants, an accessible book of essays by Elin Kelsey.

On the one hand, Kelsey has an engaging writing style which means that she can succinctly explain complicated scientific ideas for the general reader. On the other hand, she is a mother of two toddlers and she often makes comparisons between the lives of whales and her own life that hold nothing back, such as a visit to her gynecologist (I’m not making this up). In her urge to humanise the material, she sometimes makes some banal comments:

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.

That kind of thing almost had me giving up on the book after a couple of pages. Fortunately, it gets much better as Kelsey begins a series of conversations with biologists and oceanologists, whose ideas challenge how we perceive these animals and their behaviour.

According to [Christopher Clark] … blue whales, fin whales, and humpback whales hear differences in the structure of the three-dimensional noise in the ocean. “Imagine that you are a blue whale swimming northwest of Bermuda by a hundred miles … you’d be able to hear the difference between something to your north and something to your south. To the north, you would actually be able to hear the rush and motion and the turbulence caused by the Gulf Stream.”

That is to say that the giant rorquals find schools of krill not by listening for their prey but by listening to changes in the movement of the ocean itself. Mind-blowing.

I also agree whole-heartedly with Kelsey’s arguments that although our seas are in peril, there is still a great deal that we can do to protect them from further harm due to over-fishing, pollution and ambient noise. Indeed, though published in 2009, this book is already a little out of date because our knowledge of whales has grown considerably in the last few years.

Nevertheless, Watching Giants is an enjoyable collection of essays for anyone who wants to learn more about ceteceans in general. Kelsey eschews the gibberish so beloved of academic authors, and lets her own enthusiasm shine through the book. It is perhaps too detailed for a general introduction to these animals however: there are other books available that do that better.


11 responses to “Watching Giants by Elin Kelsey

  1. Great review as always.

    ” It’s not uncommon for a gray whale to carry more than 400 pounds [@180 kilos] of these tiny beasts.”

    Hard to fathom the above. How many pounds do the gray whales weigh?

    • Good question. It’s very hard to weigh a whale because they’re so large (an adult gray whale can grow to 14 metres / 46 feet in length). The only way of weighing them is to cut the body up and weighing the parts individually before adding them up to make a total. That doesn’t give you an entirely accurate figure because a lot of blood is lost while the body is being divided up. According to Mark Cawardine in his DK Handbook Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, a gray whale’s adult weight is between 15 and 35 tons. At the larger end of that scale, we’re talking about 70,000 pounds or 31,000 kilos. From the point of view of the lice, there’s plenty of room for everyone!

  2. The best books are always the ones told with a passion, I will have to look this up, it will be a breath of fresh air after Moby Dick, although that had its moments.

    • Elin Kelsey is very passionate about her subject and she really sets out to humanise the whole feeling of getting up close to these massive animals. I was a bit tough on the book above but it is a worthy read. You know you can easily see minke whales in the UK, off the Isle of Mull in summer. Take a direct train fro Glasgow to Oban and then take the ferry to Mull where you can stay at Tobermory. The whales bob about off the coast in July and August, I believe. You could also stop off at the Oban distillery on the way (I would!).

      • That sounds like a fine road trip and one I may think about doing, I am due a good trip and if there is a distillery on the journey, well it sounds like the perfect trip. It’s either there or Skeg Vegas…

      • Despite having been born in Boston, I’ve never been to Skeg. I bet you can get some great fish and chips there.
        I am mad about Scotland these days – maybe because I live in Spain and I like to see those green fields, and a bit of rain.

      • You haven’t lived if you haven’t been to Skeg, the best fish and chips are to be found in ‘Chip Alley’ which I like to think sounds almost Dickensian, sort of.

        I remember watching the Vuelta on TV and for days it was arid landscapes and factories,so it’s no wonder you have a hankering.

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