I’ve been listening to “Ocean Mind”, a two-part “Ideas” documentary from CBC, which you can find here. It’s about whales and dolphins, the “branniest” animals on the planet, and how living in the ocean shapes their consciousness, their minds, and their culture. Yes, even culture. Whales and dolphins are communal, and one community differs in its conduct from the next. Killer whales execute complicated and coordinated hunting plans that must go beyond pure instinct. They teach their calves how to beach themselves safely and wriggle back to the ocean. The interact in ways we can’t understand.
Two things in particular struck me. Whales and dolphins have sophisticated echolocation capabilities, this much everyone knows. Some of the researchers interviewed in the documentary speculate on just how sophisticated these capabilities might be. Whales can of course hear each other’s echolocation clicks, and might even be able to interpret the information contained in them. A whole group of echolocating whales becomes one interconnected sensory system. Whales can perhaps literally share perception in a way that people can’t.
And if that isn’t mind-boggling enough, how about this: the sonar signals whales use to scan the water pass through solid as well as liquids. Whales can very likely “see” inside one another’s bodies, like a doctor can see into a patient with an ultrasound. The researchers speculate that it is easy for whales to perceive whether one of their fellows is excited, or wounded, or pregnant, and who knows what else. It occurs to me that the reason we have never cracked the code of whale and dolphin communication is that it likely operates on these kinds of nuanced perceptual levels of which we have no experience.
For the whales, all of this adds up to a very strong sense of community. As one researcher points out, the reason we humans have been so successful at hunting whales is that if you can catch one, you can probably catch a whole pod. Whales won’t leave one of their group who is in distress.