Friday, August 8, 2008

Whales, Dolphins and Seals: A Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World.

I can say without hesitation that this is most comprehensive field guide to marine mammals on the market! A bold claim I know, but I really think it's true. When the National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World was first released, I thought the bar for superlative marine mammal field guides was well and truly set and then along came this slimmer but denser guide from Hadoram Shirihai (better known for his writings on birds) and wildlife artist Brett Jarrett, pushing the bar one notch further and in effect says, 'bring it on'.

The book covers all of the whales, dolphins and porpoises of the world as well as the sirenians (sea cows/manatees), fur seals, sea lions, true seals and walrus. The honorary marine mammals, the Polar Bear and two otters are thrown in for completeness. One hundred and twenty-nine species in all, not counting the well delineated subspecies. The taxonomic treatments a very up-to-date, and I think most people without access the specialist literature will use this as the gold standard. Australian Snubfin Dolphin Orcaella heinsohni gets full species status from Irrawaddy Dolphin Orcella brevirostris, as it deserves. The confusing 'unnamed beaked whales' of other guides get names. Perrin's Beaked Whale Mesoplodon perrini is known only from handful of strandings, the first as recent as 1975, and one or two possible live sightings (there is confusion with Hector's Beaked Whale) and the name honors cetacean expert Bill Perrin of the US National Marine Fisheries Service. Wisely, the Spade-toothed Whale Mesoplodon traversii of the south Pacific and known only from two skulls and a jawbone, is not even illustrated.

The text is dense and in somewhat telegraphic style, summarizes the essential information on appearance, range, basic ecology and identification (separation from similar species, variation and so on). The paints are superb as are the numerous color photos. The vast majority show animals as the might be seen in the wild by surface observers. Depressing images of whalers' catches or beached animals are avoided. As a consequence, there are no photographs of the very secretive Gulf of California Porpoise (Vaquita) Phocoena sinus that sadly is slipping ever closer to the brink of extinction. These tiny porpoises live in murky water around the mouth of the Colorado River at the northern end of the Sea of Cortez and barely shows anything of themselves above the surface of the water. The only photos I've ever seen have been animals caught in fishing nets. With few exceptions, the photographs are of very high quality individually credited at the back of the book. Recently extinct species West Indian Monk Seal Monachus tropicalis and Steller's Sea Cow Hydrodamalis gigas are described and depicted, and one can only hope that their inclusion in the field guide might somehow lead to the rediscovery.

Overall, this is a very well produced book that showcases the marine mammals to great effect. It incorporates many of the devices developed by generations of bird field guides such as pointers, annotated plates, vignettes that summarize relative size and carefully captioned photographs. The information is very up-to-date and laid out in an accessible form. Those wanting to know more about the natural history of these animals can easily look elsewhere. The focus here is in how to accurate identify species under field conditions.

Title: Whales, Dolphins and Seals: A Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World
Author: Hadoram Shirihai
Illustrator: Brett Jarrett
Publication Date: 2006
Publisher: A&C Black (UK), Princeton Field Guides (US)
ISBN-10: 0713670371 (UK) or 0691127573 (US)
ISBN-13: 978-0713670370 (UK) or 978-0691127576 (US)
Softcover, 384 pages, 75 colour plates, 22 comparison plates, 470 photos, 100 maps.
Retail Price: £12.99 (UK), $24.95 (US)

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