Monday, July 13, 2009

Enthralled by Whales

I want to share with you an article that has deeply impacted me since I read it for the first time yesterday afternoon on a lengthy subway ride. It's story has taken residence in my mind; it has confounded and enthralled me, and has left me eager to satisfy the boundless curiosity now embedded in me by this story.

I'll start from the very beginning. My newspaper failed to arrive this past Saturday, as per usual. A frustrating occurrence made all the more frustrating by the gravity of what was at stake: the advance sections of the Weekend edition (Arts & Leisure, Travel, and most importantly, the Sunday Magazine.) It wouldn't matter to me if I were to be so lucky as to find my delivery intact on Sunday morning; it was Saturday's paper that held Sunday's promise. So, after numerous annoying phone calls to my delivery courier, who had vowed a same day re-delivery of my beloved sections, I stumbled upon a deserted copy of the day's paper strewn over a table at a nearby cafe whose ATM I had come to use. Ruffling through the papers to see what I had missed, the glossy cover of the Sunday Magazine that was tucked away between sections of lesser importance caught me by surprise--who would leave this treasured reading material behind?! With my stolen loot stealthily crumpled up in my right hand, I scooted out of the cafe, somewhat calmed down by my morning's delivery fiasco since I now had a piece of the pie I sought after.

Now, if it were any other weekend, my mission to attain this issue would be of little significance, but it just so happens that the cover article that caught my eye in that brief moment at the cafe, has resonated with me so deeply that I cannot dismiss the preceding chase so easily. The image on the cover was of a whale fluke extending above the ocean's surface, and printed over it were the words "What are the Whales Trying to Tell Us?" As I have noted here before, I love whales. There is a passage in this article that I think best sums up by fascination with cetaceans: "They largely elude us, whales, thus their deep allure. The earth's most massive creatures, they nevertheless spend the bulk of their lives off in their own element, beyond our ken, about as close as fellow mammals can get to being extraterrestrials."

The article, which I highly recommend as a delightful, stimulating, thought-provoking read, is about the possibility of interspecies communication told through an accumulation of recent research on whales. The article largely focuses on the whales of Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California, Mexico, who have continuously, over the past 50 years, sought out communication with humans. The author of the article ventures down to Baja in order to witness the arrival of the "Friendlies", as these Pacific Coast gray whales are called, and finds himself not only petting the face of a 40-foot-long, 30-ton female whale and her newborn calf, but also floating atop the back of this same whale, along with his companions on their 18-foot-long boat.

Alongside this first-hand account, the author provides a range of astonishing factual evidence that details cetacean's evolved intelligence and their intricate social behavior, both which reflect our own. On a neurological study of whale brains, Siebert writes, "The study revealed brain structures surprisingly similar to our own. Some, in fact, contained large concentrations of spindle cells--often referred to as the cells that make us human because of their link to higher cognitive functions like self-awareness, a sense of compassion and linguistic expression--with the added kick that whales evolved these same highly specialized neurons as many as 15 million years before we humans did, a stunning instance of a phenomenon biologists refer to as parallel evolution."

Siebert also quotes a scientific journal which notes that whales "exhibit complex social patterns that include intricate communcation skills, coalition formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage." In regard to this social behavior, he also writes:
The sperm whale, for example, which has the largest brain on earth, weighing as much as 19 pounds, has been found to live in large, elaborately structured societal groups, or clans, that typically number in the tens of thousands and wander over many thousands of miles of ocean. The whales of a clan are not all related, but within each clan there are smaller, close-knit, matriarchal family units. Young whales are raised within an extended, multitiered network of doting female caregivers, including the mother, aunts and grandmothers, who help in the nurturing of babies and, researchers suspect, in teaching them patterns of movement, hunting techniques and communication skills. “It’s like they’re living in these massive, multicultural, undersea societies,” says Hal Whitehead, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and the world’s foremost expert on the sperm whale. “It’s sort of strange. Really the closest analogy we have for it would be ourselves.”
The closest analogy is ourselves?! This is truly mind-blowing to me. To think that there is a species that exists on this planet that has evolved alongside us humans, who think we are the dominant species on this planet is unfathomable and alien-like to me. And yet, the stories told in the article about the curiosity and friendliness exhibited by whales make this concept all the more intruiging and plausible to me. I am in awe of this article and want to re-post every magical word of it here, but I'll spare you. I hope you'll read it instead yourself and, if I haven't inspired you to do so yet, maybe this will:

As Beto spoke, I thought of another bit of interspecies cooperation involving humpbacks that I recently read about. A female humpback was spotted in December 2005 east of the Farallon Islands, just off the coast of San Francisco. She was entangled in a web of crab-trap lines, hundreds of yards of nylon rope that had become wrapped around her mouth, torso and tail, the weight of the traps causing her to struggle to stay afloat. A rescue team arrived within a few hours and decided that the only way to save her was to dive in and cut her loose. For an hour they cut at the lines and rope with curved knives, all the while trying to steer clear of a tail they knew could kill them with one swipe.

When the whale was finally freed, the divers said, she swam around them for a time in what appeared to be joyous circles. She then came back and visited with each one of them, nudging them all gently, as if in thanks. The divers said it was the most beautiful experience they ever had. As for the diver who cut free the rope that was entangled in the whale’s mouth, her huge eye was following him the entire time, and he said that he will never be the same.

Watching Whales Watching Us by Charles Siebert in the New York Times' Sunday Magazine.

A video filmed in the San Ignacio Lagoon. This makes me shudder and brings me unbelievable joy to know this is real:

If that wasn't enough, watch this:

And a beautiful, song-filled spiritual one:

Some Links:
+Save the Whales
+NRDC: Protecting Whales From Dangerous Sonar
+Wikipedia: Cetacean Intelligence

1 comment:

Jen C. said...

Thanks for this, Marina! I'm going to read that article. Amazing.