Big Deep - An Ocean Podcast

Whale 2.0: Shane Gero on decoding the language and culture of sperm whales (Part One)

December 31, 2019 Hosts Jason Elias and Paul Kelway Season 1 Episode 13
Big Deep - An Ocean Podcast
Whale 2.0: Shane Gero on decoding the language and culture of sperm whales (Part One)
Chapters
Big Deep - An Ocean Podcast
Whale 2.0: Shane Gero on decoding the language and culture of sperm whales (Part One)
Dec 31, 2019 Season 1 Episode 13
Hosts Jason Elias and Paul Kelway

Part One of our conversation with Behaviour Ecologist, Shane Gero, on his research efforts to decode the sophisticated language and culture of one of the deepest divers in the ocean - sperm whales.

Show Notes Transcript

Part One of our conversation with Behaviour Ecologist, Shane Gero, on his research efforts to decode the sophisticated language and culture of one of the deepest divers in the ocean - sperm whales.

Hosts:

Hi and welcome to the big deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean, people for whom that connection is so strong it defines some aspect of their life . Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. In this episode we speak with a whale researcher who's come to understand that whale family dynamics are not unlike our own. Hello, this is Paul Kelway and I'm Jason Elias. Welcome to the big deep podcast .

Jason Elias:

In this episode, part one of our interview is Shane Gieo, a behavioral ecologist who founded the Dominica Sperm Whale Project in the Eastern Caribbean. Shane's project is focused on a number of communities of Whales, including one called the "group of seven" for the last ten years, and this has led to some surprising discoveries and deeper connections back to whale culture, language, and even to what the loss of one individual whale means to its family.

Shane Gero:

Well, every kid growing up has a favorite animal and mine was the killer whale. And every 10 year old wants to be a Marine biologist and sail the ocean and follow families of whales around. And so sperm whales are interesting because they have all of the same sort of stories as killer whales do. They're just even more enigmatic. They're farther from shore, they spend more time in the darkness of the deep ocean and so we know less about them. And it's certainly not a species you're going to see in captivity like the killer whales are. They're really enigmatic extreme animals. They're amongst the deepest divers. They dive three times deeper than our best nuclear attack submarine . They're the largest of the tooth whales. They're Herman Melville's , Moby Dick. They're the biblical Leviathan, the largest brain on the planet, and live in a part of the world that we know virtually nothing about and actually have great difficulty exploring. And yet their family lives are so similar to us. So it's kind of like whale 2.0 for me. You just don't hear about them as much. And that's something that I was excited to change. So I'm just still that kid. I've been really lucky to have turned my childhood passions into my adult profession and I feel really grateful.

Paul Kelway:

So I wanted to ask why specifically this community of whales in the Eastern Caribbean? How and why did that become the focus of your work?

Shane Gero:

Well, most of the seminal work on sperm whales was done off the Galapagos, but the Pacific is a very different place than the Atlantic, both in terms of its ecosystem, its size and its Sperm Whales. And unfortunately we did a good job of whaling out a lot of the big male sperm whales in the Pacific. Much more intense hunting happened there than it did in the Eastern Caribbean. And so there just isn't a lot of sperm whale calves at the Pacific study sites. And that was something that I was really interested in. How do I become a sperm whale? What do I need to learn when I'm born to go from birth to maturity? Do I need to learn how to catch squid? How do I learn my natal dialect ? What do the moms need to do to survive in the cold darkness of the pelagic ocean. And that wasn't possible in the Pacific. So when my masters research started, which is what founded the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, we looked for a place where there might be babies. And early on in the history of sperm whale research, this great guy from woods hole oceanographic Institute went to Dominica , for a few trips to record sperm whales. And one of the small notes that he had made along the way was that there were plenty of calves. And so we went back and sure enough, our first season there in 2005, it was like the promised land. There were sperm whales everywhere. And every family that we met had at least one, if not two or three babies with it. And so it's really been the first time that we've had the opportunity to study sperm whales as individuals, as brothers and sisters as mothers, and babysitters in families, in a community of neighboring families that have different cultures all in one place. And it's been my great privilege to be able to spend almost 4,000 hours now in the company of sperm whales.

Paul Kelway:

So for the uninitiated, if you were to introduce sperm whales to somebody, some key aspects of their behavior, social interactions, their life, their world, how would you, how would you describe that?

Shane Gero:

Well, the most important thing to recognize is that most of the ocean is dark. You know, 85% of their life is spent in part of the ocean that no light touches. So their world is very different from ours. They're enormous animals. The big males get up to 18 meters and 50 metric tons, but they have really similar families to ours. Sperm whale society is matrilineal. It's grandmothers and mothers and their daughters that will live together for life in small families and their ocean nomads. They roam huge expanses of the offshore and sometimes covering thousands of kilometers is relatively normal for sperm whale families. They dive every hour for about 45 to 50 minutes of that hour and they eat almost exclusively squid. And yes, that mythical battle between giant squid and sperm whales is real and happens every day. In fact, sperm whales worldwide consume as much stuff from the ocean as all of humanity's fisheries combined. So they're really ecologically important. They are an important part of the ocean out there. And importantly in my research, they have a really complicated communication system. In order to have this complicated society where families live in communities, they need an ability to recognize one another. And so one of the things that I've been studying for the last 14 years off Dominica is what sperm whales are saying. And we've been really, really good at figuring out what they say. And recently with the help of suction cup tags, we basically stick small computers on the backs of the whales that measure their movement in the sounds that they make. We've been able to figure out where they are in the water column and where they are in relation to their family members. And so we've been able to start addressing the really interesting question of why these animals are talking to each other. What information are they sharing with each other and starting to decipher the language of sperm whales and if that isn't every eight year olds dream version of Marine biology, I'm not really sure what it is.

Paul Kelway:

Can you explain a bit about how they communicate and the different types of communication that they have and how they use that?

Shane Gero:

There's a world of sound. Sperm Whale life is entirely about the sounds they make. They see with sound, they find food with sound, they hunt with sound, and they stay in touch with their family and recognize other families with sound. But the sounds they make are primarily two different types. They make echolocation when they're hunting for food and that's just like many people will be familiar with how bats find food in the darkness of the nighttime. They make a click and then they listen to the echo to navigate around things and also to find food. And those clicks are very powerful. They're amongst the most powerful sounds on the planet. In fact, the sperm whales are the most powerful natural sonar system. But on the flip side of that coin is how do they talk to each other. And they do that using a system of what we call codas, which are patterns of rhythmic clicks. And each family has a different repertoire of codas that usually makes up about 20 to 24 different Coda patterns. Some are universal like five regularly space clicks, which we record pretty much everywhere in the world. But some are unique like the one plus one plus three in the Caribbean. That sounds something like this. (Makes CLicking Sound) And that's only ever been recorded in the Eastern Caribbean clan, this community of whales that lives off the islands in the Eastern Caribbean. And they all make it virtually identically. And even with a computer, it's very difficult to tell the individuals apart. And that's fascinating because why is it that all of these animals, some who very rarely see each other, have been able to maintain this one call in an identical way and to have their calves learn to make it? You know, it takes the calves two to three years before they can produce this call in a recognizable way. And they babble before that. They make a whole bunch of other noises before making the Coda types that are recognizable in the adults and the main reason we think that these unique highly stereotype calls exist is that they're used for recognition across a large number of animals across a huge geographic space, hundreds of kilometers. And we think it serves to Mark their cultural groups . I am from the Caribbean. Are you? And these cultural boundaries in their lives seem to be really important. These cultures are far from trivial, just like we use a fork and someone from Southeast Asia may use chopsticks, we're both eating, but how we learnt to eat is very different. Behavior is what you're doing, but culture is how you've learned to do it. It would seem anyways that sperm whales recognize and delineate different cultural groups who move differently and have different roaming patterns and they have different social behaviors on top of these different languages and probably a whole myriad of other behaviors that we don't even really understand yet. But that's one of the most interesting things that we're getting to study off Dominica.

Paul Kelway:

Yeah, I'm sure somebody has already mentioned this, but the parallels between you and the Amy Adams character on arrival are striking at the only differences.

Shane Gero:

These beings obviously are already on our planet and they're not quite so visible as there's sort of hanging above New York city while in they're far less threatening. I think people's public perception of sperm whales is driven by Moby Dick and the sea monster. And that's so far from the truth. I like to say that whatever you know about elephants is probably true about sperm whales. There are these peaceful families of women who live nomadically and learn from each other and support each other and it takes a family to raise the babies. But no, absolutely the parallels between that movie and the work that we do have come up before and unfortunately sperm whale language isn't as visual as the language that they decipher in that movie. So we spend a lot of time listening to the darkness of the deep ocean and what the animals are saying.

Paul Kelway:

So you mentioned this effort to really understand the culture and obviously the communication is a key part of that culture. What are some of the other aspects that your research has uncovered about either this society, specifically in the Caribbean or societies within spend ?

Shane Gero:

Well, communities is one thing that's important and we recognized right from the beginning was that these cultures live in multicultural societies. There are what we call clans of whales . So those are all the whales that share the same language and the same set of behaviors that live in the same space but are socially segregated and they respect each other's space and have the ability to recognize whether or not you belong in the same clan as I do or not. And that's a big deal because human ethnic groups evolved for the same reason. They allowed us to succeed and have large scale cooperative societies like we live in today. And for all of these cultural institutions to exist like roll specialization, you do this, and I do that. But together we both get something done that we each need For sperm whales, we've learned that they move in different ways. So some clans swim in very straight lines and look for squid as they pass through enormous parts of the ocean. And others are much more resident and swim in much more convoluted patterns and stayed close to islands like the community in the Caribbean. We benefit from that behavior in that we can follow families for seven or 10 days in a row and once for 40 straight days in a row in the Pacific. That's just not possible elsewhere because the animals move such huge distances in that time in virtually straight lines. Now it seems like a very minor detail, but that changes everything. Put it i n t he perspective of humans, Hunter gatherer nomads would have a really hard time living and working with sedentary farming families just because their movement patterns are dramatically different. These cultures are not a minor part of what a sperm whale is. In fact, identity seems to be really important in the same way it is for humans. Who I am comes so much from where I come from, and who I spend time with and who I become, is defined so much by what I do and how I do it. And that seems to be true for sperm whales too. These cultures, whether whale or otherwise are really a set of solutions about how to survive in the environment in which they live. All of that traditional knowledge and wealth of information that's being gathered across generations is really important reason why these animals succeed. When you start to ask, well, what happens when those communities are lost and what happens when we lose a whale culture? It becomes a really significant problem.

Jason Elias:

In the second part of our interview, Shane continues discussing his personal connection with these whales. He also describes some of the individual whales he's come to know such as Can-opener and Digit, and finally he deeply explores whale culture and asks what we as humans can learn from it.

Hosts:

Thank you for listening to the big deep podcast next time on big deep . "It's about bridging that gap between above and below the surface when you can talk about grandmothers and babysitters and cultures and get people to think about who I am and the fact that whales might be asking the same question and I think that's the start of a really important dialogue". We really appreciate you being with us on this journey into the big deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what you're doing, please make sure to subscribe, like and comment on our show in iTunes, overcast, SoundCloud or wherever you catch your podcasts. But those subscribes and links really make a difference. The more info on our guests, extra audio and photos as well as updates on anything you've heard. You can find a lot more content at our website, big deep.com plus if you know someone you think we should talk to, just let us know what the big deep website is. We are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our worlds oceans. Thanks again for joining us.