Part Two 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.
Hi and welcome to the big deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a deep 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, part two of our interview with Marine ecologist Shane Gero, who has spent the last decade in the Caribbean living with and studying sperm whales. Hello, this is Paul Kelway and I'm Jason Elias. Welcome to the big deep podcast.
Today, part two of our conversation with Shane Giro behavioral ecologist who founded the Dominica Sperm Whale project in the Eastern Caribbean. In part one, Shane explained how he came to know some whales known as the "group of seven". He discussed what it might mean to decipher their language and spoke about the incredible complexity of their culture. In the second part of his interview, Shane discusses the individual whale personalities within the parameters of the larger sperm whale culture and we hear how his project has impacted his life both personally and scientifically, from the naming of individual whales in the pod to who handles the whale babysitting duties.
I'm wondering if perhaps you could introduce us to some of that culture, maybe through an introduction to perhaps a family that you followed, particularly to touch on as you said in a society, how different roles are are assumed by different individuals to make the whole thing work and how you've maybe seen that in actual families of whales .
The group of seven is one of the families we've known the longest and it's probably the best studied and publicly known family of sperm whales in the world. And they've been great at sharing with me all the minutia of what it's like to live in the open ocean, and in particular one calf named Enigma who was born in 2006. And enigma was born to her mom Mysterio. And when Mysterio dives, she's gone for 45 minutes to an hour. And the calves generally don't make those deep dives with their mom until they're four or five or six. So someone has to stay at the surface and take care of Enigma. And initially that was her great aunt Fingers, and then subsequently her aunt Pinchy because pinchy had a new calf Tweak. And so it turns out that moms who are moms at the same time make better babysitters. And that just might be sort of optimal because it allows Fingers to go about doing her business. But when sperm whale families have babies, they stagger their dives. So not all of the adults are down at the same time. And everyone takes a role in babysitting the juvenile males like Scar, who was Pnchy's older male calf and he was with the family until he was 15 or 16. Males eventually leave their natal family and live relatively solitary lives as they sort of crisscross the oceans looking for meals. That's why it was so interesting to see Scar take up such a big role in the babysitting, particularly of Tweak, which was his younger half-brother because eventually Scar is going to move away. And when he does, we have no evidence to say that he will ever see his half-brother again. But it is really hard to study an animal like a male sperm whale who travels so vastly across a relatively inaccessible ocean. These whales family lives are accessible. They learn from their grandmother's traditions, they pick up their natal dialect and how they dive in, where they move and potentially all sorts of things we don't know yet, like when things get really bad there's always squid in that Valley off the coast of Dominica. That kind of traditional knowledge in a crisis which we know is real for animals like elephants. The older the matriarch is, the more successful your family is because when things go bad, she will remember the last time that that happened and what her mother or grandmother did and go and do that. And if your leaders are young and don't have that experience or weren't exposed to those scenarios, then your family is in trouble. And that's part of the wealth and the richness of the ability to share information, not only genetically from grandmother to mother to daughter, but also culturally amongst your family members in between families. And that's one of the reasons that culture is so important for survival of species. The group of seven, we have all of their individual level repertoires. And one of the things that it taught us was that each individual makes a specific call that allows us to recognize them within a family. So they all make the same call. It's the five regular Coda , which is five clicks in a row really quickly. But each of them makes it with a slightly different accent, which allows us to recognize them. Bottlenose dolphins have a call like that to a signature whistle that allows you to recognize individuals in a population. The difference with sperm whales is that they all make the same call. They just make a slightly different accent on it. So it's like if everyone was named Mark, but you spelled it with a K and I spelled it with a C and that allowed us to tell each other apart. So individuals are important in sperm whale family and recognizing them is critical to life. Family is the most important thing you have as a sperm whale in the vastness of the open ocean. Everything changes except for your family. And so it's really important that you recognize them. Fingers is not replaceable with Pinchy. If fingers dies, all the animals that know Fingers will have lost something. And when a new calf is born, it's a reason for success. These are individuals and they can't be exchanged or interchanged. And the same is true for these families. So the families and the cultures are kind of just vessels for all the amazing diversity of life just as it is for us. I have a first name Shane and that defines who I am. And the last name Gero that defines my family and I am Canadian is kind of a shorthand to tell you that I like maple syrup on everything I eat and I play hockey. Sperm whale seem to have that same nested recognition. One call to recognize individuals, another set of calls to recognize families and an important marker to delineate their cultural group and where they come from and how they do things.
One of the things that makes me think is that your research obviously is observational and you're trying to learn about the behavior of these animals but to a certain extent and the fact that you know them by name, they are an extension of your family and I'm just wondering how that is for you to be both a scientist but also to have that emotional connection to these individual animals.
Other than having my own kids and my relationship with my wife and family. This has been the greatest privilege of my life to come to know these wild animals as individuals and I don't think it's a problem that I have built a relationship with the animals there . I consider them the other family that I have. They say that documentarians aren't supposed to become part of their film, but they're the ones passionate enough to tell it and I think especially these days, scientists need to engage with the work that they do and bring it to people. Just because science needs to be objective doesn't mean that I'm biased because I know these animals at an individual level. In fact, I think it provides me with a wealth of expertise to create new hypothesis based on what I know to be true about these animals. I don't think that prevents me from being a storyteller for what our real experiences on the water with individuals. There's this one animal, Can Opener, who figured out what we do, our ritual, which is when whales are at the surface, we get behind them to collect photo ID because when they lift their tail, we take a picture and the trailing edge of their tail is like a thumbprint. It allows us to tell individuals apart. And then when they dive, we go up to the fluke print, which is this circle of calm water that exists where the whale just was and we collect fecal samples and genetic samples to do science with. And then we record as the whale dives down. Can Opener figured out that we do this every time. And she would dive and pause underneath the water and wait for the boat to come out and blow out all the air in her lungs and come back up to the surface and swim around the boat. And one of the things that really struck me early on was that she didn't just swim around the boat like a whale does with the blowhole out of the water and her eyes underwater. She rolled to the side and put one of her eyes out. And to me it suggests that she knows that the important part isn't the boat, but the beings inside it. All of these things are incredibly indicative of not only an understanding of something novel in her environment, trying to figure out what it's doing, realizing it's ritual regularity and having the forethought to say, okay, if I wait, it should come up above me. So that can lead me to ask all sorts of interesting hypotheses and develop new experiments to test forethought in sperm whales, which we wouldn't have developed and address scientifically if we hadn't spent time with the families. So historically, I think biologists have taken a lot of flack for naming their study animals. And we still face that when we try to publish papers using the animals names, but we don't name them lightly. It makes an important point about individuality, which I referred to earlier. These animals are individuals. They're distinctly different than they have different personalities and ways of being. They have complex, rich behaviors that likely occur because they have a complex and rich psychology behind it. And to assume that that isn't the case does the animal's a disservice. And I think quite frankly does a disservice to the science that we undertake too. These aren't individuals that we can explain with simple explanations. They are real intelligence that's driving a real existence and that's how we have to approach the science in my opinion.
I wanted to ask you what these animals are facing in their environment and I'm maybe to ask you that within the context of, of how some of these individuals that you know have experienced or suffered from some of these things.
I mean, there have been some very difficult experiences to observe in terms of what they go through. Being a part of a family means celebrating the victories, like new births. And the first time you see a calf fluke up and make a deep dive, it's exciting. But along with that comes the hard times and unfortunately, whether it's as a result of climate change or our human impact, these whales, which are really urban whales for sperm whales, they live within a few kilometers of the islands in the Caribbean are at risk and they're not doing well. There's fewer than three or 400 animals in the Eastern Caribbean community and one in three babies don't survive to their first birthday. I think it was early April in 2010 that was the last time we saw Enigma alive. And the group of seven now is only three animals. It's Pinchy and Fingers and fingers' new calf Digit. These are animals that I thought I would know for my lifetime as sperm whales are supposed to live 70 to 90 years. But lots of the known named individuals in our study are gone. And in 2015 Digit became entangled in some fishing gear and she was only four years old. And she had just started making deep dives for food and now she doesn't dive deeply anymore or at least she doesn't lift her fluke anymore. And Fingers, her mom has started nursing her again. From a scientific perspective, it's fascinating because these are one off opportunities to study what happens when these things occur, but personally it's a tragedy that every year I leave wondering which one of these calves isn't going to be around. Every year I come back to them being gone and hopefully new ones being born. And it's important because every single calf counts. The loss of an individual in a family has a huge ripple effect. Why are they dying? And the honest answer is that it's likely us. Now , a lot of these whales are constantly being hit by our expanding and ever larger and faster shipping fleet that brings us an economy from all over the world. That seems like an insurmountable problem. Thousands of ships across thousands of kilometers, but it's really an individual problem because every whale that we can make a difference for is a single individual that is not replaceable and that saves that family in that community in which it lives. Pinchy from the group of seven was hit in 2010 but she was lucky, she survived. But she still has the scars around her. It does make me wonder that in her world of sound, does she live in constant fear of the sound of ship engines? Ocean noise is an increasing conservation problem. No one wants to live in a rock concert, especially when the most important thing you have is sound waves. Also they get tied up in fishing gear like digit. That rope is entangled around her tail now forever. It's cut into her flesh and we just don't have the opportunity to cut it out anymore. She's only six and she's been pulling that rope for at least two years and eventually the prognosis is that it'll probably singe off her tail flukes. These are real tragedies that are happening right now. It's easy for us to forget that she's out there right now towing that rope around, but their lives kind of go on in parallel, mostly ignored by us on a daily basis and that's definitely a tragedy. I think the worst things we've ever done to the citizens of the ocean is that we've ignored them. We've killed whales for hundreds of years, thousands probably. But we do so now out of ignorance, rather intention. And the only way that we're going to change that is by speaking with authority about what's going on out there in the world. Getting scientists to say and answer and monitor the wildlife that are out there. But then we also need to turn around and speak with authority to the people that have the ability to make those changes and to protect the oceans and to guide the way that we interact with them. So this is a challenging situation and you're talking about some really important issues and as you were saying, we don't all interact with the ocean. We can live thousands of miles from it and yet we're still affecting it in different ways. And so what can we do? What can I do to help these animals? Well I think the key here is what's being lost is bigger than just individual numbers. What's clear is that when we manage wildlife, we can't just focus on how many animals we have left. They're all different. Yeah , they have different cultures and those cultures are important to them. The definition of biodiversity needs to include cultural diversity. If we're going to protect these animals, I could point to a number of reasons why whales are important to conserve . They helped mitigate climate change by cycling nutrients around the ocean. But what I think my goal is when I do outreach with the public is just to make them aware of how rich these animals lives are. That individuals do matter in the same way that we think about it with people. 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, I think that's the start of a really important dialogue. I'm not going to say that we'll be able to talk to sperm whales in five years or anything like that, but I think deciphering what they're saying is a really good window into who they are and to some extent maybe even what they want. And in 4,000 hours of sitting and listening to sperm whale families, the story that I get from that is something that is hugely familiar. Love your mom. She put a lot of work into your life. Take care of your family because it's all you got in the vastness of the world. Work together to undertake the hardest tasks in your life. Be a good neighbor. Spend time with your siblings because eventually move away. And life is about the quality of relationships that we build with the people around us. And if we're going to preserve that life and those relationships, whether it's our own or the whales , we have to find ways to succeed together, to find ways to coexist above and below the surface, to value diversity for the successes that it gives us, both in our society and our ecosystems. And ultimately now is the generation that needs to change the way that we interact with the world.
Thank you for listening to the big deep podcast. Next time on big deep, we'll recap all the highlights of season one. Plus we'll give you a sneak preview of other fascinating stories we're working on for season two of big deep. We really appreciate you being with us on this journey to the big 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. For 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 in our website, bigdeep.com plus, if you know someone you think we should talk to, just let us know at the big deep web site is we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.