In conjunction with World Whale Day, 18 Feb 2016
Of all the sea creatures whales hold for me a particular fascination, stemming, perhaps, from the knowledge of their enormously developed brains coupled with the unguessable, pressing, muffled world in which they pass their lives. So highly convoluted are those brains that it has been suggested that were it not for their frustrating limblessness they might well have outstripped man in domination of the earth’s surface.
Yet there are an incredible number of people who, because of the superficial similarities of bulk and habitat, confuse them with the great sharks whose brains are minute and rudimentary. Although from early times whaling men have had strange tales to tell of their quarry’s extraordinary mental powers, it is only comparatively recently that these things have become accepted fact.
The American ‘oceanariums’ have allowed their porpoise and dolphin inmates to reveal themselves as highly intelligent, amiable, and playful personalities who evince an unexpected desire to please and cooperate with human beings. They will play ball games with their attendants, come up out of the water to greet them, and retrieve with obvious pleasure ladies’ handbags and kindred objects that have accidentally fallen into their tank.
They are also capable of unquestionable altruism to one another; like many animals, but perhaps even more than most, their behaviour compares very favourably with that of the human species. Yet for the oil in the blubber that insulates them from the cold of polar seas man has from the earliest days reserved for the whales the most brutal and agonizing death in his armoury, the harpoon buried deep in living flesh.
Once zoologists held that whales were dumb, and both the system of communication that made possible concerted action by widely separated individuals, and the ‘sixth sense’ by which they could detect the presence of objects in water too murky for vision, remained undiscovered.
We have long laboured under an obtuse presupposition that the senses by which other living creatures perceive their world must to a great extent resemble our own; but in fact we are, by scientific invention, only now beginning to approach methods of perception that the whales have always owned as their birthright. Not only can they hear sounds four times higher than the upper limit of the human ear can detect, but they possess a highly-developed system closely akin to our own recently discovered radar, sending out a constant stream of supersonic notes whose returning ‘echoes’ inform them of the whereabouts, size, and possibly much more as yet unguessed information, of all objects within their range.
Underwater recording devices have now also established that members of the whale tribe keep up an almost continual conversational chatter among themselves, sounds that are seldom if ever uttered by a single whale with no other near him.
Because man could not hear them, man assumed that they were dumb. If a whale’s cry of pain when struck with a harpoon had been audible it is just possible, but only just, that man would have felt more self-hatred in their slaughter; though the sight of two adult whales trying to keep the blow-hole of a wounded calf above water has failed to change the attitude of whaler to whale.