Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Charles Siebert’s “Watching Whales”

Posted by lisagbrown on July 13, 2009

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When I interviewed Charles Siebert a few weeks ago, we primarily discussed his recent book The Wauchula Woods Accord. However, this past Sunday the New York Times Magazine published a new article by Siebert, “Watching Whales Watching Us,” reminding me that Siebert’s passion for animals extends far beyond our primate relatives. In fact, his commitment animals extends to creatures that he describes as “about as close as fellow mammals can get to being extraterrestrials.”

I’ve always thought of whales as being rather like colossal elephants of the ocean. As it turns out, this common perception is more accurate than anyone could have predicted. The extraordinary intelligence and deep familial bonds that have recently been identified in elephants are astoundingly similar to the complex traits that are being uncovered in whales. As Siebert explains,

Whales, we now know, teach and learn. They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.

Siebert traveled to Baja to experience an unprecedented interaction between gray whales and humans: one that has been entirely initiated by the whales themselves, birthing mothers who should, by all rights, be violently protective of their new calves.

Has Siebert overstepped the anthropomorphic boundary that he so clearly articulated in our interview? Teaching, learning, grieving, sure. But forgiveness? Gray whales have been brought to the brink of extinction multiple times by human hands, and Siebert suggests that these interactions may be the whales’ expression of forgiveness for the many decades (or centuries) of wrongs we have committed against them. And as surprising as it may seem to some people, he may not be far off base.

Toni Frohoff is the marine mammal behavioralist who Siebert accompanies to Baja. And so he poses the question to her, a person who would probably know the answer better than anyone. She responds:

Those are the kinds of things that for the longest time a scientist wouldn’t dare consider…But thank goodness we’ve gone through a kind of cognitive revolution when it comes to studying the intelligence and emotion of other species. In fact, I say now that it is my obligation as a scientist not to discount the possibility. We do have compelling evidence of the experience of grief in cetaceans; and of joy, anger, frustration and distress and self-awareness and tool use; and of protecting not just their young but also their companions from humans and other predators. So these are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility. And even if it’s not that exactly, I believe it’s something. That there’s something very potent occurring here from a behavioral and a biological perspective. I mean, I’d put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say that these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a form of communication with humans, both through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in ways that we have not yet determined. I find the reality of it far more enthralling than all our past whale mythology

To read Charles Siebert’s “Watching Whales Watching Us” in its entirety, click here.

To listen to Charles Siebert and Toni Frohoff discuss their shared experiences with the whales (and their respective new books) on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross, click here.

Illustration by Ivan Chermayeff

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One Response to “Charles Siebert’s “Watching Whales””

  1. kali said

    This past February, I had the amazing experience of touching a baby Pacific Gray Whale in Bahía Magdalena. It was incredible that after the initial encounter of 20 minutes the mother and the calf followed our tiny panga for a while. It sure made us appreciate a certain bonding aspect of this specific human-whale interaction. I posted the story and the video of this interaction here –
    http://talkingtraveler.blogspot.com/2009/02/handling-whale-calf-in-baja.html

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