by Elena Tafone
To this day, the ocean remains largely unexplored. In fact, we have better, more detailed maps of the surface of Mars than the ocean floor. And the many creatures that inhabit the ocean are just as mysterious. But, of all of God’s creatures, whales in particular have long mystified humanity. Anyone who has ever managed to catch a glimpse of these gentle giants in the wild knows how incredible that moment can be. “When you see whales, it just humbles you,” says Nan Hauser, a whale biologist and the president of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation.“At talks I’ve given, after they turn on the lights in the auditorium, you can see people in the audience wiping the tears from their cheeks.” But, despite our emotional connection to them, there’s still so much people don’t know about whales. Here are seven wondrous facts about one of Earth’s most mysterious creatures…
Whales—like humans—create music. Considered one of the most complex non-human forms of communication, whale songs are known for their beautiful, yet haunting melodies. The first recordings of humpback whales singing were made in the early 1950s by researchers based out of Oahu, Hawaii. But, decades later, the question remains: why do whales sing? “The short answer is, we don’t know,” Alison Stimpert, a bioacoustician at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, told The Scientist. While researchers have yet to decipher the reason for these songs, they have made some truly fascinating discoveries. For example, they’ve noticed remarkable differences between the songs of different whales. Apparently whale songs—like human speech—have regional “accents.”
Whales are highly intelligent. Nowhere is this better displayed than in their hunting techniques. Take the way humpback whales use teamwork to catch their pray. When a group of humpbacks comes across a school of fish, instead of attacking, they swim below them, blowing air bubbles. The bubbles keep the fish from swimming away, making it easier to feed. This “bubble net” shows not only impressive planning, but strong social connections. Nan Hauser, who has been researching whales for 21 years, still finds herself amazed by them. “Whales remind you that they’re sentient beings,” she says. “When you look into their eyes, you can see that they know something we don’t know. And it’s that deep, deep wisdom and knowledge.”
Whales are spiritual symbols in many cultures. Native Americans in the Northwest—specifically the Kwakiutl and Nuu-chah-nulth tribes—believed that killer whales were vessels for the reincarnated souls of past chiefs. In Vietnam, whales are believed to bring luck, safety and prosperity. When a whale is found dead, it is given a proper memorial service. Buried on land—and, sometimes, given a shrine—thousands of people attend these funerals.
Most whales have a lifespan similar to that of human beings. Sperm whales can live to 75 years old. Blue and fin whales have been known to live to the ripe old age of 90, while humpback whales can reach 100. But bowhead whales? That’s another story. Experts believe that bowhead whales can live to 200 years old. This makes them one of the longest living mammals on the planet. One can only imagine what sort of things these creatures experience in their centuries-long life spans!
Many things about whales can be quantified—from their migration patterns to their size. But some things, like their intuition, cannot be so easily understood. “People who have spent a lot of time around these whales suspect that they also have a sixth sense or, at the very least, an uncanny sense of timing,” writes journalist and filmmaker Mark Leiren-Young in his book The Killer Whale Who Changed the World. “Veteran killer whale watchers and longtime researchers all have stories about the ones that got away. They’ll tell you about the orcas that waited until the moment the cameras were no longer pointed at them—or the moment after the film ran out or the battery died—before doing something spectacular.”
Perhaps the most breathtaking footage captured of whales is when they breach, aka when they jump completely out of the water. Why exactly are they doing this? Biologists have their theories. It may be simply for the fun of it. Or, it may be yet another form of communication. “Even though these whales can produce calls that travel great distances, if there’s a lot of noise, it might be easy to drown out,” Chris Parsons, a cetacean biologist at George Mason University in Virginia told Hakai Magazine. “Leaping up in the air and splashing down is equivalent to the really keen kid in a classroom jumping up and down waving his arms.”
There have been documented cases of whales grieving. Some have even shown compassion when saving smaller animals from predators. But what about gratitude? In 2005, a humpback whale found itself entangled in several crab lines just off the coast of San Francisco. When rescuers arrived, they saw how dire the situation was. About 20 crab-pot ropes, each 240 feet long and weighted, were wrapped around the animal’s tail, back and left front flipper. Unable to reach the surface to breathe, the whale would soon drown. Someone would have to dive into the water with the distressed whale—a risky move. A diver named Moskito took the plunge. Just as he approached the whale, though, it stopped trashing around. “When I was cutting the line going through the mouth, its eye was there winking at me, watching me,” Moskito told The San Francisco Chronicle. When the whale realized it was free, something incredible happened. The whale swam up to each diver and nuzzled them. Like it was expressing its gratitude. “It seemed kind of affectionate, like a dog that's happy to see you,” Moskito said. “I never felt threatened. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience.”
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