Lessons from Whales

by Celia Coates

I don’t usually read books about animals, but recently I’ve been fascinated by BECOMING WILD by Carl Safina. He writes about two mammals and one bird with several separate chapters each for sperm whales, chimpanzees, and scarlet macaws. The whole book is delightful, but this post will look only at what he has to say about the whales.

“Sperm whales inhabit a wider and thicker swath of Earth than any other creature except humans, ranging the ocean from 60 degrees north to 60 degrees south latitude and from the surface to black, frigid, crushing depths.”

 Sound carries in the ocean in a way it doesn’t over land and in the air. To locate prey when they are hunting, sperm whales produce sonar clicks at a rapid rate of about two per second. They use a different kind of clicking to communicate with each other in the watery vastness they navigate – patterns of sonar clicks that are called coda. It’s a language that sends information about who and where they are to their own family members, as well as sending signals between groups of whales to identify whether or not they are friends or strangers.
“‘Codas’ come as varied rhythmic patterns, a little like simple Morse code, of three to as many as forty clicks. By signaling with their codas, they announce themselves, determine the identity of other whales and whether they’ve encountered a group they can socialize with – or must avoid. … No one fully understands what information is coded into those patterns. Except, of course – all the whales do.”
Codas involve different “dialects” that are unique to each clan. Baby sperm whales have to learn their own clan’s dialect.

 These whales are united or divided by clan identity. They form “bond groups” – a term that is used by elephant researchers to indicate the families that relate to each other.
Safina says,
“In fact, the social structure of sperm whales more closely resembles that of elephants than of other whales. The parallels are many: tight, stable families of females and dependent young, bachelor groups of physically mature males who defer breeding for years rather than compete with colossal older males ….”

He goes on to write,
“Across vast Pacific meridians, sperm whale families (females and young) have formed themselves into five clans composed of thousands of whales. Their sense of identity and membership within a particular clan is reflected by their dialect of clicked codas. In the Pacific, any single clan of sperm whales, built of many hundreds of family units, spanning many horizons, can be populated by as many as ten thousand individual whales.”
And,
“Because the different clans’ nomadic movements can overlap, traveling whales may encounter members of their own clan or a different clan. Non-relatives and strangers who chance to encounter one another and realize they share a dialect may socialize. If they don’t share a dialect, they will avoid contact and socializing. Only in sperm whales and humans do group identities extend so far beyond kin. Sperm whale clans constitute a kind of national or tribal identity at a scale larger than any other non-human.”

 Many animals are clever. For example, there is a kind of ant that creates a community raft of their bodies so they can escape when there’s a sudden flow of high water. That’s a behavior driven by innate knowledge or instinct. More complex animals also learn behaviors from each other and what is learned and shared can also be crucial for survival. Sperm whales are among those animals (along with humans) that develop certain ways of doing things that are transferred from individual to individual, from generation to generation. Safina says that different sperm whale clans have,
“… distinct patterns of movement, diving, hunting, and so on. Each clan has found different answers to the question, ‘How can we live where we live?’”
This socially acquired knowledge directs our choices and actions and creates our culture. I live in a culture where I have learned to go to a store to buy groceries, not in a culture where I learned to dig up cassava to provide food for my family.

“Sperm whales coming up through the ocean toward the blanketing air will often announce their individual identity and their group membership. Using their codas and their dialects they show and declare, ‘This is who I am. This is with whom I belong.”

 Human do this too. But we use the flag we wave or the tee shirt we wear or the car we drive to signal who we are and what group we belong to. We develop our cultures as we all learn how to deal with life and the people around us. These markers of identity and loyalty enforce differences between communities.

Shane, Safina’s guide in the world of the sperm whales, said,
“The main thing I’ve learned from the whales is that your experience of the world depends on who you experience the world with. Who you’re with makes you who you are.”
It quickly brings to my mind a deep and painful question asked by civil rights leader John Lewis: “Who taught this child to hate?” This helps when I think of the deep division we are dealing with now. How many generations of children have been taught to hate? And what can we all do to change this?

 Who are we, we American humans? I have trouble with the talking heads who comment on the news and announce, “This isn’t who we are!” as they describe the sometimes brutal interactions between the two main cultural tribes in our country. It is who we are. It’s a mistake when we make animals too human, and it’s as serious a mistake when we overlook the animal side of being human. We are like the sperm whales – we share our territory with others of our kind. We have to survive, raise our families, and navigate the depths of our lives but, for now, we have not figured out a way to share our territory as the whales have. We compete rather than cooperate, and we lack a sense of the common good. Sperm whales somehow have evolved a system – a way to share the ocean – that works. That evolution of sharing is called for, now, for us.

We have to find a way to live the reality that although we are all one – the human race, all of us,  can be said to be the children of God – we are not all alike. Is our “swath of the Earth” not large enough to be shared in some way as our different tribes overlap each other?

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BECOMING WILD: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, by Carl Safina, Henry Holt and Company, 2020

The image that heads this post is from iStock.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. trudy summers says:

    Fabulous…my favorite animals!

  2. Anonymous says:

    We have so much to learn from the whales!

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