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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Singing the Wild Blues, 5 Nov 2008
This review is from: Wild Blue: A Natural History of the World's Largest Animal (Hardcover)
One of my first excursions when I moved to Edinburgh in 1989 was to look in the University of Edinburgh Anatomy Department Library for Sir Robert Sibbald's manuscript and drawings of the first blue whale to be named and described by science in 1692. I was thrilled that "Sibbald's rorqual", as it was first called, had been found on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, a short walk from our new home, and in the shadow of the blue whale jaw bones atop North Berwick Law.

Finding a good book on blue whales, however, has proved much more difficult, and indeed impossible up till now. The task was taken up by journalist Dan Bortolotti who was determined to tell the big story of the blue whale and to take the time and care to do it well. In Wild Blue, Bortolotti tells the story of Sibbald's 78-foot-long find and how it subsequently became one of the first four whale species to be entered by Linnaeus into his Systema Naturae.

Wild Blue proves to be a sweeping tour of all that is, was and hopefully will be, in centuries to come, the blue whale. No aspect is left uncovered, including whaling, management, genetics, acoustics. All are covered in a concise, engaging way. Yet most engaging are the field studies, e.g., splashing around with Richard Sears - the first person to crack the blue whale photo-ID code and the person who has spent more waking hours with living blue whales than anyone.

The key challenge to writing a good whale book is how to deal with the wealth of unpublished material. Whale science is still so young; scientific papers and reports are archival and narrowly selective about what they cover. Thus much of what is known is carried around in the heads of frontline researchers such as Sears, John Calambokidis and others.

In the best journalistic tradition, Bortolotti investigates, weighs evidence, compares spoken and written accounts of these frontline researchers and emerges with a well written, entertaining result. Here we get the fine points, the rough edges of science. For example, Bortolotti doesn't simply say that blues live to age X but brings you in on the debate about how whales are aged - using ovaries, waxplugs, amino acid in the lens of the eye - and the merits and drawbacks of each method. In very few popular science books will you read a sum-up like this "Taken together, all this evidence means blue whales can certainly live to 37, can almost surely exceed 50, and may well [reach] a maximum lifespan of 90 to 100 years."

The blue whale remains an iconic animal. As Bortolotti hints, it has shades of a living dinosaur, but it is really so much more, bigger, endangered yes, but surprisingly alive and present just off our shores. Seeing one of the 28m skeletons in a national museum has been a rite of passage for many whale scientists, conservationists as well as natural history lovers, and long may it continue to be so. And yet we very nearly lost the blue forever due to human greed. Once there were up to 300,000; today there are more like 10,000 left. And it is only now and neatly summed up in Wild Blue, that we clearly see what we almost lost.

-- Erich Hoyt, Senior Research Fellow, WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society; co-director, Far East Russia Orca Project; author of Orca: the Whale Called Killer, Insect Lives: Stories of Mystery and Romance from a Hidden World and Creatures of the Deep: In Search of the Sea's Monsters and the World They Live in. Adapted from Review in WDCS, the magazine of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (Issue 45).
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