Unlocking the Cultural Secrets of Sperm Whales

Whale researcher Shane Gero has spent years studying sperm whales in an effort to better understand their daily lives, methods of communication, and cultures. He’s discovered how fundamentally similar their lives are to our own and how closely their relationships are tied to their identities. 

In the following piece, Shane explores the influence of culture in shaping individuals and societies, highlighting the role of language and cultural norms in both human and animal interactions. He advocates for a shift in wildlife conservation, urging humans to include cultural diversity as an essential component of biodiversity and to learn from the whales’ powerful sense of community.

Following is an edited transcript of a presentation that took place at Bioneers 2023.

Twenty-four years before I was even born, in 1956, as the sun was setting, a man stood in uniform at the border between the countries of Hungary and Austria. The iconography on his shirt and his arm told you of his national allegiances, his rank, his position in life, literally the dividing line between some on one side, and others on the other. 

This night, one commonality between people who lived on both sides of the line was cigarettes. For him, this cigarette was no big deal. It was just another break from his job, another butt on the floor of the guardhouse. But for me, this cigarette would secure the safe passage of a woman. This cigarette would change my native language, the color of my passport, and my identity. 

This woman is my grandmother. She grew up in a small town in Hungary, and like many others at the time, emigrated to Canada. I only knew her as “Granny,” but in a life lived before my own, she was a pioneer of women in science working toward her Ph.D. in biochemistry.

So much of who I am came from my Grann. Little things, like cutting the butter straight, not scooping it off the top. But also very foundational parts of who I am, like how important family is, and to not forget where you come from. Other than one trip where I spent a little bit of time visiting distant family in Hungary, I still feel like Hungary is somehow a part of who I am, because who you learn from in your life defines so much of who you’ll become and what you do. We’re all human, but culture is how we learn to be one. 

Human cultures have played a huge part in deciding where people live and how they behave across civilization. As early humans evolved, language served as a cheat sheet for doing things the same way as one another. Even today, you’re far more likely to help someone who yells for help in your native language than in any other. Culture can be a unifying force but also a very divisive one, and it’s structured all of human civilization.

We know that humans aren’t the only cultural animal out there. Animal culture pervades all facets of their lives. In an amazing study in chimpanzee communities across Africa, primatologists documented the different ways that chimpanzees have figured out how to live. Because of the destruction of their habitat, mostly caused by humans, chimpanzee communities are very isolated.

In the world’s oceans, there iss a nomad that lives in this boundless blue. In that giant area, they are succeeding together at building multicultural societies. Sperm whales have been sperm whales for longer than humans have even been walking upright, so their stories are deeper than our stories. Stories like the one about a mother, who we call Can Opener, swimming through a deep, dark, and often dangerous ocean, working with her community to raise and defend their calves, like her tiny little one named Hope. 

Since 2005, I’ve had the immense privilege of spending thousands of hours in the company of Hope and Can Opener’s family, and now about 30 to 40 other families off the Caribbean island called Dominica. It’s one of the first times that anyone’s come to know these biblical Leviathans as individuals, as brothers and sisters, or as mothers and daughters.

When I think about spending half of my life learning from and listening to someone who is fundamentally different from me, I’ve taken away a lot of universal lessons.

One of the novel things that we were able to do with so much time in the company of whale families is follow the lives of the young males as they grow up and leave their families. If you’re a male sperm whale, the first 15 years of your life is spent in a hyper social community of families where you’re born. When you’re a teenager, you sound like your mom, you behave like your mom. Then all of a sudden, you start this incredible voyage around the world to live a mostly solitary life until you grow to be the size of about two school buses, and really become Moby Dick.

There’s a big shift, which isn’t so unlike our late teenage years, where you leave behind your family and go out on your own. But for the families that stay in Dominica, they learn from generations of strong female leaders – grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, who live together for life. They’ve learned the fundamental truth that both they and we know, which is that family is critical to our survival. 

When Fingers, an elder in Hope’s family, makes a deep dive, she’s diving so long that she’s holding her breath for over an hour, and she’s going three times deeper than modern nuclear attack submarines. Her unique nose houses the most powerful natural sonar system, and it means that she can explore parts of the oceans that we find difficult to even get to, which makes sperm whales a critically important part of the oceanic ecosystem.

When they talk to each other, they talk in distinct patterned sequences of clicks with stereotyped rhythms and tempos, called codas. The norm for conversation is to overlap one another and to match each other’s calls. It sounds very exciting, and it has an elegant complexity to what, at least initially, seemed like a very simple system of clicks and pauses.

I’ve recently launched a much larger project working with international researchers, called Project CETI. Our mission is to try and decode what sperm whales are saying, to answer that fundamental question of “What is so important to whales that they need to talk about it?”

What we’ve learned from our work in Dominica and around the globe is that whales mark these cultural differences with different dialects and sets of codas. All families that speak the same dialect are part of a clan. Hope and Can Opener’s clan is the Eastern Caribbean clan, and they all learn a very special coda called the 1+1+3. 

This call is unique to them. It’s only ever been recorded in the Caribbean. Calves take about two years to learn to make it right, and they really need to, because when two families meet at sea, they need to make a decision about whether or not they’re going to spend time together and collaborate. As it turns out, if they speak the same dialect, they’ll spend time together, and if they don’t, they won’t. Because behavior is what you do, but culture is how you’ve learned to do it.

Sperm whales are all sperm whales across the globe, but how they’ve learned to live their lives is very different. In the same way that some of us use chopsticks and some of us use forks, the sperm whales differ in what they eat and how they eat, where they roam, how fast they move around, their habitat preferences, their social behavior, and probably myriad ways that we don’t even understand yet. These cultures are fundamental to their identities. 

Sperm whales use acoustic markers to label where they belong, which makes sperm whale clans the largest culturally defined cooperative groups outside of humanity. 

Right now, I’m running a large project with international researchers from around the world, across three different oceans, in which we’re mapping the boundaries of these sperm whale clans. Whales have been traditionally managed based on arbitrary lines that were defined by the whalers that were killing them. More recently, through international conservation policy, they are based on broad genetic patterns that are mostly driven by the solitary males that swim from one ocean to another, from one clan to the other, moving the genes around. However, the genetic patterns can’t capture the diversity of a whale’s life in the same way that we can’t imagine that what’s encoded in human genetics can teach us everything that it is to be a human.

This is why we need to focus our conservation on the patterns of cultural diversity that we see in these female-led clans that they’re self-identifying into. We need to ignore the systems that we’ve used before and shift to a new system. This is what the global Coda Dialect Project was about: to drive home that there’s a new scientific understanding that can serve as a foundation to totally restructure international conservation policy.

We’re going to do things differently because we listen to and learn from those to whom it matters most. And we need to do that now, because sadly, we’ve been killing whales for hundreds of years, and we do so now mostly out of ignorance rather than intent. We hit them with our ships from the ever-growing shipping fleet that brings us the economy from around the world. We entangle them in our omnipresent leftover fishing gear, like Digit, who’s in Hope’s family.

Every calf counts. When you have small families that desperately need females to perpetuate themselves, if they don’t survive, you lose the family. When we lose a family, we lose generations of traditional knowledge of how to succeed as a Caribbean whale. And that can’t be replaced, even if the global population could swim into the Caribbean again, because these would be different whales from elsewhere who do things differently, who’ve learned from different grandmothers and are missing the solutions for how to succeed there.

These cultures aren’t just animals who’ve learned to do things differently because they never meet. These are really the link between the ocean that they live in and the animals that live there. It’s a bond between where and who. 

That’s why we can’t just do wildlife conservation based on total numbers or genetic stocks. We need to have the definition of biodiversity include cultural diversity. These secrets are the secrets that are allowing these species to survive. They’re the viable solutions to species survival, and we need to model our framework for conservation around that.

In the era of a climate crisis, in the shadow of a global pandemic, on a day where millions of humans are facing imminent threat from war, it’s totally academic to talk about animal communication and whale culture — but it’s a bigger message than that. If you can take one message from the culture of whales, it’s the power of community — that in the face of these unimaginable obstacles, the solution is to come together.

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