The best books about whales

11 authors have picked their favorite books about whales and why they recommend each book.

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By Rebecca Giggs,

Book cover of Fathoms: The World in the Whale

Fathoms is a remarkable narrative about the human relationship with whales, and how our understanding of that relationship lends insight to both the human condition, the state of the oceans, and of course, the survival of whales. While reading Fathoms you will learn a great deal about how you perceive nature, and how whales are a barometer for that insight. You will experience both the compassion and savagery of humanity, and you will ponder questions about the meaning of life. Fathoms is wide-ranging, and includes great insights about how technology changes our relationship to the natural world, and our understanding of human history. Most importantly, it helps you perceive the world differently, and develop empathy (as much as humanly possible) for what the whale experiences. It is also brilliantly written.

Who am I?

I’ve been engaged in the environmental field for fifty years as an educator, a professor, a university president, and as a concerned citizen. The field is dynamic, complex, inspiring, and often overwhelming. All of my writing and teaching emphasizes empowering readers and students alike to use the depth of their experience to gather insight, wisdom, and agency. I want readers to actively think about their relationship to the biosphere, the contributions they can make as environmental citizens, and the inspiration they can cultivate at home or in the workplace. 

I wrote...

To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning

By Mitchell Thomashow,

Book cover of To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning

What is my book about?

How can we respond to the current planetary ecological emergency? In To Know the World, I propose that we revitalize, revisit, and reinvigorate how we think about our residency on Earth. First, we must understand that the major challenges of our time—migration, race, inequity, climate justice, and democracy—connect to the biosphere. Traditional environmental education has accomplished much, but it has not been able to stem the inexorable decline of global ecosystems. I use the term environmental learning to signify that our relationship to the biosphere must be front and center in all aspects of our daily lives.

Mixing memoir, theory, mindfulness, pedagogy, and compelling storytelling, I discuss how to navigate the Anthropocene's rapid pace of change without further separating psyche from biosphere; why we should understand migration both ecologically and culturally; how to achieve constructive connectivity in both social and ecological networks; and why we should take a cosmopolitan bioregionalism perspective that unites local and global.

Souls in the Sea

By Scott Taylor,

Book cover of Souls in the Sea: Dolphins, Whales, and Human Destiny

The subhead of this wonderful book is Dolphins, Whales, and Human Destiny. It covers the extensive history of respect for dolphin wisdom from 30,000 years ago in Australia, through ancient Greece, to their seeming withdrawal from our awareness 1,000 years ago. Dolphins have reappeared now, when we need their wisdom most. Taylor writes of their being the other self-aware, intelligent life we have been searching the Universe for, and about “dolphin embassies,” where we can meet as equals, already begun at their behest.

Who am I?

Years of teaching Verbal First Aid™, hypnotic language for healing, only whet my curiosity for Non-Verbal First Aid. I love mysticism and magic, and I love science and evidence. When the two work together to illuminate profound understandings, I am such a fan. Just imagine this if you can: Dolphins’ visual and aural nerves connect so that when they send out sound beams of echolocation, it comes back as an ultra-sound-looking picture, which they can send to other dolphins! Magic and science are used by them for healing, as well. How could one NOT investigate further and be passionate about this subject?

I wrote...

What the Dolphin Said: On the Future of Humankind

By Judith Simon Prager,

Book cover of What the Dolphin Said: On the Future of Humankind

What is my book about?

Marine biologists wonder why dolphins are “altruistic,” saving us from sharks and drowning while expecting nothing in return. My time with dolphins convinced me it was because they know we’re all in this together. They understand what we must: that we all meet in consciousness. I’ve taught words for medical emergencies to set a course for recovery (our Verbal First Aid™ protocol) across the US and around the world, and wondered what NON-Verbal First Aid, or healing presence beyond words would be like. The dolphins’ mystical ways provided my answer.

Watching them helping children with disabilities, I told the true story of one dolphin and a woman therapist (me) on separate tracks, needing to find each other. Told alternately by the dolphin and the therapist, it is a novel with dramatic urgency for their two worlds to meet, so the dolphins’ life-affirming message may be received.

Men and Whales

By Richard Ellis,

Book cover of Men and Whales

This oversized book traces the long history of man’s tempestuous relationship with whales, and rather than focusing solely on American whaling, it covers whaling around the world. In addition to sections on Basque whaling going back more than a millennium, other parts of the book survey whaling in Australia, Japan, South Africa, Canada, Germany, Iceland, Norway, and the Caribbean, among many other locales. The book also discusses the anti-whaling movement in the twentieth century that ultimately led to the International Whaling Commission’s (not quite universal) moratorium on whaling, adopted in 1986. There are more than 300 images that beautifully complement the text and bring history to life.

Who am I?

I am the author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. This book was sparked by a painting I own of a whaling scene. Gazing at that painting, I often wondered what it was like to go whaling. Having Moby-Dick in school, I already knew a fair amount about whaling. But the painting continued to stir my curiosity, and soon I discovered that there were libraries devoted to whaling, providing almost unlimited material for a historical narrative. This book, then, is my attempt to weave that material into a maritime tapestry that attempts to do justice to America’s rich whaling heritage.

I wrote...

Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

By Eric Jay Dolin,

Book cover of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America

What is my book about?

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” Herman Melville proclaimed, and this absorbing history demonstrates that few things can capture the sheer danger and desperation of men on the deep sea as dramatically as whaling. I begin this vivid narrative with Captain John Smith's botched whaling expedition to the New World in 1614. Then I chronicle the rise of a burgeoning industry — from its brutal struggles during the Revolutionary period to its golden age in the mid-1800s when a fleet of more than 700 ships hunted the seas and American whale oil lit the world, to its decline as the twentieth century dawned.

Whole Whale

By Karen Yin, Nelleke Verhoeff (illustrator),

Book cover of Whole Whale

The Whole Whale is a counting book, a delightful, read-aloud rhyming book, and, at its core, it’s a book about making space for everyone, even when it might seem easier to say, “Sorry, there’s no room for you.” The other 99 animals in the book don’t hesitate to make way for their biggest friend by pushing and shoving until… voilà… they arrive at a special surprise—a double fold-out page big enough to fit all 100 different animals (Seriously! 100!). Talk about a page you and your little one can pore over again and again and find something new every time!

Who am I?

Over my career as an elementary school teacher and a science educator I’ve seen time and time again that no matter the topic, learning happens best when people feel positive and engaged. My favorite books to share with young readers are those that capture their attention–be it with stunning illustrations, unusual information, or hilarious situations–and leave them with a strong emotional connection to the characters or story. Now, as I read oodles of picture books for writing research, I keep an extra special eye out for those that leave me smiling and also make me think. Some of my very favorites are collected for you here.

I wrote...

Rat Fair

By Leah Rose Kessler, Cleonique Hilsaca (illustrator),

Book cover of Rat Fair

What is my book about?

When a group of industrious, fun-loving rats find letters fallen from an Art Fair sign, they put the sign back together—with one small adjustment—and get to work creating a spectacular Rat Fair. Their fair is ruined when humans sweep away everything the rats have created. Undaunted, the rats switch gears and start working on their very own Rat Art Fair. As they are wrapping up their first day of the Rat Art Fair, a human child who has been following their progress from the sidelines catches them red-handed, and the rats must decide if they can trust the child.

A nearly wordless tale about creativity, kindness, and perseverance.

Amos & Boris

By William Steig,

Book cover of Amos & Boris

Of course fate could bring a whale and a mouse together, their bond of friendship lasting for the rest of their lives! In his matter-of-fact yet sparkling and stylish way, William Steig always made the fantastical seem unremarkable. I have given this book to at least five friends. Its quirky and gorgeous illustrations (by Steig, who was also a brilliant cartoonist) are as vital to the story as the words. Amos & Boris is just one of those books that does not condescend to young readers and is therefore as appealing to adults as children. I recommend it because Steig understood that kids can handle the deepest of deep life-and-death stories, and if those stories happen to feature animals, well...all the better!

Who am I?

I’m the eldest of seven children and didn’t grow up with pets because frankly, it was chaotic enough with that many people in the house. And yet I always had a penchant for looking at an animal and imagining what it was thinking to itself. I assumed that every creature had an inner life that was as colorful and varied as my own. Animal fables were as plausible to me as stories about humans. Now I love writing books with talking animals, because once your furry or feathery protagonist opens their mouth and starts talking, anything goes!

I wrote...

Otto P. Nudd

By Emily Butler,

Book cover of Otto P. Nudd

What is my book about?

Otto is the smartest bird around. "You’ve seen the best, now forget the rest,” is his motto. He spends his days swapping treasures with a girl named Pippa and inventing marvelous things with a scientist named Bartleby. But Otto’s most important job is keeping the local birds in line. After all, he’s the top bird.

Then Bartleby has a dreadful accident. Desperate to rescue the only father he has ever known, Otto raises the alarm! He tries to rally the neighborhood, but no one cares. The birds are sick and tired of following his orders. And Marla (a notorious squirrel) thwarts him at every turn. What’s the top bird supposed to do? Otto learns that to have a friend, you have to be a friend.

The Snail and the Whale

By Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler (illustrator),

Book cover of The Snail and the Whale

I used to read this book to my children and I think it is one of the most beautiful and lyrical picture books ever written. It’s a story of a snail who hitches a ride on the tail of a whale and then gets the chance to see how amazing the world is. It’s so simple and always brings a tear to my eye.

Who am I?

My biggest aim as a writer is for my reader to feel something. It could be on a page where they are fighting back the tears or at the end of a chapter where they are gasping at an unexpected plot twist. I think we can sometimes forget how powerful children’s books can be – yes, they can make you cry, laugh, gasp and feel scared! Here are some of my favorites that will make you have all the feelings.

I wrote...

The Light Jar

By Lisa Thompson,

Book cover of The Light Jar

What is my book about?

Nate and his mother are fleeing from a bad situation at home. They hide out in an abandoned, run-down cottage in the middle of a forest and Nate's mother heads off for groceries. She doesn't return. Has she run into trouble, or abandoned him? He is alone and afraid, with the dark – and all his old fears – closing in on him. But comfort can come from the most unexpected of places: like a strange girl trying to solve a treasure hunt, and the reappearance of a friend from his past. Will Nate find the bravery he needs to face down his fears and illuminate his future? From the author of The Goldfish Boy, comes a captivating story of finding the light within.

Watching Giants

By Elin Kelsey, Doc White (photographer), Francois Gohier (photographer)

Book cover of Watching Giants: The Secret Lives of Whales

Kelsey is a mother, a scientist, and a writer and her revelations of the lives of whales, are woven expertly between these critical roles. Watching Giants is an intimate story, immersing readers in a mysterious watery world. Kelsey dives deep, sharing knowledge and detailed observations of these vulnerable species. 

I read Watching Giants whilst researching my own picture books and her experiences have stayed with me. Her gentle words and scientific insights reveal new perspectives on the lives of these ever gentle giants.

Who am I?

I write picture books about nature to inspire curiosity and care for our planet. I have been writing about wildlife conservation and particularly endangered species since studying ecology, campaigning with Greenpeace, and working with the Natural History Museum in London. Now as a full-time author, I have an extraordinary opportunity to learn through experience and in conversation with scientists, teachers, and children about how best to tell this ever more urgent, evolving story. The statement "Ecology? Look it up! You’re involved" writ large in 1969 by the first Greenpeace campaigners on billboards around Vancouver, still says it all for me.  

I wrote...

Red Alert! 15 Endangered Animals Fighting to Survive

By Catherine Barr,

Book cover of Red Alert! 15 Endangered Animals Fighting to Survive

What is my book about?

Writing this book introduced me to the plight of pangolins, the elegant beauty of lumpy nosed gharials, and the dazzling colours of the peacock tarantula. With the generous help of Head of IUCN RedList Craig Hilton-Tailor, I narrowed 100,000 species on the Red List of threatened species down to just 15.

In school visits, the stories of this diverse group of endangered creatures have gripped the imagination of hundreds of school children. Researching the book has ignited my friendship with scientists and inspiring conservations around the world. I am grateful to Anne Wilson for her vibrant illustrations and pangolin drawing tutorials that have transfixed so many hushed school halls, with children’s pencils poised.

The Whale

By Philip Hoare,

Book cover of The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea

Too many books about whaling omit the obvious, the whale itself. An example is that we killed the largest creature on earth for 100 years before we learned it wasn’t a fish! The Whale is educational, laugh-out-loud funny, at times scatological, and easy to read. Best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick called it “genius... rhapsodic meditation on all things cetacean” in his New York Times book review. It’s the bible of whales and, dare I say it, more interesting than Moby-Dick.

Who am I?

Before becoming a writer I was widely acknowledged as a successful radio station executive, a business relying heavily on audience and other numerical information. That earned me the nickname “Data” (from Star Trek). Having written an article about a Black whaling captain for Martha’s Vineyard Magazine I became intrigued about how this could have occurred in the years of slavery and began buying and reading books on whaling to find that answer. About 100 such books resulted in my book on 50 some men who had attained that lofty rank; today I’m up to about 180 and/or I can attest I’ve read fundamentally all of the books on the subject.

I wrote...

Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy

By Skip Finley,

Book cover of Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy

What is my book about?

Whaling was the first American industry to exhibit any diversity, and the proportion of men of color people who participated was amazingly high. A man got to be captain not because he was white or well connected, but because he knew how to kill a whale. Along the way he would also learn navigation and how to read and write. Whaling presented a tantalizing alternative to mainland life. Working with archival records at whaling museums, in libraries, from private archives, and studying hundreds of books and thesis, I culled the best stories from the lives of over 50 Whaling Captains of Color to share the story of America's First Meritocracy.


By Herman Melville,

Book cover of Moby-Dick

This is not only an American literary classic, but in my view is the best sea tale ever written. The story showcases life aboard a 19th century whaling ship and explores the monomania of an autocratic ship captain whose relentless pursuit of personal vengeance ends in tragedy. This book was a chief inspiration for my featured novel. I particularly enjoyed the detailed technical descriptions of sailing and whaling operations, alongside a plot steeped in tension and conflict. I love historical fiction books that educate as well as entertain. 

Who am I?

I have always been a fan of history. As a journalist by education and an investigator by trade, I love to carefully research my settings and weave original fictional plots through actual history in a seamless manner that both entertains and informs the reader. I also appreciate the need for compelling characters, page-turning plots, conflict, and tension to keep readers engaged. I have a long-term fascination with piracy, privateering, and exploration during the early age of sail. I am also attracted to Elizabethan England and the Renaissance period with its ideological struggles. I really love a good sea story, and who doesn’t? Enjoy my reading list!   

I wrote...

Voyage of Reprisal

By Kevin J. Glynn,

Book cover of Voyage of Reprisal

What is my book about?

An English sea-captain sailing to plunder a Spanish treasure fleet faces the elements, internal discord and a squadron of war galleons lurking in his path. If he prevails, rewards and retribution await in the wilds of the New World.

Voyage of Reprisal draws on the author’s extensive research and presents a careful reconstruction of life at sea aboard an Elizabethan war galleon. Charismatic characters come alive, from crude sailors to arrogant lords. The pains, joys, sorrows, and hopes of the age are explored aboard a 16th century privateer.

The Whale Warriors

By Peter Heller,

Book cover of The Whale Warriors: The Battle at the Bottom of the World to Save the Planet's Largest Mammals

Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Society, inspired the character of Aeneus in The Tourist Trail. This book was my introduction to Paul and his colleagues and the passions they share for the oceans and their residents. If you’ve watched the TV series Whale Wars then you are already familiar with the risks these volunteers take to protect whales and so many other species. Paul Watson has also written a number of books that are worth reading. Learn more at Sea Shepherd.

Who am I?

Travels to the Arctic and Antarctic and time spent alongside researching counting Magellanic penguins in Argentina have inspired not only The Tourist Trail but a life spent advocating for animals. The oceans may appear vast and impenetrable but they are fragile, and we need to act now to protect the many species who call these waters home. The books here not only expose the crisis we face but highlight those people and organizations who have dedicated their lives to protecting our planet and its many residents. It’s not too late to make a difference and I hope these books inspire you to lend your voice and energy to the fight.

I wrote...

The Tourist Trail

By John Yunker,

Book cover of The Tourist Trail

What is my book about?

The Tourist Trail is an environmental thriller about endangered species in the world's most remote waters and the people who put their lives on the line to protect them. Against the backdrop of the Southern Ocean, the novel weaves together the stories of Angela, a penguin researcher based in southern Argentina, Robert, an FBI agent in pursuit of an anti-whaling activist known as Aeneas; and Ethan Downes, a computer tech whose love for a passionate animal rights activist draws him into a dangerous mission among the icebergs of Antarctica.

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