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Whales Hanging Out

One day during our whale swimming trip to Dominica, another diver and I followed a large female and a juvenile whale. They moved slowly, untroubled by our presence; had they not wanted us nearby, a couple of vigorous strokes would have left us far behind. At a certain point, the two separated and we followed the juvenile, who led us to a group of four whales who hung vertically together (to give you a sense of scale here, three of these whales were at least thirty feet long and well over twenty tons). They are at a depth of 30-100 feet:

(Photo: Fred Buyle)

Many scientists believe that whales sleep like this, but we saw them twisting about and even bumping into each other. The researchers at Darewin think that in such close proximity the whales are communicating very detailed information to each other.

With standard echolocation, whales send out clicks from the large bulb of their head and then capture the echo returning off of objects with their 36-52 teeth, each one individually providing its own information to create an exact, three-dimensional image. (Contrast these multiple receptors with humans’ limited stereo vision and hearing).

However, when sperm whales hang together, they emit more detailed, complex sounds (codas) to each other, the content of which is indecipherable to us. These communications are repetitive and precise (when viewed on an oscilloscope, they repeat with a digital precision). Perhaps the whales need to be in close proximity for these signals, and they send the messages directly towards the teeth of their nearby friends.

Are they beaming holographic images to each other? Or are they just chatting about the weather, the awkward human divers, or their latest adventure chasing giant squid 3000 feet below the surface of an azure-blue sea?

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

“Why don’t they answer? Why don’t they sing?”

Every Trekkie knows Kirk’s anguished cry toward the (joyous) end of IV: The Voyage Home as he appeals to the humpbacks. ;-)


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