Whales have distinct cultures, “just as some humans eat with chopsticks while others use forks”, says Craig Welch in National Geographic. Different pods pass dialects “as different as Mandarin and Swahili”, favourite greetings and ingenious hunting traditions down the generations. This was a pretty fringe take when biologists Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell pitched it in 2001. Anthropologists considered culture “a strictly human affair” – even though Aristotle knew songbirds learnt from one another.
But the empirical proof is in the pods. Cameras have caught killer whales off the coast of Washington state holding “greeting ceremonies”, facing off in tight lines before exploding in underwater parties of rubs and calls. Northerners from Canada (they don’t fraternise with their neighbours), prefer “bumping noggins like bighorn sheep”. Some corral schooling fish by blowing bubbles and stunning them with their flukes or fins. Others hunt sharks or seals, while some feast almost exclusively on salmon. It seems to be a matter of taste as well as convenience.
The most compelling evidence of deviation is language. Male humpbacks pick up songs, phrasing and melody from one another, and “are into fresh beats” – a few years ago, scientists’ microphones picked up a new tune as it “swept across the South Pacific” like a chart-topping smash. On a more local scale, small units emit family-specific click codas, almost like surnames, while individuals exchange subtler “first names”. What else can the oceans tell us?
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