Book review: The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins - discoveries to sing about

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 January, 2015, 11:31am

The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins
by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell
University of Chicago Press

On my last visit to the Azores - those black volcanic islands set adrift in the middle of the Atlantic - underwater photographer Andrew Sutton and I watched a pod of sperm whales at play. We were not only watching the world's biggest predators, but also the animals with the largest brains, communicating with one another in the most intense, sensual manner.

Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell have been studying sperm whales, and other cetaceans, for a combined total of 50 years. Zoned-out freaks of the 1960s generation saw these marine mammals as aliens; now it's time to ask serious questions. Do cetaceans have a culture? Can a non-human culture exist? And if so, how does that change our responsibility towards other species?

Modern whale science is a recent discipline. It only really began with that psychic shift in the late 1960s. Until then, whales had been a locus of fearful wonder, or an industrial resource. That changed in 1967 when scientists Roger Payne and Scott McVay lowered their hydrophones into the ocean and recorded the song of the humpback whale. In an instant, an animal hitherto regarded as dumb, and unable to protest its abuse, acquired a voice capable of delivering a melodious, fluid, abstract threnody.

Whitehead's and Rendell's chapter on whale song is key to their provocative, brilliant book. We now know these songs are evidence of what they term the first non-human cultural revolution.

Humpbacks on the east coast of Australia, for instance, learn their song from those on the west coast. The songs change from year to year, subtly shifting in tone and composition, as if a new hit version has been released and every whale is keen to follow the fashion. The songs are clearly part of the mating process, but why do they display such an elaborate expression (some last for more than 24 hours)?

The authors examine two theories. First, that the songs signify belonging and bettering among the males, a reassurance of culture in common, a secret code or call to assembly. Second, females are attracted to new songs.

Where the humpback has its song, the sperm whale has its clicks, produced by that giant head - in fact, an extended nose. Filled with spermaceti oil (early hunters believed this to be the animal's semen, hence its name), it functions as the natural world's most complex sound generator. The oil has bioacoustical properties, amplifying the clicks produced by an organ behind the animal's nostrils. Jet engine-level decibels stun its prey - large fish or squid. But the sounds can also be used more subtly, to communicate.

The final chapters of this groundbreaking and beautifully produced book pose stunning questions, and tease out outrageous answers. If culture exists in cetaceans, have they developed an equivalent moral sense of right and wrong? Yes, say the authors.

Guardian News & Media