Humpback Whale Research Foundation -
Book Reviews
Ruth has written a number of book reviews...
To Touch a Wild Dolphin
Rachel Smolker (2001) Souvenir Press
Rachel Smolker manages to combine the delicate craft of story telling with the clarity of scientific reporting in this intriguing account of her work with the wild dolphins of Monkey Mia, a remote beach on the western coast of Australia, where wild dolphins interact with humans.
Her fascinating adventure proved to be both inspiring and challenging, her persistence and belief in the value of her research rewarded with new insights into the world of these much loved animals.
Her pioneering work over fifteen years reveals complexities in dolphin society previously unimagined, discoveries that could never have been made in studies of captive animals. Rachel and her team gradually unravelled subtle alliances, bonds and multiple levels of co-operation. Conflicts and rivalries between the dolphins were far removed from the popular anthropomorphic misconception of these animals as smiling gentle creatures, with male groups aggressively herding females, forcing them to stay and mate.
Rachel’s observations of the Monkey Mia dolphins also proved to be important in understanding social vocalizations and the signature whistles of both individuals and groups. She found their lives to be dominated by social interactions as our human lives are.
To Touch a Wild Dolphin is a journey of discovery into the private lives of dolphins, but more than that, it says much about human nature and our quest to unravel the mysteries of the natural world. Provocative ingredients, which make for compelling reading.
Reviewed for the Journal of Natural History by Ruth Searle
Guide to the Offshore Wildlife of the Northern Atlantic
Michael H. Tove (2000) University of Texas Press
This beautifully illustrated guide gives comprehensive coverage of the air breathing pelagic wildlife of the North Atlantic. Much more than a field guide, it provides useful background material for the serious marine wildlife enthusiast, with a concise overview of ocean habitats and ecology, including latitudinal ecological zones, ocean depth and distance from the shore, ocean currents, seasonal changes and weather. There is an easily referenced information section on the distribution and abundance of various species in the form of range abundance charts for 18 locations, based on typical boat trips, a useful planning aid for watching marine wildlife. Tove discusses the comfort considerations of offshore trips such as adequate clothing and avoiding seasickness as well as coping with the vagaries of the weather. Unusually, the diversity of pelagic air breathing animals are covered by a single guide book, and as Tove states in his preface,  ‘there is a commonality among all these marine creatures that is shared with its venturesome observers: they are all at sea together.’ I find this viewpoint refreshing when, traditionally, field guides have focused on particular groups of species. Whale-watchers for instance can be equally enthralled by the sighting of a bird or seal and will find identification easier with this guide, which is adequately detailed for the majority of offshore wildlife observers. Many marine animals are notoriously difficult to observe and identify at sea, not least because of constant motion and the generally brief appearances of marine inhabitants, which are frustratingly lacking in contrast against the sea surface. Tove has admirably eased the task with descriptions and illustrations of surfacing patterns and surfacing behaviour for cetaceans and illustrations of both dorsal and ventral views of many birds in flight as well as descriptions of flight behaviour. Animals are also grouped according to common features such as size, colouring or type of dorsal fin and are contrasted with species they are most likely to be confused with. An excellent field guide I will not only use on my own offshore trips, but would happily recommend to other marine wildlife enthusiasts.
Reviewed for the Journal of Natural History by Ruth Searle
Killer Whales
Sara Heimlich and James Boran (1994) Worldlife Library Series
A fascinating insight into the lives of killer whales. Richly illustrated with colour photographs, it explains concisely the dynamics of the complex social lives of killer whales and the striking differences in the two groups of this same species, resident and transient killer whales.
Heimlich and Boran give an easy to read overview of the evolution, taxonomy and natural history of these large dolphins, with a section devoted to the acoustic communication and echolocation so important to the social lives of these fascinating animals.
The book concludes with a thought provoking section on conservation and captivity, with some alarming insights into the issues surrounding the treatment of whales and dolphins by humankind.
Lastly, the book gives some 'at a glance' facts about killer whales as well as some useful pointers as to where killer whales can be seen.
Generally a succinct and very readable book.
Reviewed by Ruth Searle
Phil Clapham (1997) Worldlife Library Series
Phil Clapham manages to keep the readers attention all the way through this stunningly illustrated book on the whales of the world. A mine of information on the natural history of the most common whales it is a satisfying read for both novices and experts alike.
The book takes the reader succinctly through the origins of whales and their evolution over 50 million years to the superbly adapted marine mammals we see today. General aspects of whale life are covered in chapters on form and function, migrations and social dynamics with just about the right amount of information. The book is written as an introduction and an overview rather than a field guide.
There are sections on twelve whale species (including the killer whale, really a large dolphin) which cover general characteristics, distribution and movements, life history, diet, social organization and behaviour as well as  catch history and conservation status. Each section is illustrated with awe inspiring photographs of the whales and the information given is comprehensive yet easy to read.
Finally, a section on whales and humans which covers poigniantly the bloody history of whaling and conservation issues. There is also an interesting chapter on whale research. Altogether a wonderful book of whale facts to dip into regularly.
Reviewed by Ruth Searle
The Shark Watchers Handbook
Mark Carwardine and Ken Watterson (2002) BBC Worldwide
This beautifully illustrated book is a ground-breaking guide on shark watching and an inspiration for shark lovers who despair of horror stories which perpetuate the myths about these amazing animals. If you love sharks, you’ll love this book.
Thoroughly researched, the authors spent three years painstakingly checking every scrap of information from thousands of dive operators and experts around the world, resulting in a guide you can really trust for its accuracy.
The book begins with a chapter on shark diving and the issues surrounding its acceptability as ecotourism along with the controversy over chumming and baiting practices. The risks of diving with sharks are reassuringly put into perspective in chapter two before the book goes on to sections on shark photography, natural history and shark conservation, each one crammed with facts about sharks and useful practical information to enable the reader to get the most out of any shark watching experience. The chapter on shark conservation sensitively explores issues such as shark finning and commercial fishing with useful contacts for those inspired to support the shark conservation effort.
The shark directory section details 24 shark species on any divers ‘must-see’ list with succinct information on each species. Clear illustrations and a useful checklist aid identification and there are sections on the potential danger to divers, the distribution of the species as well as details of all the good places to encounter them.
The directory of shark watching sites follows on from the species directory and gives comprehensive maps and detailed information on aspects such as location, species encountered, viewing opportunities, whether bait or cages are used and other wildlife which might be encountered, along with contact details for an impressive 250 shark hot spots around the world.
A truly indispensable guide for shark watchers everywhere, don’t leave home without it.
Reviewed by Ruth Searle.
Whales Dolphins and Porpoises
Weldon Owen Pty Ltd (1997) Readers Digest
This lovely book, lavishly illustrated, is a comprehensive introduction to cetaceans for the general reader. It covers a wide range of topics succinctly and is an excellent overview. The information is sectioned, illustrated and presented in a way that maintains interest throughout the book.
The book begins with a section on evolution, taxonomy, adaptations, habitat and distribution. It then deals with the baleen whales and toothed whales separately, covering aspects such as anatomy and feeding before going on to a section on individual species identification.
A section on biology and ecology then covers general whale and dolphin senses, breathing and diving, reproduction cycles, population dynamics, migration and parasites and diseases. Whale behaviour is covered in another section on social organisation, courting and mating, communication, echolocation, intelligence and stranding.
A final section on whales and people includes chapters on myth and legend, whaling, captivity, whale and dolphin research, conservation and whale watching.
This is an excellent book for all the basics about whales and dolphins, it should appeal to all ages and make a great family book. The layout and superb photographs and illustrations ensure you will dip into it frequently.
Reviewed by Ruth Searle
Cetacean SocietiesField Studies of Dolphins and Whales
Janet Mann et al (2000) University of Chicago Press
An academic book aimed at students and researchers in cetology, behavioural and conservation ecology as well as readers with a serious interest in cetaceans. Cetacean Societies reviews the research on the social lives of whales and dolphins and aims to bring the study of cetaceans firmly into mainstream behavioural ecology and provide incentives for further research, accelerating the transition from taxon-focused to question-focused science, a transition which behavioural primatology underwent some twenty to thirty years ago, beginning in 1965 with Primate Behaviour: Field Studies on Monkeys and Apes (DeVore 1965).
The book is sectioned into three parts; (1) The history and methods, long term studies, observational methods and innovative techniques of study into cetacean societies; (2) A profile of four species, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, sperm whales and humpback whales; (3) Comparative studies, theory and conservation, covering aspects such as group living, reproductive strategies, communication, conservation, protection and management.
Illustrated throughout with photographs, diagrams and appropriate representations of data from research studies, the book is written by some of the world’s leading cetacean scientists. It is a treasure trove of references and absolutely invaluable for anyone wishing to make sense of the social lives of whales and dolphins.
Reviewed by Ruth Searle
The Book of Dolphins
Mark Carwardine (1996) Dragon’s World Ltd
This beautifully written and photographed book, complemented by the wonderful illustrations of Martin Camm, should earn a place on everyone’s bookshelf. Nine chapters takes the reader on a fascinating sojourn into the lives of these remarkable animals, from their evolutionary beginnings, adaptations to their environment and their daily lives to dolphin research, human relationships with dolphins and the problems they face as a result.
With so much romanticism and mysticism surrounding dolphins, it is refreshing to read an objective account of dolphins as they really are; their daily struggles to survive, the complexities of their social lives, the truth about their conflicts and the aggressive side of their nature. If we truly love them, we must appreciate them for what they really are, and the more we learn about them, the more fascinating they become.
The Book of Dolphins is an authoritative portrait of dolphins and a unique insight into their lives, drawn from scientific research and the author’s considerable experience. An inspiration.
Reviewed by Ruth Searle
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