All photos by: Cristina Mittermeier

Mother Culture

For sperm whales, family is paramount

HOW DOES A WHALE find meaning in life? The question that will take us far from our comfort zone. At eight a.m. we are already traveling over deep ocean. Our thirty-foot boat, an open one, is crowded with gear, four assistants who traffic in curiosity and adventure, our huge dreadlocked Caribbean captain Dave Fabien, plus Shane Gero. Plus me.

We seek a classic sea monster: the sperm whale, Jonah-slurping Leviathan of the Bible, catastrophic smasher of the ship Essex, Ahab-maddening table-turning star quarry of Moby-Dick. In myth, real life, and fiction, this is the whale that looms largest in our psyches. To that almost-never-glimpsed being, so famed for rage, the world’s largest creature with teeth—we now seek the closest possible approach. For the next several weeks I hope, with Shane’s tutelage, to narrow the gap between us.

For centuries whales have represented commerce, jobs. Adventure. Money. Danger. Tradition and pride. People saw in whales everything—except whales themselves. From this boat we seek the actual creature, living its authentic life. I seek encounters that will enable me to penetrate past the labels and feel the beings being selves, living with their families, sharing the air where our worlds collide.

 

BEHIND US, the Caribbean island named Dominica helps form an arc of isles enclosing the Caribbean Sea on their west and confronting the Atlantic to their east. Dominica’s northern neighbor is Guadeloupe, and across its southern channel rise the peaks of Martinique. Their jungled volcanic slopes plummet into the sea, meaning that deep ocean presses blue shoulders tight against these isles.

Only humans inhabit a wider swath of Earth than sperm whales, but humans seldom glimpse them. The whales range from 60 degrees north to 60 degrees south latitude, usually in waters whose depth exceeds 3,000 feet, far from most coasts. Not only that, they can move 40-plus miles a day, around 15,000 miles annually. This makes studying their wandering lives almost impossible. Here though, water of profound depth adjacent to land uniquely allows a shore-based team to count on reasonably consistent contact.

 

WE ARE HUNTING Leviathan, yes. But because sperm whales spend about fifty minutes of every hour far beneath the waves, we’ll hunt by using sound. A waterproofed microphone called a hydrophone gets let down over the side. Sharing headphones, we listen for the sperm whales’ sonar.

 

What would the Creator’s own painting of Creation look like?

 

Sperm whales were thought silent until 1957, when scientists published the first description of their sonar. Whale hunters never heard the clicking sounds these whales make. Nor do I. It takes a few moments to get my brain to filter out the water noise, to listen deeper. Then, yes, I hear faint squeaks and whistles. Distant dolphins. The sperm whale sonar goes click, click, click. That—we are not hearing.

 

FISH BEQUEATHED to all vertebrates our basic body plan, including our skeleton, organs, jaws, our nervous, circulatory, digestive, and other systems. When fish brought this blueprint ashore, land and air worked to turn rudimentary limbs into walking legs, flapping wings; turned scales into feathers and fur. Mammals evolved on land, then some returned to the sea.

You can see history in whales’ flippers; they merely mitten the same finger bones we possess. Returning to the sea after millions of years of aboveground testing, the reimmersed mammals also hung on to lungs, their internal heat furnaces, and parental care of their young. They also packed their intellects and high-minded social skills into their dive bag. These attributes, developed for a life on land, confer devastating hunting advantages to sea creatures who possess them. Seawater’s oxygen content is less than one percent, and for animals that breathe water with gills, this has consequences for exertion. But air is about 20 percent oxygen. Adaptive retrofits notwithstanding, whales remain every bit the mammals they ever were—and more. Quick-witted and communicative, sucking densely oxygenated air into their fast-burning musculature, whales and dolphins are hot-brained, highly aerobic super-predators from another realm who run rings around their prey.

The sea offered returning mammals food in swarms quite unlike anything on land, squids and small fishes traveling by the millions. Another advantage: water, eight hundred times denser than air, is very friendly to sound. When hunting, sperm whales produce sonar clicks at about two per second. Depending on distance, they can sound like ticking, or, closer, like castanets, or, very close, like steel balls clacking.

 

SHANE CONSULTS the GPS. His listening stops are nearly two miles apart. A sperm whale’s sonar can be heard over at least three miles. So if whales are present, we will detect them.

We know enough about whales to fill many books. But we know a fraction. Beneath the curving blue horizons, most whale and dolphin species remain near-total strangers to us. Shane has made this question his quest: how do sperm whales teach their children who they are, and how do they construct their remarkable sense of family?

 

THE SECOND LISTENING stop is quiet. As we head toward the third, the sea reflects a glaring haze that scatters light everywhere, glittering like a rolling carpet of short blue flames. We travel in small ecstatic sparks of time. The slowly throbbing swells bear the rippling breath of midday breeze.

Our zooming hull scares up flyingfish. One lands in the boat. I admire its large eyes, mirrored sides, and the indigo streak along its back, then I flip the fish into the sea.

On our third stop the hydrophone again descends. I hear an engine. “That ship engine is so loud, I—.” But, wait.

Then, through the sound of surface noise and the distant ship—clicks. Far below, sperm whales are hunting.

And then the clicks stop.

 

LEVIATHAN INHABITS—and creates—a world of sound. Almost constantly they hear dolphins and other whales such as blue and fin whales, who, booming at the lowest frequencies, can travel “together” while spaced across hundreds of miles. Almost constantly while hunting they generate sonar clicks. Anything but silent, the ocean is brimful of audio messaging.

Sperm whales create the most powerful sound—around two hundred decibels—made by a living thing. That we might hear it three miles away means the whale is literally vibrating several cubic miles of seawater, an extraordinary sphere of energy. Humans who get in the water near sperm whales sometimes get scanned with buzzing bursts of sonar clicks.

When sperm whales stop hunting, they go silent and begin  a long ascent toward the sun to replenish their breath. From a world we do not know, they rise up toward the ease of the surface, the warmth we know, the air we share.

 

 

SHANE SAYS that in the time that has passed since the clicks stopped, we should be seeing the blows of at least one whale at the surface.

But the mirror-ball glare across the rough, white-streaked sea could hide a whale.

Captain Dave announces, “Blow!” And Shane shouts, “Yesss!”

Just fifty yards distant, she moves toward us, exhaling clouds of breath and inspiring deeply. The skin of her head is taut, like dark shrink-wrap. The rest of her body is wrinkly to reduce water drag. Her size makes the hourly depths-to-surface round trip a realistic proposition. Her sonar overrides the blackness. Her blubber defeats the cold. Her extremes are perfections.

She blows and then, dipping that massive muzzle and hunching her back, she hoists aloft her wide dark propeller. Her flukes, suddenly heavy in air, shove her into the swallowing sea.

I am left with the impression that a whale is too big to see. At a time, you get pieces. Now the head. Now the back. Now the flukes. Never the whale.

In Rome once, I said to my wife, Patricia, “We’ve now seen Michelangelo’s painting of the Creator. But what would the Creator’s own painting of Creation look like?” I think that is easy to answer now: it is these whales, in this sea.

“She just focused her sonar on us,” says Shane, still listening. Focused sonar comes in very fast strings of clicks called “click trains,” sometimes more than six hundred clicks per second.

Captain Dave says, “She looked like a teenage whale y’know.”

“I know,” Shane says, “and I don’t think she’s the one we were hearing. I think she’s been hanging quietly nearby.”

“Codas!” announces Shane. Codas are clicks like simple Morse code, patterns of three to as many as forty clicks. They are sperm whales’ declarations of identity. They announce themselves, determine the identity of other whales and whether they’ve encountered a group they can socialize with, in their clan, or members of another clan they must avoid. They often make codas during transitions such as when going to the surface or about to dive, when greeting family members, or if they’ve detected predators. When the pioneering researcher Hal Whitehead first witnessed a whale deliver a new baby, he wrote, “There was a particularly heavy burst of codas at the time of the birth.”

Taking the headphones, I’m amazed at the clarity and strength of their talking, like someone clapping right next to my ear. They’re going: One. Two. Three-four-five. This identifies them as members of the Eastern Caribbean clan. Other codas identify the family, and individual whales themselves.

We motor slowly along. Suddenly and just a boat length away, a small whale only about fifteen feet long pops up.

Shane yells, “Neutral! Neutral! Mom’s right here!”

I look down and am astonished to see the dark visage of a huge whale. I’m having a hard time understanding quite what I’m looking at.

Shane explains and now I realize; the mother is resting vertically in the water, nose up. I can’t see her tail; she’s too long.

The small whale makes short shallow dives. Shane says, “That usually means they’re nursing.” Different families have different nursing habits. The Group of Seven young ones suckle only from Mom. The J Family is prone to communal baby nursing. In Unit T, Tereka, who has never been known to give birth, helped nurse two young ones named Top and Turner. Most sperm whales nurse for four or five years before weaning, but when Digit got tangled with some fishing gear that slowed her down after she’d weaned at age five, her mother began nursing her again. “Which is amazing.”

The small whale begins tail-slamming the surface, detonating impressive splashes. The youngster seems to want action. We count twenty-one slaps.

“He’s like, ‘C’mon Mom, wake up,’” Shane laughs.

The mom, who’d been sleeping, is now exchanging codas with another whale. There is a back-and-forth call and response: “I am here,” one says. “And I am over here,” says the other. A conversation of sorts. The youngster dives, perhaps to greet whomever is approaching.

And now, yes, another adult female appears with Mom. The three whales rest at the surface side by side, breathing. I sense deep relaxation after deep exertion. Each forceful, intentional exhalation wafts faint rainbows into the breeze.

Meanwhile, Shane had been listening to two other whales, deep and distant. They have fallen silent. They’re coming.

Moments later, another whale explodes full-body out of the ocean a couple hundred yards away, launching with attitude, back slightly arched. Crashing back, she seems intentionally to slam her head on the sea surface for effect. Through four more breaches, her strength and mass astound us. 

Shane looks at photos he’s just taken. Their flukes’ scars allow identification. “OK. So, the one who breached is Jocasta.” These whales are the J Family, their names inspired by the play Oedipus Rex. “The mom is Sophocles. She’s the mother of young Jonah. When most of the family was down hunting, Laius—whose tail has two nicks and a scoop missing—was the one babysitting Jonah.” The social structure of sperm whales resembles elephants more than other whales. Females and their young travel as a family. Males leave their mothers around adolescence. Elephants, same.

A typical hour of a sperm whale’s life consists of traveling down toward food, hunting for a couple of miles, then rising for a ten- to twelve-minute breathing interval. Their commute to the food-bearing vein of the ocean requires about ten minutes. And when they arrive, they inhabit a dark, frigid realm requiring all their superpowers. The diving record for a tagged sperm whale so far is .75 miles, approaching four thousand feet. Circumstantial evidence suggests they sometimes forage twice that deep. A long round trip.

Sometimes they surface in synchrony: pfff, pfff, pfff, pfff. Their coordination is no coincidence. They always know who’s where. They usually stay at the surface for about ten minutes but, “Once in a while they just decide to chill,” says Shane, “resting and socializing for a few hours.” Often they roll with each other, rubbing, caressing with their short front flippers, running their mouths along each other, producing lots of codas. Sometimes they deep-dive together, touching each other. What does it say to us, that these creatures seek physical contact, that they love to touch? Whitehead might have been the first human to intentionally ease into the water among free sperm whales, back when  it was anyone’s guess whether they’d swiftly devour a human. Whitehead wrote, “The whales were hanging like living monuments.  Two whales glided toward me. As they approached, one extended a flipper, gently touching his companion—for reassurance?”

There is a living to be made, so Sophocles hunches her puckered back and begins flowing into her dive, lifting her tail flukes to the sky, letting the massive weight of her aft end drive her into the deep. Jocasta flows so gracefully into her dive that she seems timeless as the rolling ocean.

The swells sweep closed the broken sea, hiding all trace of their visits and departures. Having noted their direction as they dived, we slowly head to somewhere within plausibility for their next resurfacing, an hour or so from now.

 

 

SOPHOCLES arrives with a sudden explosive leap and terrific crash, like a school bus bursting from the ocean. A few minutes later, PHOOOSH! Jocasta and Laius surface together, close to us, blowing off the pent-up, re-expanded gases in their spent lungs. They’re two miles from where they dived.

And so here’s the thing: in ocean vastness, maintaining family cohesion is intentional. They are well aware. For a sperm whale there’s no instruction manual. What there is, is: the wide deep ocean and family bonds. For sperm whales, family is everything.

About two dozen families of sperm whales come and go from these waters. Shane knows ten families intimately enough to recognize them on sight by the shapes of their tails. Others, Shane has seen only once in his fifteen seasons here. Sometimes a family will, for a few hours or days, travel with other whales. But they know who they are and with whom they belong as surely as you know your family in a crowd.

“The main thing I’ve learned from whales,” Shane says, “is that your experience of the world depends on who you experience the world with. Who you’re with makes you who you are. The main lesson the whales have taught me is, your family is the most important thing. Learn from Grandma; love your mom; spend time with your siblings. Spending so much time with the whales has changed how I value the people in my life. Learning what the whales value has helped me learn what I value. Trying to learn what it’s like to be a sperm whale, I’ve learned what it’s like to be me.”

What does it say to us, that these creatures seek physical contact?

I tell Shane that he sounds like Captain Ahab after twenty years of psychotherapy.

 

ALL AFTERNOON, Jonah, too young to dive deep, has been tracking her mother, Sophocles, from the surface, reuniting with her every hour. Crucially—baby sperm whales cannot deep-dive, cannot accompany their mothers down into the great, black, frigid, high-pressure depths where adults spend most of their time hunting. Babies often trundle along at the surface in the direction of sonar clicks coming from foraging adults far below.

Waiting at the surface, they are quite defenseless. Killer whales are rare, but they are real and pose mortal danger for baby sperm whales. The solution has been for baby sperm whales to live with aunts and their grandmother, all in constant contact using sound.

In families with a very young baby, adult diving is often staggered so that when some are down, at least one adult is up nearby, monitoring the vulnerable youngster. Sometimes a young whale at the surface seems alone. But any distress signal brings a relative right up. “When killer whales show up, or something goes wrong at the surface, it seems like sperm whales suddenly come popping up out of nowhere,” Shane says.

Needing reliable babysitters is why sperm whales live in stable groups of mothers, a community of related whales structured for care of young ones. It’s been called “mother culture” by the pioneering whale biologists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell. More incisively, it is babysitting culture.

No other large whales—humpbacks, blues, fin, gray—live in groups wherein the same individuals stay together for decades. Other large whales give birth in tropical, relatively safe locations. The catch: in those warm, clear, safer waters, there is no food for mothers, who do not eat for several months. So mothers migrate to strike a trade-off between eating and a safe nursery. Gray whales who spend the foraging season in the Bering Sea migrate to give birth in the safety of warm Mexican lagoons. For New England humpbacks, winter means the Caribbean. Other humpbacks migrate from the Antarctic Peninsula to Costa Rica, traveling five thousand miles and crossing the equator before coasting to a stop.

Sperm whales do it differently. They give birth where their food is. So female sperm whales have no need to fast, or to migrate. The hitch for them? The squid are several thousand feet down, and infant sperm whales cannot follow. Consequently, a mother sperm whale spends five-sixths of her time far from her baby. And this dilemma, more than anything, drives the sperm whale’s social arrangement of living in female-led families where everyone knows each other and everyone protects the young.

When males come to the tropics to consort, they are magnets to females. Whitehead recorded his first impressions of male–female interactions, writing, “They just seemed delighted that he was there. For his part the male was all calm serenity and gentleness.”

After breeding, the sires vanish into the blue-dark infinities. “My Lord Whale has no taste for the nursery, however much for the bower,” commented Melville, “and so being a great traveler, he leaves his anonymous babies all over the world.”

Shane’s been monitoring their communiqués. “Mom’s talking to her baby,” he says, handing me the headphones.

I hear the coda clacks stop. The sonar clicks begin as Mom goes into foraging mode. O
 

Adapted from Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, by Carl Safina. Published by Henry Holt Co., New York.


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Ecologist and author Carl Safina explores how humans are changing the living world, and what those changes mean for wild places and for human and other beings. His work connects broad scientific understanding with a moral call to action. His writing has won the MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. Safina hosted the 10-part PBS series, Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina. He holds the Endowed Chair for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and is founder of the not-for-profit Safina Center. He lives on Long Island, New York with his wife Patricia and their dogs and feathered friends. Carl’s most recent book is Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace.

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