My dad and I boarded a small boat in Juneau, Alaska. I was happy to take the glacier tour, but my ideal trip would have ended with a photo of a bear basking on the forest banks. Spoiler alert: I did not meet a bear.
I met Captain Larry, who steered us through beautiful scenery while telling us about his old boat as it slid across the cold, crystal water.
In addition to scenery, the purpose of this trip was to see whales in their natural habitat. Sometimes, a lucky tourist will see a whale breach the surface, but of course, such encounters were not guaranteed. A puff of mist from a whale would be amazing to see, but the magic of that interaction is left mostly to the imagination, considering the creature remains a mystery under the surface of the dark water. While the idea excited me, it took me some time to truly understand how important it would be for me find wild whales— at very least, for the sake of an inspiring blog post.
A tool is an instrument used in some activity. I’ve always associated tool-use with primates, due to our opposable thumbs. Tool-use is often arrogantly associated with mental superiority, sometimes justifiably so. Many of us think an animal needs to be dexterous to use tools, and smart enough to rationalize the need for a tool. After I boarded that boat, my perspective on “intelligent tool use” reached a new level.
Snowy mountains set the backdrop. Captain Larry pointed out a flock of cloud-white gulls hovering over a spot of water. He said, “Focus on that spot under the birds.”
Seconds later, two massive humpback whales erupted from the water like smooth mountains defying gravity. Their heads and at least a third of their bodies rose into the air. After they crashed into the water, and after I finished applauding like a trained circus monkey (I was pretty excited), we noticed a pattern. About five minutes would go by before the gulls began flocking over one spot of water. From the air, they could see the whales congregating. A minute after the birds began hovering, one, two, and sometimes three whales would explode out of the water with their mouths wide open— one almost swallowed a gull. They were hunting fish together, which is why the birds expressed so much interest in the whale’s strategy.
Imagine a ripe mango at the top of an impossibly tall tree. For a primate like myself, I’d look for a rock or a stick to knock the fruit down. That level of resourcefulness is seen as a sign of intelligence, but imagine a realm where I could simply create a concentrated laser beam of oxygen and shoot it directly at the fruit to knock it from it’s branch.
That’s essentially what I witnessed from the whales. They were partaking in a rare phenomenon called “bubble net feeding.” It’s a learned behavior found in certain pods of whales, indicating that it is taught from elders to young in certain families rather than being instinctive. Whales in other parts of the ocean know nothing about this.
Here’s how bubble net feeding works: The members of the pod spread across the sea floor until they find a school of herring. They then coordinate a group attack by blowing bubbles and swimming in circles below/ around the herring. The fish are afraid of the wall of bubbles floating up from the depths, so they swim the opposite direction. But guess what’s there? A bubble wall from another whale! The humpbacks close their bubble circle as the frightened school of fish panic in a tight ball with nowhere to go. The whales then take turns swimming up, through the circle of millions of bubbles, with their mouths wide open to scoop the fish.
Imagine the complex thought required to coordinate such a project. Imagine the first whales who developed the trick. They needed to communicate each step of the process and train their team to execute — remember, this is learned behavior. Not instinct.
Captain Paul Watson wrote an amazing essay on cetacean brains, arguing that they are the most intelligent beings on planet Earth (cetacean= whales & dolphins). Most people think humans are the most intelligent animals, but as a human, consider what “we” lack. Think about our wars. We kill our own species over resources, egos, and religion. It seems primitive, no? How many people have we had to exploit in order to arrive where we are today?
Whales have the largest brains of any animal, and as Captain Watson explains in his essay, an arguably more intricate brain structure than our own. How would you survive if I dropped you off on an abandoned island? You might remember some boy/girl scout skills, but how resourceful and adaptable could you be long-term? What if there were no resources with which to build a fire or weapons? Humans have inherited a lot, but in terms of brain structure, whales and dolphins may have us beat.
Cetaceans use sonar, and are capable of hearing up to 20 times the amount of information that we can. They have lobe structures in their brain rivaling that of humans in regard to speech and communication. Cetaceans also have an enlarged limbic lobe. In humans, the limbic system corresponds with emotional behavior and memories.
Another interesting difference between these sensitive submarines and us is the cingulate gyrus, of which humans only have one. Orcas have an enlarged cingulate gyrus, made up of three separate lobes. In addition to large size, the structural design implies an extreme capability of emotional expression. Some people are less socially developed than most cetaceans.
Another interesting factor in cetacean brains are spindle cells, which are associated with the limbic system’s processing of social interactions and empathy. These were once thought to be unique to great apes, but have been found in whales and dolphins. Even cooler— we now know that the spindle cells in killer whales are larger than those found in the human brain. So, we lose that “mine’s bigger” argument.
Cetaceans are thought to have a more unified perception without separate senses, hence using an acoustic (sonar) sense that seems to be at one with their vision (I.E. seeing sounds). This is the stuff of dreams, people!
Considering how interested we are in dragons and aliens, why aren’t people obsessed with these singing super-tanks of the ocean? They speak a language, they mourn their dead, and they have built in compasses and radar systems. (Captain Watson states that because of their capability for sonar, a dolphin can see a tumor inside another dolphin).
Some scholars argue that these creatures should be classified as non-human persons, considering they have an intellectual complexity and emotional depth that without question outranks many humans.
Perhaps their advanced perceptive skills explain why so many ship-wrecked humans have been rescued by dolphins? I admit, before seeing these animals hunting in the wild, I was less enthusiastic than I am now. If you aren’t able to book a trip to Alaska, simply read Captain Paul Watson’s essay and let me know what you think in the comments!