Monday, September 28, 2009
The Whale Beat
Have you ever read something and come away feeling that your world is larger, more marvelous and mysterious than you’d previously suspected? It’s a rare event and it’s made me a bit evangelical. Feel I have to share it. It’s the cover story of the New York Times Magazine (July 12, 2009): “Watching Whales Watching Us” by Charles Siebert. One reason I was so stunned by this is that I know a fair amount about whales, though I’m nowhere near the talking head level. After I started reading I wondered: “Are they even more intelligent, more human-like than I thought?” I hoped so. To sum up: they are. Sometimes the scientists who study them (cetaceans) wonder just who’s examining who. (This phenomenon’s being going on with dolphins and their researchers for decades, but it’s new to the whale beat).
Gray whales, for example, swim up to recreational boaters and small-boat fishermen. If the people react favorably the whales return with their calves. Apparently the adult whales are sizing up the humans to see if they’re safe. (Whales don’t, however, approach large, deep ocean fishing boats, or large boats of any kind, perhaps because they associate these with whaling vessels). The adults then get under the boat, raise it up a little, leave it there for a moment, then gently let it down. The people this has happened to see this as an intentionally friendly encounter on the part of the whale. After all, the grays could easily wreck the boat in an instant if they wished to. (Skeptics say the whales are just attracted to the hum of the boats’ motors. As for rubbing the underside of the boat, that’s just the whales’ way to scrape lice off). Grays and other whales also like to come right up to people and stare at them for several minutes.
Some random revelations from the article: Humpbacks hunt in organized packs. Sperm whales have been seen to snatch a single fish off a fishhook (they also teach this to other sperm whales). Fishermen worldwide are up in arms about this because it’s made such a dent in their catch all the sudden. The gray whale brain contains magnetic iron oxide which makes it possible for them to find magnetic north in their migrations. Baleen whales (gray whales and humpbacks) were observed joining forces to fight off an attack by pilot whales (apparently there’s some sort of baleen connection that transcends whale type and encompasses this entire suborder). Whales have been observed “spontaneously breaking into song; crying out in ecstasy; or just flat-out crying,” notes Siebert.
Are we anthropomorphizing? In other words, are we projecting ourselves onto the whales? Siebert and the cetaceans say no. What’s going on is a “cognitive revolution.” We’ve recently found out that whales possess “highly specialized neurons” that are associated with language and were until recently thought to exist only in humans and a handful of other primates. A new realization has come about, says Siebert: “a kind of parallel ‘us’ has long been out there roaming the oceans’ depths.” Anthropomorphizing assumes that animals aren’t like us (we are, however, scientifically speaking, animals ourselves). But whales are in many significant ways just that-like us. Maybe if humans had spent their evolutionary past in the sea rather than on land we might’ve ended up something like these highly social, articulate, gentle, inquisitive and unsettling creatures so evident in “Watching Whales Watching Us.” Why, for instance, do whales with visible harpoon scars approach boating humans in nonviolent ways? For the debate on that, you’ll have to read the article.
The gap between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom was wide indeed when I was young. It’s been rapidly narrowing ever since and now it’s generally considered to be very thin (some scientists says it’s nonexistent and that the line is an illustration of our ego). An opportunity for feeling threatened or humbled? I’ve always instinctively gone with option 2. With what we now know about whales I think we can all feel less lonely here on Earth. And speaking of how we deal with our loneliness, the immense efforts now being put into SETI are transfigured when you consider that we have a very human-like life right here nudging our boats.
Simon & Schuster: Charles Siebert