What Whales Contemplate

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 19, 2011 5
Humpback whale

Humpback whale songs change every year. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

Seems there’s a rising singing sensation who’s getting a lot of press lately. He hails from Australia. Well, actually, from off the coast of Australia — way off. From beneath the ocean. He’s a humpback whale.

Earlier this month, an article published in the journal Current Biology stated that after an eleven-year study, researchers in Queensland found that the songs of male humpback whales change every year — much like the tunes on our Top 100 music charts. And for the past decade, the song that has hit the No. 1 spot every season has originated off the eastern coast of Australia.

These popular ballads then travel eastward across the South Pacific Ocean, from one whale to another, from Australia to French Polynesia. Genetically distinct groups of whales then all start singing the year’s big hit during breeding season.

This research indicates that whale communities have active, changing “cultures,” much like our human societies do. And if they’re making up new songs and spreading them by “word of mouth,” what else are the whales sharing and contemplating that we don’t have a clue about?

Culture club

Humback whale in British Columbia

Do whales philosophize about their environment and their place in it? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

This humpback whale research comes on the heels of recent findings regarding sperm whales. In January, the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper published an interview with biologist Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia regarding his research with sperm whales. While studying a group of whales off the Galápagos Islands, Whitehead noticed two kinds of sperm whales who were behaving differently than the others in the area. They used different styles of communicating with each other and divergent ways of using the resources around the island. At first, it was thought that the whales were of two sub-species. However, no substantial genetic differences were found. So, something else had to be causing them to form radically different societies, with expectations for different ways of behaving. In other words, they had distinct “cultures” and were living in a multicultural society.

Whitehead believes that for whales, perhaps even more so than for humans, a social life is vital. Because whales are constantly on the move (they have no physical, stable structure they can call “home”) and they live in a very large, three-dimensional habitat — 70 percent of the world’s surface is ocean — the most important part of their environment is probably other whales. Therefore, having a rich social life and possessing a social intelligence is of utmost importance to survive.

Cetacean contemplation

So the next question becomes, other than song-filled, what are whale cultures like? Do whales have religions? Do they philosophize about their environment and their place in it? Do they adhere to certain social mores?

Whale tail

Are whales wondering about the cultures we have created? ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

 

At least on that last question, Whitehead says he believes that whales do have a code of morality. In the Guardian interview, he states that sperm whales have the most powerful sonar in the natural world, and it’s very directional. It follows that if a sperm whale’s sonar system were directed at another whale’s ears, it would be very dangerous for the receiver. A deaf whale can soon become a dead whale.

Says Whitehead, “Imagine a group of twenty to thirty sperm whales feeding at depth, each making these dangerous clicks once a second. They are all in the same area so they need to be really careful [to protect their hearing]. To me it is like having a bunch of hunters with machine guns out in the forest; they are firing away pretty continuously and they have got to have clear rules if they are all going to come out of the forest alive. So I think there must be some conventions they abide by about how you use these sonar systems. This, by some definitions at least, is morality.”

If these recent findings are any indication, it seems we may have a lot to learn about some of the largest mammals on Earth. I’ve often wondered, given our lack of knowledge about what nonhuman animals think and feel, if it’s morally wrong for we humans to use them for our own purposes.

Animals may be contemplating us, too. With the noises we make underwater and the junk we throw in the oceans, do you think whales wonder just what kind of cultures we have created?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

5 Comments »

  1. Jack April 19, 2011 at 10:13 am - Reply

    I loved this story.

  2. Art Hardy April 21, 2011 at 10:45 am - Reply

    Wow! I guess we’re not alone in the world as animals that feel and think.

  3. NineQuietLessons April 27, 2011 at 11:18 am - Reply

    Along with a small handful of other animals, whales are one of few creatures on this planet that come closest to our own intelligence. It’s hard to say exactly how smart they might be, given that they are adapted for a much different environment, but it’s safe to assume they’re at least as smart as dogs or cats, and probably smarter.

  4. Sylvia May 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    So, when the Navy makes those huge booming noises in the ocean that deafens the sea mammals, they are killing them! ! ! Though I’ve always hated the thought that the underwater noise was harming them, this makes me feel so much worse.

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