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Giants of the Sea: The Social Lives of Whales

I have always found culture fascinating. Two people living on two sides of a border, only an hour’s drive apart, might be so different that they won’t even speak the same language. Despite the cultural difference, both communities acquire their culture in the same way- social learning. They identify and empathize with their group and imitate others around them.

What astonishes me the most, is how human beings believe they are the most special on earth, while we aren’t even the first animals to develop cultures on this planet. Many other species, above and under the water, have developed their own cultures long before mankind existed. Whales are a great example of an animal which managed to develop intricate social lives underwater. If you are lucky enough, you will have the opportunity to swim or dive with whales and experience, even for a brief moment, the incredible social lives of whales.

Whales love and get angry, have friends and acquaintances and teach each other how to hunt, both for survival and for fun. They communicate in a way similar to ours, but in a language which we cannot speak. A recently published article reveals how a group of Humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine have learned a new feeding method from each other; a method that is called ‘lob-tail feeding’ and was first seen in the area in 1980.

Humpback whales used to have only one feeding method called the ‘bubble-net’ method, in which the whales dive under a pack of fish that are close to sea level, makes noises and bubbles. This causes the fish to get closer to each other. The whales then pounce out of the water with their mouths open to catch as many fish as they can. In the new feeding method the whales have developed, they whip the water with their tails up to four times and then act according to the old method.

Researchers believe they whip the water to make their victims – sand lances – crowd together with fear. The old method alone wasn’t enough to make the herring fish crowd together, therefore the new method is necessary. Since 1980, there were 278 individual sightings out of 700 whales in the Gulf of Maine which adopted the new feeding method. This method isn’t a part of their genes, which proves that the whales learned it from their community. In New England, the same kind of behavior was seen between the years of 1980-1989. 95 individuals out of 250 whales in the community have learnt the method between those years.

Researchers believe that the method had developed because of a massive reduction in the herring fish (caused by humans) which was the main source of humpback whales’ food. In order to adjust to the new reality, they developed the new feeding method and taught each other how to use it. Whales that did not watch the new method didn’t adopt it. Whales are lucky to have the ability to learn from each other, since humans will keep damaging the ocean.

Killer Whales: Social Structure

The killer whales (orcas) also exhibit complex social behavior. After the salmon fish population decreased in the northern Pacific, the male killer whales started watching the female killer whales, knowing the females have wider ecological knowledge. By watching the female killer whales, the males learned where and how to get food and increased their chances to survive. The social structure of those whales is maternal, and researches show that social learning spreads faster in those kinds of communities. Actually, whales represent one of the only communities in which females dominate. Well, I don’t think females should only dominate in the animals’ world… I wouldn’t mind living in a community like that!

The whale mother educates and disciplines her calves, and you can watch as she disciplines them for doing something wrong. Whales are very social animals and live in pods of 2-15 whales. Their hunting techniques and group bonds are extremely important to their survival, and in order to reproduce, they exchange group members from one pod to another. Whales spend most of their time eating, swimming and playing with each other. It reminds me a bit of some people I know…

When they hunt, whales coordinate different strategies with each other, share their prey and teach the young ones how to hunt. They must have impressive communication skills and social learning in order to do all that. In some videos I’ve watched, it felt like the whales resembled a soccer team with one difference – the goal is the prey instead of the ball…

Whales even learned to use different tools to achieve their goals: in Antarctica, for example, they break the icebergs where seals rest to make the seals fall into the water and then devour them. When you consider the killer whales, one cannot claim we are the only creature with culture.

Risso’s Dolphin: Social and Cultural Skills

A less familiar kind of whales is the Risso’s dolphin, which is a weird name for a whale, but if you look close enough you can see the half-smile which characterizes dolphins. This species of whale is researched less, mainly because they feed on octopus and therefore live in deep water (they sometimes dive a few hundred miles under sea level).

Fleur Visser, a Dutch biologist who researches Risso’s dolphins in the Terceira Islands (close to Portugal), found that their social structure is different than any other kind of whale. The familiar social structures of whales include the matriarchal structure (like with killer whales and other large whales) and the fission–fusion society (which usually characterizes smaller whales), which is a less stable structure: the whales divide into groups of hundreds, stay together for as short as a few minutes or as long as a few days, then separate into smaller groups while each group continues by itself.

Risso’s dolphins combine both structures: you can find them in large groups of hundreds, and when they separate to smaller groups they stay together for years, but the smaller groups are divided according to age and gender and also don’t include family members together. This social structure deeply affects their behavior and the way they teach each other social and cultural skills.

Blue Whale: Complex Intelligence

The blue whale is another kind of whale that demonstrates social behavior. They are the largest animal living under the sea – I would love to see one of them someday. Even though they live alone or in very small groups, they make sounds that can travel great distances. The reason for their ‘singing’, biologically speaking, is to mate, but there is another surprising reason for it: emoting sadness. When a pod member is sad or dying, they express and share their grief by making those sounds.

The whales’ ability to teach each other different skills proves their high level of intelligence, a kind of intelligence humans used to attribute only to themselves. Even though we know today that whales and dolphins are intelligent animals, humans still imprison those incredible animals in cages and force them to perform all in the name of profits.

I believe swimming or diving with whales and dolphins is the right way to enjoy those animals and protect marine life at the same time, instead of watching them doing unnatural things such as throwing balls in the air or forcing them to stand still while people give them kisses they probably do not want to receive. Just think about it – would you enjoy being forced into doing those things?



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