What We Share
It has long been known that all humans share genetic makeup and overarching similarities in what it is to be human, whilst also having fine differences (individuality) between cultural groups and between one person and another. More recently, scientists have been collecting evidence that whales too have group and individual characteristics. In the same way it is now accepted that apes are extremely close to humans genetically, culturally and socially, it is increasingly becoming accepted that this is also true of whales.
Humans communicate; whales also have communication systems, using different high pitched clicking and whistling sounds, or booming whale song to communicate with each other. It is believed that each whale has a unique signature whistle, recognisable to others. Furthermore, the communication sounds of whale groups in different regions have regional variation, or dialects.
They are known to live in social groups (pods) and within these they take care of each other. It has been observed that whales rub against and nudge each other affectionately, and they engage in behaviours (such as breaching the water) which can sometimes be attributed to play. They teach hunting skills to their young, and often cooperate together in the task of hunting.
The relationship between whales and humans has been mixed over the centuries. Whilst whales generally do not seek human interaction, the inverse is not true. Humans are the only natural enemies of whales. Whale hunting was originally restricted to the supply of food and resources for survival, and the hunted whale was fully utilised. As well as providing food, the bones were used to construct houses, the blubber for lamp fuel and the baleen for fishing lines. In this way, whales were not over-hunted or endangered. But, more recently, hunting has become separated from survival needs, and whales have been hunted for individual, unnecessary products. Ambergris, a secretion from sperm whale intestines, has been used in making perfumes. Narwhal tusks have been sought-after alternatives to ivory. Whales have even been hunted for sport.
Human activity also threatens whales’ survival. Huge ships can harm whales, and the radar signals from shipping can impede the whales’ ability to echolocate (locate food by echoing of sound signals) when hunting. Fishing methods can trap whales and other creatures in their huge nets. Climate change disrupts migration patterns. The seas are polluted with toxins and with plastics, which are eaten by sea creatures including whales. The issue of plastics in the oceans has recently been drawn to wider public attention, partly as a result of the Blue Planet II series, and also through the work of organisations such as Greenpeace.
A worldwide moratorium on all commercial whaling was voted for by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1982. But not all countries were completely persuaded, and legal loopholes have meant that whales have been hunted under the pretext of ‘scientific’ purposes.
On a Positive Note
An Australian telecommunications firm decided to create publicity by asking a group of orchestral musicians to play while adrift on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Placing microphones under the water, the musicians sought to imitate whale sounds with their instruments, in the hope that whales might respond. Amazingly, the whales did respond! Coming to the surface and breaching, they can be seen interacting with the humans making the music. Incredible footage of that event can be seen here.
Increasingly, we understand the complexity of whale behaviour and of their intelligence. We also recognise the negative impact of human activity on whales. It is to be hoped that the relationship between whales and humans can be increasingly positive in the future, to support the survival of these wonderful species.