Discussing Whales with a Smithsonian Paleobiologist & Author

In an elective course called Whaling in America: An Interdisciplinary Exploration, students are learning about whales’ scientific, economic, artistic, and cultural significance. The class is exploring how whales have been perceived in many ways by different people across history. Scientists see whales as an important link to both the past and future and a profound example of evolutionary biology. For those engaged in the whaling trade, whales represented economic opportunity and were worth risking both life and property to kill them for their oil.

Writers, artists, and filmmakers have depicted whales as a symbol of the mysteries found in the ocean’s depths and an example of nature’s awe-inspiring beauty and terrifying power. Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, which students are reading: “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.” Native Americans saw whales as an important natural resource and used as many parts of the whale as possible, from eating whale meat to using baleen to build clothing and other goods.

Recently, students and their teacher Emily Hewitt had the unique chance to speak with a leading expert on whales. Nick Pyenson, PhD, a paleobiologist who serves as Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian, is the author of Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures. He generously took time out of his busy schedule to join us remotely for an hour and to discuss his passion for studying whales and the insights he has gained.

Dr. Pyenson shared remarkable images and stories about the evolution of whales, the work scientists like him have done to study them, and how the history of whales helps us learn about numerous aspects of our world. He also described how science is team-based, happens in a social context, and often requires a high level of diplomacy. When giving us his prediction of the future of whales, he gave examples of several species on the brink of extinction and how even apex predators like killer whales are being found to have high levels of human pollutants in their systems. Dr. Pyenson’s fascination with whales and his reverence for them was palpable and inspiring.

Ms. Hewitt asked the students to have some questions for Dr. Pyenson and they came prepared. Emily O. ‘19 asked: “Why is studying whales important?” Dr. Pyenson replied that whales are a way for us to gain the proper context in which to see the scale of geologic time and history. He also shared that the decline in whale populations shows us the consequences of how humans are shaping the environment. The World Wildlife Foundation paints a bleak picture: “Unfortunately their large size and mythical aura does not protect them; six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered, even after decades of protection.” Dr. Pyenson emphasized how the loss of whales is a loss for all of us.

Emma F. ‘19 asked: “What is your next step?” Dr. Pyenson answered that he “wants to explore the evolution of other marine mammals and to continue examining connections between modern whales and their historic ancestors.” He also wants to keep traveling to different parts of the world to excavate whale fossils and dive with and observe current whale species.

Dr. Pyenson also gave the students several key takeaways about how to take an interdisciplinary approach in their professional and personal lives. These included learning how to write, doing as many kinds of science as possible to discover what you are and aren’t good at, listening to your gut, and how being social often leads to finding mentors, research collaborators, and friends. He ended by highlighting the great rewards a career in science can bring and the personal connections it often fosters.

Given that the class has spent the past few weeks learning about whale evolution and physiology and are switching gears and study the history of whaling and its depiction in literature, the conversation with Dr. Pyenson was a perfect transition. Students are now reading Moby Dick and will be going on a whale watching trip in the next few weeks. Being able to learn about whales in multiple contexts is exciting for students and the knowledge they are gaining stays with them because of the memorable experiences they are having in this class.