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The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

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Over the past several decades, Richard Ellis has produced a remarkable body of work that has been called magnificent (Washington Post Book World), masterful (Scientific American), magical (Men's Journal), and a dazzling tour de force (Christian Science Monitor). Ellis's new book--a fascinating tour through the world of the sperm whale--will surely inspire more such praise Over the past several decades, Richard Ellis has produced a remarkable body of work that has been called magnificent (Washington Post Book World), masterful (Scientific American), magical (Men's Journal), and a dazzling tour de force (Christian Science Monitor). Ellis's new book--a fascinating tour through the world of the sperm whale--will surely inspire more such praise for the author heralded by Publisher Weekly as America's foremost writer on marine research. Written with Ellis's deep knowledge and trademark passion, verve, and wit--and illustrated with a wide array of images including his own signature artwork--his study covers the full spectrum of the sperm whale's existence from its prehistoric past to its current endangered existence. Ellis, as no one else can, illuminates the iconic impact of Physeter macrocephalus (big-headed blower) on our history, environment, and culture, with a substantial nod to Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, the great novel that put the sperm whale (and whaling) on the literary map. Ranging far and wide, Ellis covers the sperm whale's evolution, ecology, biology, anatomy, behavior, social organization, intelligence, communications, migrations, diet, and breeding. He also devotes considerable space to the whale's hunting prowess, including its clashes with the giant squid, and to the history of the whaling industry that decimated its numbers during the last two centuries. He even includes a story about a beached juvenile he helped rescue, an event that provided scientists with one of their first opportunities to observe a sperm whale in the water and up close. Offering a rich tapestry for anyone with an interest in the marvels of ocean life, Ellis's book provides an indispensable guide to the life and times of one of the planet's most intelligent, elusive, and endangered species.


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Over the past several decades, Richard Ellis has produced a remarkable body of work that has been called magnificent (Washington Post Book World), masterful (Scientific American), magical (Men's Journal), and a dazzling tour de force (Christian Science Monitor). Ellis's new book--a fascinating tour through the world of the sperm whale--will surely inspire more such praise Over the past several decades, Richard Ellis has produced a remarkable body of work that has been called magnificent (Washington Post Book World), masterful (Scientific American), magical (Men's Journal), and a dazzling tour de force (Christian Science Monitor). Ellis's new book--a fascinating tour through the world of the sperm whale--will surely inspire more such praise for the author heralded by Publisher Weekly as America's foremost writer on marine research. Written with Ellis's deep knowledge and trademark passion, verve, and wit--and illustrated with a wide array of images including his own signature artwork--his study covers the full spectrum of the sperm whale's existence from its prehistoric past to its current endangered existence. Ellis, as no one else can, illuminates the iconic impact of Physeter macrocephalus (big-headed blower) on our history, environment, and culture, with a substantial nod to Herman Melville and Moby-Dick, the great novel that put the sperm whale (and whaling) on the literary map. Ranging far and wide, Ellis covers the sperm whale's evolution, ecology, biology, anatomy, behavior, social organization, intelligence, communications, migrations, diet, and breeding. He also devotes considerable space to the whale's hunting prowess, including its clashes with the giant squid, and to the history of the whaling industry that decimated its numbers during the last two centuries. He even includes a story about a beached juvenile he helped rescue, an event that provided scientists with one of their first opportunities to observe a sperm whale in the water and up close. Offering a rich tapestry for anyone with an interest in the marvels of ocean life, Ellis's book provides an indispensable guide to the life and times of one of the planet's most intelligent, elusive, and endangered species.

30 review for The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    I'm really not sure how to review this book. Those familiar with Richard Ellis' books will know what to expect, more or less, but those looking for a general marine mammal natural history might be a little surprised. Richard Ellis writes books that tend to be strings of facts, with little impressionistic embellishment, and I enjoy books like this. His books which deal with multiple species, such as The Empty Sea and Aquagenesis generally follow taxonomic relations in their progressions from speci I'm really not sure how to review this book. Those familiar with Richard Ellis' books will know what to expect, more or less, but those looking for a general marine mammal natural history might be a little surprised. Richard Ellis writes books that tend to be strings of facts, with little impressionistic embellishment, and I enjoy books like this. His books which deal with multiple species, such as The Empty Sea and Aquagenesis generally follow taxonomic relations in their progressions from species to species, creating a literary cladogram as the reader progresses through these books. His single-species books, such as Swordfish and Great White Shark, tend to be approximately one-third biology, one third small-scale human interaction (such as in sport fishing or by representations in art), and one third large-scale human interaction (such as through commercial overfishing or by dangers posed to the species' environment). The Great Sperm Whale follows the general outline of Ellis' other single-species books, and Ellis presents copious facts about his subject and its human interactors. Still, the book is not quite up to the high standard I've seen in other of Ellis' works. The book starts with an account of the young sperm whale Physty, who washed ashore off Coney Island in 1981. This is a sweet story, and one in which Ellis plays a part. The little whale is led to open water, and no one knows what happened to him afterwards. I rather wish Ellis had ended with this story, since the book ends on a pretty sour note with descriptions of the modern whaling industry and impotence of the International Whaling Commission. (As an aside, Ellis mentions himself in passing several times throughout the book and details his own career in an Appendix. I didn't take this to be an ego trip at all, but maybe it could rub other readers the wrong way.) There are some editorial hiccups in Chapter II, "Mr. Melville's Whale", such as the exact same quote reproduced twice within a few pages and a few facts that are presented in very similar ways and as if this were the first time the reader has been presented with this information. This was annoying, but the chapter is a good overview, providing an account of the early whaling industry and whale biology as seen through the eyes of Herman Melville. Chapter III is an evolutionary history of the whale, but readers of Aquagenesis will find much of the information familiar. Or so I think: Ellis mentions in the preface that he is presenting this information for the first time, so it is possible that I am conflating information I've read in other places with the account of whale descent presented in Aquagenesis. Chapters IV through VII cover the biology, social structure, habitat, and prey (squid, mostly) of the Sperm Whale. Unfortunately, there are great gaps in what we know about all these topics, and Ellis is unable to answer many questions that may pop up in the reader's head as he does in other books simply because that information does not exist. However, Ellis is thorough in presenting various hypotheses, both ridiculous and sublime about whale or squid behavior. One thing that bugged me mightily in these chapters was in a discussion about a convergent trait shared by insect-eating bats and sperm whales, both of which echolocate: "[bat] DNA includes the same protein (prestin) that is found in the DNA of toothed whales, and this protein is expressed in the complex process of echolocation. (Nonecholocating bats and baleen whales do not have prestin in their DNA.)" (page 191) I don't understand the use of "includes" in these sentences, and this may reflect a highly technical use of the word which is never explained here. My college survey course level of understanding about DNA tells me that DNA is comprised of nucleotides held together by sugar- and phosphate chains. A quick look through Wikipedia didn't help, but only led me to discover that prestin is both a motor protein in mammalian inner ear hair cells as well as a scantily clad fitness model. It seems very uncharacteristic of Richard Ellis to either write inacurrate science or to write something overly technical to the lay reader without further explanation. My best guess is that an editor without proper knowledge of the way DNA works rewrote a passage, compressing what he saw as a boring discussion into incomprehensibility. I can easily believe that I do not understand a technical usage of "include" as it pertains to DNA structure, but I can't believe that Richard Ellis would not explain this usage clearly or would incorrectly identify a protein common to all mammals as exclusive to those that use echolocation.** The remainder of the book covers the massive slaughter of whale populations in the latter half of the twentieth century and the painful impotence of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This is a story that needs to be told, and Richard Ellis does it in a way that thoroughly conveys the sense of helplessness that scientists at the time of the events must have felt. It took me as long to read this section as it did the prior two-thirds of the book. It's grueling, but the reader shouldn't skip it. Much longer of a review than I prefer to write, but there it is. **Double checking on Wikipedia, I see that it seems that bats and dolphins have several amino acid replacements in the structure of their prestin, rather than being the sole mammals to synthesize this protein. Entering "prestin" in Google images does not give an image of the structure of this protein.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Glen

    I’m enriched to know about sperm whales and whaling: lots of new-to-me science and history here. There are editing errors and maybe it would be a more successful if the book had only 200 pages. I loved the personal and spirited story telling.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Leelan

    Wish it was more up to date. But this book is years old. The last part of the book is the story of Ellis' journey to become a wildlife artist. Interesting information and insights. Wish it was more up to date. But this book is years old. The last part of the book is the story of Ellis' journey to become a wildlife artist. Interesting information and insights.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Gabhart

    Each chapter could have been cut in half without doing damage to the main points of the text.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Brandi Snell

    This book reviews both fiction and scientific papers regarding sperm whales and other cetaceans. It seemed to repeat itself, I did not finish reading the book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Zoë

    For someone who is really interested in whales, marine biology, or the subject of whaling, this book is an excellent choice for you to read. If those subjects aren't really something you care about, then I'd suggest you pass this one by. Richard Ellis goes into intense depth and detail on the subject of sperm whales, their history in whaling, and how little we actually know about them. It was actually quite an inspiring book, and also extremely frustrating. I myself grew quite unsettled and ange For someone who is really interested in whales, marine biology, or the subject of whaling, this book is an excellent choice for you to read. If those subjects aren't really something you care about, then I'd suggest you pass this one by. Richard Ellis goes into intense depth and detail on the subject of sperm whales, their history in whaling, and how little we actually know about them. It was actually quite an inspiring book, and also extremely frustrating. I myself grew quite unsettled and angered about how many whales humans actually continued to kill, after we definitely knew better and had an idea about the scale of destruction we had already caused to an amazing, irreplaceable order of creatures. Most of what we know about whales came from the time when we killed them in mass numbers, which is shocking to think about. All in all, it was a really well rounded read, and Ellis manages to keep it interesting, even though the subject is about one specific animal. The reason I couldn't give this book a better rating is because it's in serious need of heavy editing. Ellis desperately needs to release a second edition – in many areas of the book, there are complete paragraphs practically copied and pasted from earlier in the story. The amount of repetition lead to a lot of skim-reading on my part, consequently making the read tedious at times. Additionally, I found the extreme focus on Moby Dick, as well as every one of its movie adaptions, to be somewhat tiresome. However, as I said before, if you're looking for a truly in-depth read about sperm whales, this is the first book I'd recommend.

  7. 4 out of 5

    J.M. Hushour

    People often refer to something as "a whale of a (something-or-other)" when discussing superlative matters. This is because whales are fucking awesome, and no whale is more fucking awesome than the sperm whale. What we have here, conveniently, is a "whale of a book", if I may, on this crazy-unknown animal. Seriously: we know jack-shit about this animal. Yes, yes, yes, try my patience with your stupid excuses for not reading Moby Dick and pretending that you have: "Oh, yeah, man, Moby Dick was a People often refer to something as "a whale of a (something-or-other)" when discussing superlative matters. This is because whales are fucking awesome, and no whale is more fucking awesome than the sperm whale. What we have here, conveniently, is a "whale of a book", if I may, on this crazy-unknown animal. Seriously: we know jack-shit about this animal. Yes, yes, yes, try my patience with your stupid excuses for not reading Moby Dick and pretending that you have: "Oh, yeah, man, Moby Dick was a sperm whale, right, man? But those parts on whales were really boring." Whatever. If you didn't read half of one of the greatest novels ever written because you think whales are boring, you're not gonna like this book. In fact, YOU'RE boring because sperm whales are super-cool. I like Ellis's books. My kids and I have checked out some of his shark books. He's a fine writer with a nice sense of humor and he keeps it on the low-down for the lay-non-cetacean. Here you can read the obligatory sections on Melville, whaling, and killing the hell out of whales, but the best bits are the ones discussing whale evolution (the rare mammal that went back to the sea; they were a sort of sleeker hyena who were way cooler than their contemporary shit-kicking peers) and the sperm whale itself...about which not much is known. But what we do know and Ellis's own speculation, drawing off of his own and others' knowledge, is interesting enough. Thar she blows!

  8. 5 out of 5

    J. Bryce

    I really enjoyed this. It only took so long because I read it at work, on breaks! This book was very rewarding, and should be of interest to anyone who has read Moby-Dick. The first, rather long, chapter is about Melville and Moby-Dick and how that most important novel has shaped the public persona of the sperm whale for 160 years. Artist Richard Ellis does a fantastic job with this first "natural history" of Physeter macrocephalus, along with many of his kin -- and a lot of his mealfish. Include I really enjoyed this. It only took so long because I read it at work, on breaks! This book was very rewarding, and should be of interest to anyone who has read Moby-Dick. The first, rather long, chapter is about Melville and Moby-Dick and how that most important novel has shaped the public persona of the sperm whale for 160 years. Artist Richard Ellis does a fantastic job with this first "natural history" of Physeter macrocephalus, along with many of his kin -- and a lot of his mealfish. Included are wonderful illustrations -- many by Ellis himself, considered one of the finest modern artists of oceanic wildlife, and many historical pics of whales in various stages of life, death, and whatever comes between the two. There's an entire history of the whaling industry, covering the Save the Whale efforts of conservationists -- you really get EVERYTHING about whales generally, and the Sperm Whale particularly. What's not to love?

  9. 5 out of 5

    G.L. Tysk

    The sperm whale is the most elusive of whales, and Richard Ellis brings us a wonderful book full of the facts that we currently know about them. Topics in the book include the evolutionary family tree of the sperm whale, lifecycle, feeding and mating habits, and a detailed history of their interaction with humans. Unfortunately, the book seems to have been written in one fell swoop with little editing; repetition abounds and whole sentences and even paragraphs seem to be copied and pasted from c The sperm whale is the most elusive of whales, and Richard Ellis brings us a wonderful book full of the facts that we currently know about them. Topics in the book include the evolutionary family tree of the sperm whale, lifecycle, feeding and mating habits, and a detailed history of their interaction with humans. Unfortunately, the book seems to have been written in one fell swoop with little editing; repetition abounds and whole sentences and even paragraphs seem to be copied and pasted from chapter to chapter. Nonetheless, it's a worthwhile read if you're interested in the sperm whale; just be prepared to do a little bit of skimming at times.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David Ward

    The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature by Richard Ellis (University Press of Kansas 2011)(599.547) is a fine book for one who seeks to increase his knowledge of what may be the wisest beings on our planet. It reads at times like a novel, yet it is densely packed with interesting and often arcane information. I highly recommend this one! My rating: 8/10, finished 11/15/11. The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature by Richard Ellis (University Press of Kansas 2011)(599.547) is a fine book for one who seeks to increase his knowledge of what may be the wisest beings on our planet. It reads at times like a novel, yet it is densely packed with interesting and often arcane information. I highly recommend this one! My rating: 8/10, finished 11/15/11.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    A truly interesting and engaging work. Ellis does a brilliant job helping all of us understand this complex and impressive mammal in terms beyond the strictly scientific. Ellis proves himself to be as good a storyteller as he is a scientist so this effort is just what anyone who is interested in sperm whales could ask. Informative!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Craig

    To be fair, I did not read this book completely; I did a "solid browsing." I was not compelled to a closer reading but I certainly do believe that there is an audience for this book who would really enjoy it. I do recommend this book for the right reader. If you are fascinated by whales in general and the sperm whale in particular, by all means, read this book. To be fair, I did not read this book completely; I did a "solid browsing." I was not compelled to a closer reading but I certainly do believe that there is an audience for this book who would really enjoy it. I do recommend this book for the right reader. If you are fascinated by whales in general and the sperm whale in particular, by all means, read this book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

    Richard Ellis sure does love Moby-Dick. If you've read his other books on whales, the chapter on Melville will be a bit repetitive. But overall I really enjoyed this, even if it sometimes gets frustrating that most of what we know about whales is still stuff we learned from killing them. Richard Ellis sure does love Moby-Dick. If you've read his other books on whales, the chapter on Melville will be a bit repetitive. But overall I really enjoyed this, even if it sometimes gets frustrating that most of what we know about whales is still stuff we learned from killing them.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Steve Donoghue

    A fantastic history and natural history of one of the greatest carnivores this side of Tyrannosaurus Rex! Here's my full review at Open Letters: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/boo... A fantastic history and natural history of one of the greatest carnivores this side of Tyrannosaurus Rex! Here's my full review at Open Letters: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/boo...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Foggygirl

    a good read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    Good for Moby Dick fans. Nice study of the biology and mysteries of Sperm Whales. Might be more info than most people WANT, though. Keeps your attention if you're into the subject. Good for Moby Dick fans. Nice study of the biology and mysteries of Sperm Whales. Might be more info than most people WANT, though. Keeps your attention if you're into the subject.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    Definitely needed an editor. Started well but took the deep dive into repetition.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Miki

    A very good book, but it told me a little more about sperm whales than I really wanted to know.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sian Hamer

    Brilliant and epic! Absolutely loved it. Chapters well thought out so easy to refer back to. I'm a big Richard Ellis fan now :) Brilliant and epic! Absolutely loved it. Chapters well thought out so easy to refer back to. I'm a big Richard Ellis fan now :)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Scputval

    Stephen liked it a lot.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Geoff

    Really lame book on sperm whales. Mostly about himself.

  22. 5 out of 5

    PottWab Regional Library

    E

  23. 5 out of 5

    Natalie

  24. 4 out of 5

    David

  25. 5 out of 5

    Javier Delgado Esteban

  26. 5 out of 5

    Christina

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ava

  28. 5 out of 5

    Craig LeBlanc

  29. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

  30. 5 out of 5

    Oren

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