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Such harmony is in immortal souls;… we cannot hear it.
At eight a.m. we are already traveling over deep ocean. We’re at what’s called sea level, as though an ocean is solely surficial, the mere zero of altitude, as though everything that matters rises and resides as do we, in air. In reality we are skimming the thick, wide, densely inhabited world beneath us. The vast majority of the life on Earth flows through the universe below. And that includes the whales who share our breath but make their lives tunneling through the sea.
How does a whale find meaning in life? This is a very serious question that will take us far from our comfort zone.
Already, I feel our exposure out here, at so many mercies. Our thirty-foot boat, an open one, is crowded with gear, crew, four young graduate students who traffic in curiosity and adventure, plus Shane Gero. Plus me. We’re running southwest into a stout chop that is building. And the captain, David Fabien, a huge dreadlocked Caribbean man with a boom-box voice, is taking these seas much too hard. I am on the boat’s windward side and am soon fully drenched. I know this is his way of testing me, so I don’t give him the satisfaction of turning around to glance at him. I’ve met far worse water and far meaner people. I figure that my taking flying sheets of seawater in stride will ensure that he and I will be good for the duration of this trip.
Meanwhile Shane is shouting, “We couldn’t believe it!” Another wave showers me, and he continues: “That first month—it was the first time I really got to know sperm whales as individuals. It was just spectacular.” He’s telling me about his first experience here, off Dominica, in these Caribbean waters.
We soon encounter several dozen deep-flapping, dark-winged birds milling ominously. Frigatebirds. Buoyant on the wing and big, they seem forbidding and piratical. In truth, they are forbidding, and piratical. More formally named “magnificent frigatebirds,” they are that, too.
And under the flying pirates: dark, dolphin-like fins are slicing the water. We stop. One bird hovers, then deftly plucks a squid from among the large swimming animals.
I don’t recognize whose fins are driving the squid up, but Shane instantly knows them. Genus Pseudorca, false killer whales—far smaller than “true” killer whales. As various individuals breathe and vanish, we guess there are about a dozen and a half of them. A long, slick patch of water informs us that we have just missed seeing some very successful hunting. Through the slick they roll their round black heads, relaxing like people after a big breakfast who don’t feel like clearing the dishes.
Before we move off, Shane leans over and says, “That soaking was entirely for your benefit.”
I tell him, Yes, I know.
“He’ll take it a little easier from now on.”
And we continue. And he does.
* * *
WE SEEK A CLASSIC sea monster: the sperm whale, the archetypal whale of human imagination, Jonah-slurping Leviathan of the Bible, catastrophic smasher of the ship Essex, Ahab-maddening table-turning star quarry of Moby-Dick. In myth, real life, and fiction, this is the whale that looms largest in our psyches. To that almost-never-glimpsed being, so famed for rage, the world’s largest creature with teeth—we now seek the closest possible approach.
For centuries, whales have represented things. They’ve represented commerce, jobs. Adventure. Money. Danger. Tradition and pride. They’ve represented light and food. They are raw material, like iron ore or petroleum, from which many products can be made. And for all these things, whales have been targets. Men saw in whales everything—except whales themselves. To see things as they are requires honesty.
From this boat we seek the actual creature, living its authentic life. The mammals most specialized for water, whales descend from land mammals who slowly reentered the sea fifty million years ago. Scientists call whales “cetaceans,” from the Greek for, basically, “sea monster.”
Sperm whales are the only surviving members of a family, called Physeteridae, that has lasted for more than twenty million years. A dozen or so other whales of this family no longer exist. Leviathan is the last trickle of a torrent that had flowed through oceans of a richer prehuman Earth.
But at this moment we are here, and we remain contemporaries. And for the next several weeks I hope, with Shane’s considerable help, to narrow the gap between us. I seek encounters that will enable me not just to see Leviathan, not just to observe sperm whales, but to penetrate past the labels and feel the beings being selves, living with their families, sharing the air where our two worlds meet. I seek merely the miraculous, and for that I am positioned in exactly the best of places: a mostly wet, hard sphere in the third planetary orbit from a star called Sun, the place where miracles come so cheap that they are routinely discarded. Hard to believe, I know. Let us proceed.
* * *
A FEW MILES BACK, toward the climbing sun, steep volcanic slopes gleam emerald. The ancient Caribbean island now named Dominica helps form an arc of several volcanic isles that enclose the Caribbean Sea on their west flank and confront the open Atlantic to their east. Dominica’s northern neighbor is Guadeloupe, and across its southern channel rise the peaks of Martinique. Their jungle-tangled slopes all continue plummeting right through the sea surface, meaning that deep ocean presses blue shoulders tight against these isles.
Sperm whales inhabit a wider and thicker swath of Earth than any other creature except humans, ranging the ocean from 60 degrees north to 60 degrees south latitude and from the surface to black, frigid, crushing depths. (Females and young generally remain between 40 north and 40 south.) But humans seldom glimpse them. They haunt open-ocean waters of profound deepness, almost always distant from continental shelves, seldom venturing into water shallower than about three thousand feet deep, putting them far from most coasts. Not only that, they can move forty-plus miles a day, more than twenty thousand miles annually. The scale of the theater—trackless ocean, millions of square miles—makes studying their wandering lives almost impossibly difficult. Here in Dominica, though, very deep water close to land makes this the best place in the known world for a shore-based team to attempt to reach and record them.
Shane has basically drawn a box on the ocean, twenty kilometers (about twelve miles) on a side, and said, “We’re going to study one of the largest and most elusive creatures in the world when they come and go from this little box.” He has invested a lot of time and effort in making this audacious proposition work. Failure isn’t an option; the stakes are too high, for him and for the whales.
* * *
A CURTAIN OF LIGHT rain enshrouds us as we approach our first stop. We are hunting Leviathan, yes—but not by looking. We’d be very unlikely to succeed by just riding around and searching for a whale’s blow, because sperm whales spend about fifty minutes of every hour underwater. Hunting in black and frigid depths thousands of feet beneath the waves and traveling to and from those depths occupies more than 80 percent of their time. So, like the whales, we will hunt by using water’s superior ability to conduct sound. We’ll listen.
We stop. A waterproofed microphone called a hydrophone gets let down over the side. Shane’s students note location coordinates, conditions of sea and sky. He passes me the headphones; we take turns listening for the clicking of sperm whales’ self-generated sonar.
When meeting dolphins at sea, one may hear their squealing and whistling communication as they rapidly pace a boat or ride the bow wave. That whistling is not their sonar. Sonar comes in clicks.
Sperm whales were long thought silent. The first description of their clicks was published in 1957, by scientists. Whale hunters never heard the clicking sounds these whales make.
Nor do I. I hear water sloshing at the surface. It takes a few moments to get my brain to filter out the water noise, to listen deeper. Then, yes, I hear calls. Squeaks and whistles, very high. Not very loud. Shane says these are probably from the false killers we saw way back there under the frigates. Yes, the calls travel far. He says the false killers’ whistles sound rather electronic; dolphins sound more breathy. Like the dolphins’, their communication sounds like whistles and squeals, but their sonar sounds like streams of clicks, sometimes fast enough to buzz.
The sperm whale sonar we’re searching for goes click, click, click. That—we are not hearing. Unlike dolphins, sperm whales also click their communication. The entirety of the sound they are known to generate comes in clicks, some for sonar, some for communicating.
* * *
THE SEA IS A swirling mosaic of moving currents and seasonally shifting temperature boundaries. So inhabitants of the open ocean move continually, tracking optimal temperatures and, mainly, food. They live nomadic lives, of epic breadth and depth.
A traveler just under the surface of the open ocean may encounter little change across great distances, but a mere thirty-three feet down, the pressure has doubled. Sixty-six feet down, the pressure is three times what it is at the surface, the water is so hungry for your heat that if you were skin diving it would soon chill you, and a reduced palette of colors penetrates already-dim light.
Both ocean and land have shaped who whales are. Whales are vertebrates—more specifically, mammals. Vertebrates evolved in the ocean, mammals evolved on land, and then some returned to the sea, becoming whales. Fish bequeathed to all vertebrates our basic body plan, including our skeleton, organs, jaws, and our nervous, circulatory, digestive, and other systems. When fish brought this blueprint ashore, land and air worked to turn rudimentary limbs into walking legs and flapping wings, to turn scales into feathers and fur.
But when some mammals went back to the tides and immersed again, water reminded them about fins. You can sense history in whales’ flippers; they merely mitten the same finger bones I’m using to type this sentence. Returning to the sea after millions of years of aboveground testing, the reimmersed mammals also hung on to: lungs, their internal heat furnaces, and parental care of their young. They packed their acute intellects and high-minded social skills into their dive bag. These attributes, developed for a life on land, confer devastating hunting advantages to the sea creatures who possess them. Seawater’s oxygen content is less than 1 percent, and for animals that breathe water with gills, this has consequences for exertion. But air is about 20 percent oxygen. New adaptive retrofits notwithstanding, whales and dolphins remain every bit the mammals they ever were—and more. Quick-witted and communicative, sucking densely oxygenated air into their fast-burning musculature, they are hot-brained and über-aerated apex predators from another realm who run rings around their prey.
The sea offered returning mammals two main advantages. One: food swarms. For less-than-large creatures in the sea’s open vastness, safety comes only in numbers. So small fishes and squids travel in crowds quite unlike anything on land. Often by the millions. Another advantage: water’s sound-conducting superiority. Visibility in the ocean is only a hundred yards under the best circumstances. Just a few hundred feet from the surface, no sunlight penetrates. But, being about eight hundred times denser than air, water is very friendly to sound.
When hunting, sperm whales produce sonar clicks at about two per second, a rate like: “One and two and—.” “Click” is the word scientists use, but depending on distance it can sound like evenly spaced ticking; or, closer, like castanets; or, very close, like steel balls clacking.
* * *
ONE REASON FOR LEVIATHAN’S absence at the moment: sperm whales don’t like those false killers. One can excuse sperm whales for behaving as if the ocean is a dangerous place. They worry about real killer whales, avoid the bullying of pilot whales, and act touchy about false killers, who harass young sperm whales by biting their tail flukes, seemingly for fun. It’s not fun for the sperm whales, who are shy and who take good care of their children.
Shane consults the GPS for his next position. We go the three kilometers to get there. Our listening devices can detect a sperm whale’s sonar over at least five kilometers. So our listening stops are spaced to leave no sound gaps. If whales are present, we will detect them. If they are not present, the silence will speak volumes.
We know enough about whales to fill many books. But we know a very small fraction of what their lives entail, of how they experience it. Sperm and humpback whales, killer whales, and bottlenose, spotted, and a very few other dolphins have been the subjects of sustained human inquiry. Most whale and dolphin species, dwelling in their liquid world beneath the planet’s curving blue horizons, remain near-total strangers to us. Every few years, scientists discover the existence of a previously unknown whale species.
Proximity to Leviathan is more easily imagined than accomplished. The farther offshore, the choppier, wetter, and less comfortable. The sea is under no obligation to yield its whales easily.
But Shane Gero is driven. Trim and athletically built—a lifeguard’s physique—with short brown hair and blue-gray eyes, he combines a likable, undefended friendliness with a deep-ranging, inquiring mind. Shane has made these questions his quest: How does a sperm whale learn who he or she is? How do sperm whales teach their children to wield the codes of their identity? Getting answers would reveal how sperm whales construct their remarkable sense of family.
Copyright © 2020 by Carl Safina