Whales, like humans, have cultures

Scientists have realized whales, like humans, have culture — behaviors and customs that differ depending on upbringing and location.
Two beluga whales swimming.
Beluga Whales underwater at Cunningham Inlet on Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic. Female beluga whales come to this estuary region in summertime with their newborn calves to rest and play in the shallow water. Photo courtesy Brian Skerry.
Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to stay informed of Maine environmental news.

On a Friday in mid-September of 1999, fishermen off the coast of a small rocky island in northern Norway, at the edge of the Barents Sea, saw something that hadn’t been observed in those waters for more than 400 years: a North Atlantic Right whale, its back marked by a large white scar and its body scattered with orange cyamids, a type of parasite that indicates poor health.

An observer snapped a photo and sent it across the Atlantic, where researchers at Boston’s New England Aquarium confirmed that the mammal was indeed a Right whale, and one they’d seen before, known as “Porter,” or no. 1133. (Readers in Maine will likely be familiar with the species for its role in a years-long controversy over fishing gear and whale entanglements.)

Movements of the North Atlantic Right whale are typically very predictable – they travel from Florida in the winter to the Bay of Fundy in the summer (not unlike some of their human counterparts), stopping to feed along the way. Porter had most recently been seen in late May off Cape Cod. His migration to Norway — more than 3,500 miles — was highly unusual, the longest ever recorded for a Right whale.

The stretch of coastline that Porter visited (he stayed for several weeks before eventually returning to Cape Cod) was the site of historical whaling grounds, where the animals once traveled to feed before they were hunted nearly to extinction (there are thought to be only 340 Northern Right whales left in the world).

Scientists believe Porter’s long, unusual journey, so far from his normal route, was either a wild coincidence, or, possibly, the result of stories, passed down through generations, that prompted him to go to where his ancestors had been killed, said Brian Skerry, an award-winning photographer and explorer with National Geographic who spoke about whale culture at the Schoodic Institute on Tuesday evening.

“These were dyed-in-the-wool, very traditional scientists, not prone to hyperbole or conspiracy theories, but that’s what they concluded” was most likely, said Skerry, speaking to a packed room.

Skerry spent three years documenting whale culture around the world, work that eventually became “Secrets of the Whales,” a series on Disney+, as well as a National Geographic cover story and a book. The talk on Tuesday was part of Schoodic Institute’s Summer Lecture Series (the next talk, “Music and Nature Reflections with Hawk Henries,” is Sept. 12).

Brian Skerry gives a lecture to a room full of attendees.
Schoodic Institute’s Summer Lecture Series included Brian Skerry, National Geographic magazine photographer and film producer. Photo courtesy Schoodic Institute.

Skerry has spent 12,000 hours underwater, documenting the world’s oceans — he’s currently at work on a piece about coastal kelp forests in the Gulf of Maine, set to be published next June. Many of those hours have been spent documenting whales, an interest he developed in part after hearing about Porter’s lengthy Atlantic crossing.

Humans have always been fascinated by whales, Skerry pointed out. Whale watching is a $2 billion a year industry. But it was only recently that scientists began to realize that whales, like humans, have culture — behaviors and customs that differ depending on upbringing and location.

“Behavior is what we do, culture is how we do it,” Skerry explained. Most humans use utensils, but we may use forks or chopsticks, depending on where we were raised. Whales, like humans, gather in groups according to language or dialect and prefer certain foods.

Some, like the Beluga whale, take vacations at their favorite beach (although in this case the beach is above the Arctic circle, hardly my idea of a relaxing vacation), or have singing competitions, like the Humpback.

“The winning tune that gets adopted by all other whales and passed on to the entire Pacific ocean,” said Skerry.

Two humpback whales swimming in the ocean.
Humpback whale mother and calf in the waters off of Vava’u, Tonga. This mother recently had her calf and has taken it into a protected bay, with shallow coral reefs. The mother often rests underwater while the calf plays around her, breaching and frolicking around. Humpbacks come to these waters from their winter feeding grounds in Antarctica and engage in mating and calving. Photo courtesy Brian Skerry.

Skerry, who set out more than 20 years ago to make beautiful images of nature, said he now aims to broaden the way humans see the natural world, particularly our brethren living below the surface of its waters.

Our oceans are dying, said Skerry. “We’ve taken 90% of the big fish out of the ocean in the last sixty years. We have destroyed half of the world’s coral reefs. We dump 18 billion pounds of plastic into the ocean every single year” and expel so much carbon into the atmosphere that we have changed the ocean’s chemistry.

Skerry his hope is that people take from this series “those things that we already know — that nature is precious, wonderful and fragile… a place where other families live, families not so different from our own.”


Kate Cough

Kate Cough is editor of The Maine Monitor. She previously served as enterprise editor for The Monitor while also covering energy and the environment and writing the weekly Climate Monitor newsletter. Before joining The Monitor, Kate was a beat reporter for The Ellsworth American and digital media strategist for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. Kate graduated with honors from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Magna Cum Laude from Bryn Mawr College. Kate is an eighth generation Mainer, who lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, daughter, and dogs.
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