Watching Giants

Bookshelf: Watching Giants

Watching Giants: The Secret Lives of Whales – Elin Kelsey

Watching Giants
Watching Giants

This book is not a lot about whales. There is a bit of whale and dolphin science, but it’s presented in an informal, anecdotal style peppered (drenched, actually) with personal reflections and stories of the author’s life and family. Elin Kelsey interviews a number of cetacean researchers, mostly based around the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), an incredibly rich and diverse ecosystem that supports a huge biomass of marine mammals, some resident year-round. The gulf lies between the Mexican mainland and the Baja Peninsula and featured in the BBC Blue Planet series footage of blue whales.

Kelsey’s focus is very much on motherhood, and she does raise some points worth pondering. One that struck me is how bearing young affects wild animals – many mothers claim that the birth of their child was a pivotal, transformative moment for them. For a creature such as a whale or elephant, with agonisingly long gestation periods and that spend years suckling their offspring, is the experience similarly life-changing?

She also discusses the prevalence of allocare (care provided by someone other than the mother – practised by sperm whales, for example), and the role of matriarchs in cetacean society. These older female whales have a great deal of knowledge about the best sources of nutrients and safest refuges, and studies have shown that older matriarchs give rise to healthier, more successful groups. Elephants are an example of land-based mammals with a matriarchal social structure.

I found this an entertaining, light read, if sometimes difficult to follow because of its loose structure. Kelsey’s 20 essays are linked by her personal reminiscences, and the work is perhaps aimed less at people who want to know about whales, and more at those who enjoy a biographical style with a touch of ecology thrown in. It’s also definitely a book that will appeal to women with maternal leanings (of which I am not one).

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here or here if you’re not.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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