The Social Lives of Whales

September 1st, 2011 by Charles Siebert

A conversation with Toni Frohoff, whose research has demonstrated the vast intelligence and sociability of Pacific gray whales.

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The Responsibility Project

Toni Frohoff, the director and cofounder of TerraMar Research, dedicated to the protection of marine mammals and their ecosystems, is one of the world’s foremost experts on close encounters with whales. In her two decades of studying marine-mammal behavior, Frohoff has studied, swum, played and – through eye contact, body gestures, facial expressions and actual touch – communicated with numerous cetacean species, from dolphins and belugas to orcas, giant humpbacks and Pacific gray whales. Her research, in concert with a number of recent revelations about the complexity of the whale brain, has advanced the effort to protect whales and other marine mammals around the world. It also firmly supports the conclusion that the intelligent life humans have long sought elsewhere in the universe has been right here beside us all along.

What does the word “responsibility” mean to you, in the context of your work?

Because I work with other animals, I would define responsibility as my, and my species’, ability to respond to the needs of other species. We’ve done a lot of managing and controlling of animals, but we have yet to be responsive to the needs of other beings on this planet. And I believe that what’s good for other species is also good for us. In the past, we’ve erroneously interpreted our relationship with animals as an us-or-them situation, and we can see where that has gotten us. So this responsibility we have toward them will in the long term also benefit us as well. 

How did you become drawn to the world of whales?

The first time I saw cetaceans was at Magic Mountain amusement park near Los Angeles; I was probably 15. There was a pair of dolphins in a tank, and I just stood there watching them and told my friends to just go on; I’d catch up with them later. But it all really clicked for me when I was 18. I saw a show on TV about the great American psychoanalyst, neuroscientist and philosopher John Lilly, who was trying to create a third language for dolphins and humans to use to communicate. A light went off in my head, and I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I realized I could make a whole career of studying interspecies communication.

Most people have heard about friendly close encounters with dolphins and about how intelligent they are. What’s special about Pacific gray whales?

It’s pretty extraordinary. Every winter and early spring, thousands of Pacific gray whales migrate south to the lagoons off Baja, Mexico’s western coast. It’s where the mothers give birth and nurse their calves for three to four months. Typically for any mammalian species, child rearing is a time of seclusion and intense protectiveness, but many of these grays treat it like a big coming-out party. They come right up to people in boats – these are 50-foot-long, 50-ton adults and their newborn 2-ton claves – and they let people touch their faces, rub their mouths and tongues, and give them massages. Even after more than two decades of studying human-cetacean interactions, I still find what goes on in Baja enthralling, both on a personal and on a scientific level. I mean here you have these fellow mammals with highly sophisticated minds, and very unique bodies, who live in a whole other environment, seeking us out for sociable contact.

Is it possible we’re projecting a little too much on these encounters, anthropomorphizing? Maybe the whales are simply attracted to the sound of the boat motors.

The fact is the whales are doing this regardless of how we think about it, and there’s no food involved, no reward. There are times when they just seem interested in the proximity of the boats. And some whales seem more intimate and interactive than others. Just as with our species, there’s a whole continuum of degree of desire for social contact. But I would put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a complex form of contact and communication with humans, through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in some way we’ve yet to decipher.

In the early 1900s, before a hunting ban was imposed, Pacific grays were hunted to near extinction in those same lagoons. Might they now be forgiving us?

Well, we can’t really know that for certain. But as a scientist in the midst of a cognitive revolution in the study of the intelligence and emotions of other species, I would say it is my responsibility not to discount that possibility. Gray whales were once known as “hardheaded devil fish” because they so fiercely defend their young, attacking whalers and smashing their boats. These whales live as long as a hundred years, and they display both great intelligence and strong powers of memory. They know and remember, for example, where the best areas to feed are along their two-thousand-mile coastal migration route and which areas to avoid because of dangers. We also have compelling evidence now of the experience of grief in cetaceans, of joy and anger, of distress and self-awareness. So something like forgiveness is a possibility. Even if it’s not that exactly, there’s something happening there that is very potent from a behavioral and biological perspective.

Isn’t there also evidence now of whales overtly thanking us?

Yes, there was a remarkable incident that occurred back in 2005. An adult female humpback whale was spotted off the coast of San Francisco badly entangled in crab trap lines. They were wrapped all around her mouth, torso and tail, and she was struggling to stay afloat. A rescue team arrived and decided that the only way to save her was to dive in and cut the lines with knives. So here are these four guys floating alongside this massive humpback; it took them over an hour to finally cut her loose. She swam off and they figured that was that – then all of a sudden the whale is coming straight for them. They thought they’d had it. But the whale pulled up, swam about in what they said seemed like joyous circles, and then, one by one, swam up to each diver and gave him a gentle nudge before swimming away. That story gives me goose bumps.

John Lilly once imagined an end to whale killing, “Not from a law being passed, but from each human individual understanding that these are ancient, sentient, earth residents, with tremendous intelligences and enormous life force. Not someone to kill, but someone to learn from.” Are we getting there?

I hope so. We’re talking about animals that are our evolutionary elders. They’ve survived on this planet for millions of years before we came along. So there’s a wisdom to be gleaned from them that can be used to help not only them but ourselves as well. Look at the orcas: contrary to the view of them as serial killer whales, they can be considered among the most peaceful of all animals, despite the fact that they’re the top predator in the ocean. They have very sophisticated culture, and they rarely if ever inflict injury upon each other. What might we learn from their societies?

I don’t want to call myself a dolphin psychologist or a whale psychologist, but I am somebody who is, well, listening to them. There is a huge paradigm shift in that. Only then can we understand what their needs are, whether on an individual or a population level. A good psychologist is a good listener. Like when the gray whales come up to the boat: they might even be observing more astutely than the best of our human researchers are, including myself.

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”