Whale Wednesday: Are Whales Just Like Us? - Oceana USA
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July 15, 2009

Whale Wednesday: Are Whales Just Like Us?

It used to be that if you went on a whale-watching adventure, you’d be lucky to see even a blow. Now, especially in Baja California, Mexico, whales are getting closer to humans than ever, which is allowing us to see how similar whales actually are to humans. In an insightful article by Charles Siebert in Sunday’s New York Times he discusses his experiences with the very friendly gray whales in Baja and argues that these new insights into the behavior of gray whales are forcing humans to “reconsider and renegotiate what once seemed to be a distinct boundary between our world and theirs”. Siebert remembers watching a mother whale and her calf breach from afar, and then, surprisingly, pursue the boat. The whales came right up to him, even allowing him to touch the newborn. They performed what could only be called a show, as the whales turned, flipped, and wove around the boat. And, as the grand finale, his boat was lifted up out of the water on the mother’s back. Whales have now come to consider humans as “safe” and trustworthy, he argues, even after all the harm humans caused them in the past. Siebert proposes that whales have “behavioral flexibility” and are giving humans another chance. He examines whales’ brain structures and behavior as well; it turns out that many whale and dolphin species have brains very similar to humans and that our brains evolved in a parallel fashion. Which explains why, Siebert notes, whales “exhibit complex social patterns that include intricate communication skills, coalition formation, cooperation, cultural transmission and tool usage”. In addition, evidence shows that whales can experience emotions such as grief, joy, anger, frustration, distress, and maybe even forgiveness. Siebert also points out that, because of their flexibility, gray whales reveal the state of the overall environment that they live in. Known as indicator species, their behavior reflects climate change and changes in the whole ecosystem. In case you weren’t amazed by whales already, read this article. You will be. As Siebert writes, “When that baby gray calf bobbed up out of the sea, … it felt to me as if he were taking one impossibly long and quizzical look in the mirror.”