Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Whales and Dolphins

Conservation of many whale species stands as a success of the environmental movement. Many of these whales are still endangered, but without active efforts a generation ago to stop the whaling – they would be gone by now.

We’re drawn to these creatures for many reasons: their size and majesty; their nurture and care for their young; the dramatic seasonal migrations and their mysterious navigational skills; the haunting songs and their ability to communicate over vast oceanic distances. There is much we do not know about ocean mammals, but the books recommended below offer a marvelous introduction to these interesting creatures.

Recommended Books and DVDs on Whales and Dolphins

Between SpeciesBetween Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond
Toni Frohoff and Brenda Peterson

This interesting collection brings together essays by writers, scientists, poets and even musicians, all of whom claim some ambassadorship to the cetacean world. Fascinating and thought-provoking. 2003, Sierra Club Books


The Blue WhaleThe Blue Whale
George L. Small

The Blue Whale recounts the sad history of the exploitation of the blue whale, and includes a long chapter on biology. Blue whales were hunted extensively in the 1930’s, and numbers declined steeply. The killing continued even after international agreements attempted to provide annual limits to allow the whales to recover. Small described case after case of illegal whaling, including the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, whose pirate whaling fleet wantonly killed thousands of critically endangered whales. In closing this moving volume, Small wrote: “Isn’t there a single positive factor that can counter-balance to some small degree those now tipping the scales so heavily against the blue whale in its struggle for survival? Yes, there is one: the will to live.”
National Book Award 1972
1971, Columbia University Press

The Charged BorderThe Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet
Jim Nollman

For 25 years Nollman has communicated through music with whales, dolphins and porpoises. In The Charged Border he explores our interest with these creatures as they play out along this place where human "desires and notions" interact with actual cetaceans. Nollman clearly relishes the nonscientific nature of his work in interspecies communication, which he describes as "more an affair of the heart, the ear, and the gut, than of the mind and the spread sheet." His lyrical, imaginative descriptions of his encounters with cetaceans offer a fresh perspective on these extraordinary seagoing mammals. 1999, Henry Holt

Dolphin DaysDolphin Days: The Life and Times of the Spinner Dolphin
Kenneth S. Norris

Dolphin Days is a comprehensive scientific study of the behavior of Hawaiian spinner dolphins both in the wild and captivity--and of the dangers posed to dolphins by the tuna-fishing industry. Through long-term observations of dolphin behavior Norris and his associates unlocked many of the secrets of dolphin life, including why they swim in organized schools and use sonarlike echolocation (to protect themselves from predators), and why they make clicking sounds (to stay in close communication and to capture prey).
John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing 1992
1993, Avon Books

Dolphin societiesDolphin Societies: Discoveries and Puzzles
Karen Pryor, Kenneth S. Norris

This edited collection of articles covers field and aquarium studies on whale and dolphin communication. The chapters cover a variety of topics such as the behavior of dolphins inside tuna nets, analyses of feeding and hunting strategies and many other facets of cetacean behavior. 1998, University of California Press

Eye of the Whale
Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books

Eye of the Whale: Epic Passage from Baja to Siberia
Dick Russell

Thrilling whale watchers, stumping scientists and reminding environmentalists of the fragility of our ecological balance, the mysterious, massive gray whale takes an epic and emotional place in our hearts and minds. Here environmental journalist Russell makes a passionate argument for the protection of California gray whales.  Russell follows their yearly 5000-mile swim from the warm lagoons in Baja where they give birth up the Pacific coast of North America to the shallow and comparably chilly feeding grounds of Chirikof Basin in the Bering Sea. Along the way, he tells the harrowing tale of the gray's near extinction due to commercial whaling and the many real threats to the species from predators and human commercial development, while also detailing the work of marine biologists and environmentalists. 2004, Island Press

The Grandest of Lives
Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books

The Grandest of Lives: eye to Eye with Whales
Douglas H. Chadwick

In this compelling book wildlife biologist Chadwick records what he has learned and observed of five whale species, including the humpback, described by Melville as "the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales"; the bottlenose, an exceptionally intelligent whale that can dive to great depths; and the orca, misnamed the "killer" whale, a very social whale that does not attack humans. Whales have such a complex assortment of lifestyles, cultures and social relationships, it's hard to avoid anthropomorphizing them, especially since they seem to be as curious about humans as humans are about them. Chadwick makes a powerful case for increased efforts to preserve the whales’ underwater environment. 2008, Sierra Club/Counterpoint

Journey of the Pink DolphinsJourney of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest
Sy Montgomery

In a deeply felt, magical voyage to the tropics, Boston Globe nature columnist Montgomery pursues the pink dolphin, a rare fresh water species, in the Amazon river. This elusive creature, with chameleon-like color changes and pink back or fins, has inspired much local lore. Combining a journalist's cool objectivity with a dolphin lover's almost mystical ecological consciousness, Montgomery luxuriates in the myths and legends as she ably reports the scientific facts. An exciting blend of travel, adventure, and natural history. 2009, Chelsea Green Publishing

Listening to WhalesListening to Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us
Alexandra Morton

Morton writes eloquently of the orcas' social groupings, strong mother-child bonds, migration patterns, and interactions with humans. Her book graphically describes the effects of fish farming, logging, development, and whale-watching expeditions on the environment. 2005, Ballantine Books

The Man Who Talks to WhalesThe Man Who Talks to Whales: The Art of Interspecies Communication
Jim Nollman

The Man Who Talks to Whales is a dramatic true account of close encounters with the wild animals of our planet and the surprising events that unfold when one man "talks" to the animals and stops to listen to their response. This book is unique in its compelling tales of species-to-species interaction taking place in the animals' natural environment. The Man Who Talks to Whales challenges us to reconsider the way we think about and relate to the animals who share our world. Nollman's writing conveys his joy and sense of brotherhood in these encounters. 2002, Sentient Publications

The Moon by Whale LightThe Moon by Whale Light: And Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians, and Whales
Diane Ackerman

The Moon by Whale Light is a unique blend of poetic essay and scientific description. Ackerman writes with the precision of a scientist and the soul of a romantic, luring readers with provocative word pictures while educating them on the importance and necessity of these animals in the global scheme of nature. She maintains a near-perfect balance of animal lore, objective study, and conservation, and includes some downright hair-raising adventures such as riding an alligator bareback and swimming face-to-face with a right whale. Underscoring man's responsibility to protect these creatures, this is nonfiction storytelling at its best. 1992, Vintage

Ocean Odyssey DVDOcean Odyssey (DVD)

This enthralling exploration shows the undersea world through the eyes of the world's largest predator, the sperm whale. Following a young male from infancy to old age, the marinescape comes vividly to life: the deep canyons, the underwater volcanoes, and the spectacular mountain ranges. The inhabitants of the opaque depths are impressive - black dragonfish that cast an eerie red glow, jellyfish shaped like giant footballs - but the whale is only interested in one creature, the colossal squid. When the two meet, it is the ocean's ultimate battle. 2006, BBC Warner

The Presence of WhalesThe Presence of Whales: Contemporary Writings on the Whale
Frank Stewart, editor

Frank Stewart, an observer, writer, storyteller, and lover of whales gathers the most compelling contemporary essays on cetaceans in The Presence of Whales.  The essays are organized in five sections that celebrate our ongoing fascination with these fragile giants. Sharing the World of Giants contains essays inspired by being in the presence of whales, Songs from the Deep concentrates on whale vocalizations, Sightings of the Leviathan are compelling accounts of personal observations of whale behavior, Death at Sea and On Shore touch on the mystery of whale groundings and other violent encounters, and A Splendid but Uncertain Company explores the privilege humans sense when near whales and the impact human contact has had on these glorious but gentle beasts. 1995, Alaska Northwest Books

Private Lives of DolphinsPrivate Lives of Dolphins (DVD)

This engaging documentary film focuses on bottlenose dolphins, and explores their intelligence, social structure, communication, mating -- even politics. They demonstrate fascinating synchronous behavior as well as cooperation with other dolphin communities. 2006, WGBH Boston

SightingsSightings: The Gray Whales' Mysterious Journey
Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan

For 50 million years, the gray whale has evolved along human shores, linking its history with human existence. Ancient and colossal, the gray whale weighs 45 tons and swims 10,000 miles along the West Coast each year from its Alaskan summer feeding grounds to winter birthing lagoons in Baja, Mexico. Proximity and beauty have made the gray whale a mysterious creature in the eyes of humans, sparking scientific wonder as well as many cultural and mythical interpretations. In Sightings, Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson have crafted a narrative that extends far beyond the two worlds of whales and people, capturing the realms in which the gray whale has become a legend, while portraying the wonder--and fragility--of the whale and its environment. 2003, National Geographic

Swimming with GiantsSwimming with Giants: My encounters with Whales, Dolphins, and Seals
Anne Collet and Marc Sich

Founder and director of the Marine Mammal Research Institute in La Rochelle, France, Collet is a leading expert on cetaceans (the order of mammals that includes baleen and tooth whales, dolphins and several other creatures) and a passionate foe of the pollution and overfishing that is threatening the health of the world's oceans. In Swimming With Giants, she describes the thrill and the occasional frustration of searching for whales; the awe of encountering them; the sometimes comic, sometimes terrifying snafus that can arise on ocean expeditions. She also describes her love for the rich marine ecosystem that is increasingly imperiled by human activities she insists can and must be changed. 2000, Milkweed Editions

Whales in Crisis (DVD)Whales in Crisis (DVD)

Few creatures are as mysterious and captivating as the whale. This film takes the viewer to the front lines of whale conservation to observe the struggle to save a pod of pilot whales in the Florida Keys; the groundbreaking work of a scientist risking life and limb in the Arctic; and the controversy over military sonar. An intimate look at four types of whales: pilots, humpbacks, bowheads and orcas. 2006, National Geographic

The Whale WarriorsThe Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals
Peter Heller

Adventure writer Heller joined Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship Farley Mowat during their 2005 campaign against the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica, and the result is this intimate and hair-raising eco-adventure. After weeks of heavy seas, fog, iceberg dodging, and cat-and-mouse with the whalers, the Farley finally encounters the Japanese fleet on Christmas day in a Force 8 gale. The reader rides the rush of adreneline and feels the dedication and passion of the Sea Shepherds as they fight to save the whales. 2007, Free Press

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