Photo: Jonathan Bird/Getty
Not three metres from where I’m standing on the starboard side of the sailboat, six very large female sperm whales are doing something few humans have ever witnessed.
The captain of our 40-foot cutter is Dalhousie University biologist Hal Whitehead, one of the pre-eminent experts on sperm whales. It’s mid-afternoon on a sunny day in Mexico’s Gulf of California, a 1,000-kilometre-long body of water famous for its biodiversity. The gulf’s strong tides create a cool upwelling of nutrients that support countless species of marine life, such as snappers, sardines and sharks, as well as that fierce mass of tentacles known as the Humboldt squid. Sperm whales hunt these squid year-round-they dive kilometres under the surface, pinpoint the squid with their sonar and snap them into their large and toothy grins.
For the past five days, Whitehead and four crew members-including two Ph.D. students named Armando Manolo Álvarez Torres and Catalina Gomez-have been shadowing the sperm whales around the clock. They track their underwater echolocation pings on the hydrophone by night, and observe and photograph the animals by day. In many ways Whitehead’s approach is that of an old-fashioned behavioural scientist. While younger whale researchers tend to collect data using implants and satellite tracking, Whitehead still prefers following whales in person. By watching who spends time with whom doing what, he can extract insights about their social structure.
Until now, the whale behaviour on display during our trip has been pretty basic: They disappeared into the deep and-invisible to us-hunted. A bushy waterspout, often spotted from the crow’s nest, announced their return to the surface. Family units of half a dozen or so bobbed at the surface of the water, reoxygenating their blood and preparing for the next dive.
But on rare occasions the whales did something else: They socialized, squirming all over one another like a business of monster-size aquatic ferrets. “Whoa,” says Gomez, as the water in front of her churns with activity. One of the whales rolls onto her side-we can see the tender pink of her jaw, surprisingly slight and narrow against her large proboscis. Another whale rolls over her, twisting as she moves, while a third pokes her nose vertically out of the water, as if sniffing the air, before undulating sharply, bunching her back as she slides down and into the other bodies. The high-powered field camera whirls as Gomez shoots photo after photo while another crew member furiously fills out the behavioural log in the day’s workbook.
Photo: Jonathan Bird/Getty
Whitehead calls such socializing the “bonding glue” for sperm-whale society. But we’re also being shown a window into his most astonishing proposition: Sperm whales have distinct cultures. Each clan, he argues, is unique in almost every way: feeding, migration patterns, child-care preferences, rates of reproduction. Sperm whales also speak different dialects. In addition to their echolocation clicks, they produce unique sequences of clicks called “codas,” which change from clan to clan-think of the variations, say, between Sicilian and Venetian-and are likely a declaration of group identity.
“These aren’t genetic differences,” says Whitehead. “They’re learned.” What distinguishes whales-along with chimps, elephants and perhaps some birds-is the fact that the things they learn persist through time. They seem to be passed down from generation to generation until they form part of the distinct identity of the clan.
Whitehead’s evidence adds a whole new dimension to the way we think about protecting whales. It tells us that if humans break up a group of sperm whales or killer whales or dolphins, we are destroying not just individual lives or a population of animals; we are also destroying a unique dialect, a hunting strategy, a social tradition-an ancient, living culture. “You have to understand,” Whitehead says, “until a few hundred thousand years ago most of the culture was in the ocean. Certainly the most sophisticated cultures on Earth were whales and dolphins, until the strange bipedal hominid evolved.”
When Whitehead and his colleague Luke Rendall published their findings in a 2001 special issue of the influential journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a few scientific commentators were critical, calling the claims of culture “weak” and “overblown.” Others found the evidence convincing, piecing it together with new research into cetacean cognition that continued through the decade.
It all came to a head this past February in Vancouver, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science-the world’s largest gathering of scientists-when a small group of scientists and ethicists presented what they hoped would be a paradigm-changing proposal to a packed room: “The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.”
“We affirm,” reads the declaration, “that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and well-being.” They have the right, the declaration continues, not to be slaughtered, not to be held in captivity, not to be owned or exploited or removed from their environment. The declaration sparked national and international coverage, most of it positive, some critical and some quizzical. “The important thing,” says one of the authors, Atlanta-based Emory University neurobiologist Lori Marino, “is that people are taking it seriously.”
The declaration is, of course, nonbinding, so the real test will be whether the group can get the project endorsed legally. They hope to bring the declaration before the UN. As part of another effort, Marino and some of the signatories are also working with an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project, which is preparing to litigate its first cases and break through the legal wall that currently separates humans from nonhumans. “We want to argue for whale common-law status-to actually use a dolphin or whale as a plaintiff,” says Marino. “We think we can find a jurisdiction where a judge would be open to hearing this. The science is on our side.”
The key claim is that whales and dolphins are entitled to that privileged human status known as personhood. “Humans are considered persons because they have a certain set of characteristics,” says Marino. “They are self-aware, intelligent, complex, autonomous, cultured and so on. If we accept that definition-and versions of this are used around the world in constitutions and other legislation-then the latest science is telling us that cetaceans also qualify. They are, therefore, nonhuman persons.”
Whales, it seems, are having their civil-rights moment. But is the science behind the declaration’s claims sound? And if so, what are the legal and ethical implications of extending personhood to cetaceans? What would a Cetacean Nation even look like?
Photo: Jonathan Bird/Getty
A few hundred years ago, whales were feared-the stuff of myth and legend. Artist engravings from the 16th century depict great fanged monsters with wings at their ears and horns along their belly. This began to change in the 18th century with the rise of whaling. European and American sailors came back with vivid tales of hardship and struggle. At the centre of their stories was the mighty sperm whale-scourge of the South Seas-who overturned the whaling boats and dragged harpooners to their deaths. From source material like this, Herman Melville spun his great American literature epic.
The first observations of whales came from whaler naturalists, who tagged along on hunting expeditions and kept extensive notes. In 1939, Thomas Beale remarked on the strong sociality of female sperm whales. He was one of the few naturalists who characterized sperm whales as actually being quite gentle (“timid and inoffensive,” in his words). But such accounts were rare. For the most part, the whale was seen as a moving field of blubber, which could be melted for candle wax, soap and, most precious of all, oil. The whale kick started civilization’s first oil addiction, a nonrenewable resource that fired the industrial revolution and was exploited almost to extinction.
Through the late 19th century, whaling technologies improved greatly and hundreds of thousands of whales were “harvested” a year, leading to a crash in their global numbers. The population of blue whales in the South Seas, for example, went from 350,000 at the turn of the 20th century to just over 2,000 today. Sperm whales, prized for their precious spermaceti oil-the bright, sweet-smelling candles produced from the oil were luxury items-somehow fared considerably better. Their total population is thought to have dropped from over a million to a third of that. Whales were described in terms of “units”-a mechanization of life that was reflected in the dominant scientific view of animals at the time, known as behaviourism, which considered all animals to be stimulus-response machines devoid of inner life.
By the middle of the 20th century, all of this started to change. Biologists began to show up at meetings of the newly established International Whaling Commission (IWC), warning that whales were on the brink of extinction. In the public imagination, whales shifted from Moby Dick to Jacques Cousteau’s gentle giants. The hyperintrepid dolphin Flipper entertained millions of television viewers during the late ’60s, while the haunting Songs of the Humpback Whale, released in 1970, became a smash hit for Capitol Records.
The most influential, and polarizing, figure in this new reassessment was a brilliant medical doctor and neurophysiologist named John Lilly. One of the first scientists to promote dolphin problem-solving abilities, Lilly was also a natural showman who, among other stunts, taught dolphins to mimic high-pitched versions of English-language phrases.
The media loved it. Lilly’s books were bestsellers and inspired a generation of future marine biologists. Buoyed by his research data and well-received scientific papers, he began making bold claims. “Individual dolphins and whales,” Lilly wrote, “are to be given the legal rights of human individuals.” Research into cetacean communication, he argued, was a matter of importance to all of human civilization. “We must learn their needs, their ethics, their philosophy,” he wrote. “The extraterrestrials are here-in the sea.”
Lilly’s vivid depiction of dolphins and whales as intelligent, peace-loving ETs was exactly what the youth wanted to hear. The Save the Whales movement was born. Canadian naturalist Farley Mowat’s 1972 A Whale for the Killing helped to rouse public outrage, and Greenpeace-also Canadian-began sending out inflatable Zodiacs between whalers and their prey. In 1986, after years of heated debate, a moratorium on commercial whaling was passed, respected by all member countries in the IWC except Norway, Iceland and Japan, who take advantage of loopholes in the IWC treaty in order to hunt thousands of whales a year.
Today, although some whale populations have begun to recover, the danger is far from over. Seven of the 13 species of great whales remain endangered, and several populations-the Western Northern Pacific grey whale, the Western North Atlantic whale, and the Antarctic blue whale-have only a few hundred remaining. In addition, over 300,000 cetaceans are killed a year in ship collisions and fisheries “bycatch.” What’s more, the IWC treaty does not apply directly to other small whales and dolphins; over 20,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed annually off the coast of Japan alone, including in the shallow coves of Taiji, made infamous in the recent Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove.
According to Marino, a recognition of whale personhood and rights could pressure the IWC to close the remaining loopholes and make it far more difficult for any country to slaughter cetaceans. It might also end dolphin and whale captivity, a challenge for SeaWorld and other aquariums, but a boon for the rapidly expanding global whale-watching industry, which rakes in more than two billion tourist dollars a year and employs more than 13,000 people.
But whale personhood also represents the latest revolution in human sensitivity. For 50 years the idea of whale consciousness has waited for a crossover moment-to go from a fringe belief passionately held by the few to an idea accepted by many. A number of cetacean researchers-declaration in hand-believe that moment has finally come.