Author Interview: Mark Carwardine, Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises

 

Mark Carwardine, on location in Nunavut.

Mark Carwardine is a zoologist, TV and radio presenter, wildlife photographer and bestselling author. He’s written over 50 books about wildlife, travel and conservation including bestsellers like Last Chance to See and Mark Carwardine’s Guide to Whale Watching in Britain and Europe. In his latest book, an outstanding field guide, Mark  Carwardine details the identifying traits and distribution of all 90 species and subspecies of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises.

 

Mark Carwardine, signing his new book

Mark Carwardine has taken the time to sign a limited number of first edition copies of the Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises and answer our questions about the book, his life studying whales and humanity’s role in their survival.

 

 

  1. In your recent books, you’ve given us an insight into the world of whale watching. What motivated you to study cetaceans?

I’d just finished studying zoology at university (I couldn’t have done anything else – all I’d ever wanted to do since I can remember was to work with animals) and I had my first whale encounter. I was 21 years old, on a half-day trip from Long Beach, California, when a grey whale suddenly breached right in front of me. In my mind’s eye, I can see it leaping out of the water and remember deciding – at that very moment – that I wanted to spend as much of my life with whales as possible. Now I am a self-confessed whale addict and need to see a whale at regular intervals just to survive normal daily life.

Also, I think it is an incredibly exciting time to be a cetologist. These enigmatic marine mammals are incredibly difficult to study – they often live in remote areas far out to sea and spend most of their lives out of sight underwater – yet we now have access to space-age technology that, at last, is revealing some of their best-kept secrets

 

  1. You must have many stories about whales, dolphins and porpoises. What is your most memorable encounter with cetaceans?

I think it would have to be with the friendly grey whales in San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, on the west coast of Mexico. These 14-15-metre whales literally nudge the sides of our small whale-watching boats and lie there waiting to be tickled, scratched and splashed. Incidentally, if you’re wondering if it’s a good policy to encourage people to touch wild whales, consider this: if you don’t scratch and tickle them, the whales simply go and find a boat-load of people who will. Even the local scientists approve.

Yet it’s hard to believe that these very same grey whales once had a reputation for being ferocious and dangerous; when they were being hunted they fought back – chasing the whaling boats, lifting them out of the water like big rubber ducks, ramming them with their heads and dashing them to pieces with their tails. Nowadays, they positively welcome tourists into their breeding lagoon. Somehow, they seem to understand that we come in peace and, far from smashing our small boats to smithereens, they are very gentle and welcome us with open flippers. They seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty – and trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a humbling experience, to say the least. I’m very lucky – I have been to San Ignacio more than 70 times over the years – but it still blows me away. It’s got to be one of the greatest wildlife encounters on Earth.

 

  1. Whales and other cetaceans are beloved worldwide, what is it about these charismatic creatures that humans connect with so strongly?

No one ever says, ‘I can’t remember if I’ve seen a whale’. A close encounter with one of the most enigmatic, gargantuan and downright remarkable creatures on the planet is a life-changing experience for most people. At the risk of sounding irrational and unscientific, a close encounter with a whale simply makes you feel good. Actually, it’s more than that. Just a brief flirtation with a whale is often all it takes to turn normal, quiet, unflappable people into delirious, jabbering extroverts. On the best whale watching trips, almost everyone becomes the life and soul of the party. Grown men and women dance around the deck, break into song, burst into tears, slap one another on the back and do all the things that normal, quiet, unflappable people are not supposed to do. I have seen it so many times.

It’s not really surprising: whales and dolphins are shrouded in mystery, yet the little we do know about them is both astonishing and awe-inspiring. They include the largest animal on Earth (the blue whale – the length of a Boeing 737) and some of the oldest animals on Earth (one bowhead whale was 211 years old when it was killed by aboriginal whalers – who knows how much longer it might have lived?) as well as the deepest diving mammal, the mammal with the longest known migration, the loudest singer, the largest carnivorous animal, and many other astonishing record-breakers.

Southern Right Whale, Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
  1. What advice would you give to the naturalist interested in cetaceans and wanting to learn more?

Read my new Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (I couldn’t say anything else, could I?)! It includes everything you could possibly want to know about all 90 species.

 

  1. What was the most challenging thing for you when creating this guide?

Well, it dominated my life for six years. I used to lie awake at night, worrying about whether to describe something as ‘blue-grey’ or ‘grey-blue’. I decided to go back to original sources for everything, which meant reading 11,000-12,000 scientific papers, poring over decades of my own field notes, and studying untold numbers of photographs and video clips. I also corresponded with species experts all over the world; they were all incredibly generous with their information and advice, often giving me new data before it has been published in the scientific press. I worked with three outstanding artists, too – Martin Camm (who did most of the illustrations), Toni Llobet and Rebecca Robinson – who, between them, produced more than 1,000 original and meticulous artworks. And as for the distribution maps… some of those took several days each. But, I have to say, it’s incredibly satisfying to see it all come together in this one book.

 

  1. What are your concerns or hopes for the future of cetaceans?

Sad to say, human impact has now reached every square kilometre of the Earth’s oceans. In particular, commercial whaling and other forms of hunting, entanglement in fishing nets and myriad other conflicts with fisheries, overfishing, pollution, habitat degradation and disturbance, underwater noise, ingestion of marine debris, ship strikes and climate change are some of the main threats being faced by whales, dolphins and porpoises around the world. We’ve already lost the Yangtze river dolphin, from China. The next to go is likely to be the vaquita, a tiny porpoise from the extreme northern end of the Gulf of California in western Mexico; there are probably just 10 survivors clinging on against all the odds. But the good news is that, with proper protection, we can make a difference. Whaling pushed the humpback whale to a population low of fewer than 10,000, but now there are at least 140,000 and counting.

 

  1. You say this will be your last book: now this guide is complete, are there any other projects in the pipeline?

Ah, yes, I did promise my family and friends that this would be my last book (by way of an excuse for never having any free time)! It feels like the culmination of a life’s work with whales and dolphins – and it will be my sixtieth book, which seems like a nice round number to finish on. But the trouble is that I love writing and have lots more ideas! In fact, I am working on a photographic book about the polar regions with the landscape photographer Joe Cornish (he is providing the landscape pictures, me the wildlife ones) – so I’ve already broken the promise. Apart from that, I’ve been setting up some new whale watching trips and am planning to do more radio programmes (I’ve missed doing radio), among many other things; and, of course, there is an awful lot to do on the conservation front that will keep me busy for a long time yet.

 

Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
Hardback,  Nov 2019,  £29.99 £34.99

This outstanding new handbook to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises is a comprehensive and authoritative guide to these fascinating mammals.
With almost 1,000 detailed, annotated illustrations, this new handbook describes all 90 species and subspecies.

Signed copies available, while stocks last.

Browse our full range of cetacean books.

Bats of Britain and Europe: interview with authors Christian Dietz and Andreas Kiefer

Christian Dietz and Andreas Kiefer, authors of Bats of Britain and Europe
Christian Dietz and Andreas Kiefer, authors of Bats of Britain and Europe, in caves with bats…

Bats of Britain and Europe is a new field guide highlighting the remarkable diversity of bat species regularly occurring in Europe. 45 species are described in detail, the pages are full of hundreds of colour photos of bats, and illustrative diagrams and tables, and there is substantial information on bat biology and ecology, tracking and detecting, and identification.

Bats of Britain and Europe

As authors Christian Dietz (long-established teacher, author and bat expert) and Andreas Kiefer (Research Associate at the University of Trier, Germany) say in the Foreword, this book represents the achievement of their “dream of continuing the field guide that introduced us both to bats” – Schober & Grimmberger 1987 /1998.

What is your background in studying and working with bats, and what makes them special for you?

Christian: I am working as a consultant in impact assessment studies mainly focused on bats and as a scientist in bat research. Bats are so special for me since they have evolved so many special adaptations to their nightly way of life and developed such a high biodiversity.

Andreas: I am a researcher in bat ecology and conservation. The diversity of bats is so big and in most species we are just barely scratching the surface on understanding them. And we need to know which species live where and why, otherwise conservation cannot be successful.

Bats of Britain and Europe

What was your first experience of seeing a bat in the wild?

Andreas: I started very late. When I was 20 I helped counting hibernating bats in slate mines, only half a year later I had my first own project. I searched for summer roosts of greater horseshoe bats in my home region but I found only grey long-eared bats. Up to now long-eareds are my favourite study objects.

Christian: As a child I found a brown long-eared bat injured by the neighbour’s cat and tried to care for it. Later I became fascinated with searching their roosts and practical conservation of hibernacula.

What areas of bat research are you currently focusing on?

Christian: As a consultant I am very interested in mitigation and monitoring of populations, and scientifically I am mostly engaged in studying the biodiversity and cryptic species in the Middle East and the Caucasus. Knowledge about the taxonomy and distribution of species is the important base for future conservation work.

Andreas: At the moment I am a researcher at Trier University. In my small bat group we currently work on the impact on wind energy on bat populations, the ecology and conservation of the Sardinian long-eared bat, and new methods for monitoring bat populations.

How are the British and European bat populations doing at the moment?

Andreas: Most of our bats species do fine, but we have signals that the grey long-eared bat is declining not only in Germany. The situation of Mehely’s horseshoe bat is more dramatic when you see it in a European context. Another species, the Sardinian long-eared bat which is endemic for Sardinia has fewer than 400 specimens left. Maybe this species will go extinct in the next years. Other species expand their range and come more to the North.

Christian: Some species like the pipistrelle bat do fine and are common and widespread, and even some rare bats like the lesser horseshoe bat seem to recover from former population crashes and slowly recolonise parts of their lost distribution. On the other hand some species still decline and may even face local extinction of populations. Examples are the grey long-eared bat and Mehely’s horseshoe bat, both specialists for preying on large moths in mosaic-like open habitats with grasslands, orchards and hedges. While the grey long-eared bat is still widely distributed, and the observed negative population trends and local extinctions still do not threaten the species as a whole, the situation with Mehely’s horseshoe bat is much more dramatic. It has already lost big parts of its European distribution and become extinct in some countries, while remaining populations are scattered and isolated. I am much afraid the species will become extinct since I have seen it disappearing in parts of Bulgaria already where I used to study it a decade ago.

If you could implement any policy change that you think would be of benefit to bats, what would it be?

Christian: Since the establishment of the European Natura 2000 network, bats get considerable protection and are taken into consideration in impact assessment and mitigation. However the implementation of these laws differs extremely between countries, and especially in the eastern parts of Europe nature protection is still difficult. There, changes in agriculture and massive habitat loss threaten some of the largest bat populations in Europe – on the other hand very expensive and sometimes ineffective compensation measures are done in western European countries. I think it would help a lot to concentrate some money from compensation to protect wonderful habitats and bats in Eastern Europe.

Andreas: Of course we need more money and projects for bat conservation, especially in Eastern Europe. And we need more sensitivity for useless compensations in Western Europe. But mainly we need a change in European agriculture politics. A better support for EU-subsidies for organic farming, less pesticides and a stop of land consumption would be helpful for bats and nature conservation overall.

The new book is a field guide to the 45 species of bat of Britain and Europe – who is the book aimed at, and what unique information will it provide for the reader?

Bats of Britain and Europe

Andreas: We hope that it is useful for professionals and beginners. For the first time, we give an overview to all European species and we show a key for the species identification of bat hairs from droppings.

Christian: We tried to give an up-to-date overview to the fascinating biodiversity of European bats and to give many ideas for practical conservation work.

You include newly described species – what can you tell us about these?

Christian: Bat taxonomy has seen big changes in the last decades, the biodiversity of European species has been much underestimated. We studied all newly discovered species in Europe from the Iberian Peninsula to Anatolia and on islands like Sardinia and Crete.

Andreas: Many new bat species had been identified in the past two decades, mainly with the help of DNA-sequencing. We tried to cover Europe and neighbouring areas and all European islands in the Mediterranean Sea.

If somebody is curious about studying bats, what advice would you give them to get started – apart from buying a copy of your book!?

Andreas: Join your local bat group! These people know what they do and they are happy when new bat friends will help them. Nothing is better than learning from experts and Britain has a lot of them.

Christian: Great Britain is famous for its many NGOs and local bat groups – so the best is to make contact to people being already engaged in bat research and conservation – they will help you.

Bats of Britain and Europe

Buy a copy of Bats of Britain and Europe

 

Birds of Borneo – Now in Stock at NHBS!

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A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo is the first comprehensive and accurate guide to the varied avifauna of this island biodiversity hot-spot, which comprises Brunei, the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Indonesian states of Kalimantan. More than 630 bird species have been recorded in Borneo and, using the most up-to-date taxonomy and nomenclature, the guide includes all recently split species and also gives full coverage to the distinctive Bornean races where they differ from their counterparts on neighbouring islands or in mainland South-East Asia.

This long-awaited book has just arrived at NHBS and is now in stock – get your copy today!

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Birds of the Horn of Africa – Now in Stock at NHBS

The eagerly awaited Helm Field Guide for Birds of the Horn of Africa has now arrived at NHBS!

The Horn of Africa has the highest endemism of any region in Africa, and around 70 species are found nowhere else in the world. Many of these are confined to the isolated highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea, but a large number of larks specialise in the arid parts of Somalia and adjoining eastern Ethiopia, whilst the island of Socotra has its own suite of endemic species. The region is also an important migration route and wintering site for many Palearctic birds.

This is the first field guide to the birds of this fascinating region, and an ideal companion to Birds of East Africa by two of the same authors. Over 200 magnificent plates by John Gale and Brian Small illustrate every species that has ever occurred in the five countries covered by the guide, and the succinct text covers the key identification criteria. Special attention is paid to the voices of the species, and over 1000 up-to-date colour distribution maps are included.

Covering Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Socotra, this long-awaited guide is a much-needed addition to the literature on African birds and an essential companion for birders visiting the region.

Order your copy of Birds of the Horn of Africa today!

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