Whales and dolphins

Whales and dolphins live in highly complex matrilineal cultures,[1] including language, that vary from pod to pod, with cultural transmission of learned behavior.[2] They are also excellent examples of multiculturalism in that bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, orcas, and sperm whales play together, cross species.[3] Humpback whales have been observed helping a baby grey whale in danger from a pod of orcas.[4]

Research has demonstrated repeatedly that dolphins are self-aware, have large complex brains,[5] and prodigious cognitive abilities.[6] Neuroscientist Lori Marino says that “dolphins are sophisticated, self-aware,[7] highly intelligent beings with individual personalities, autonomy and an inner life. They are vulnerable to tremendous suffering and psychological trauma.”[8]

Dolphins are known for their problem solving skills, complex play patterns, ability to plan, and helpfulness to each other. They use sponges as tools to coax fish out from the sea floor, and the skill is taught by mothers to their offspring.[9] Advances are being made to communicate with dolphins primarily by teaching them sign language (a second language) or the use of iPad symbols rather than through decoding the dolphins’ own communication.[10]

Sperm whales have the largest brain mass of any living animal; and whales generally have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of any animal, along with a large and highly convoluted hippocampus (the portion of the limbic system that processes emotion and memory).[11] Sperm whales are organized into clans, each with its own dialect and culture.[12] Orca populations of the eastern North Pacific are structured into several social tiers that possess distinctive cultural attributes in vocal, social, feeding, and play behavior.

Cetaceans depend on sound to navigate and survive as well as communicate with others. One of the negative impacts of human activity is the rapidly increasing noise pollution in the world’s oceans from tanker and ship traffic, sonic blasts, and the placement of wind and wave farm devices anchored offshore in the ocean floor. There is also the issue of ocean pollution, which not only injures cetaceans but also affects their food chain.

Despite all evidence regarding metacognitive abilities and social intelligence, we continue to treat cetaceans as non-sentient objects, commodities or resources. We capture and confine dolphins and whales to perform in marine parks or swim with tourists. Taiji, Japan is known for its annual dolphin slaughters (depicted in the 2009 documentary The Cove), and Japanese whalers continue to hunt minke whales in the Antarctic in defiance of the International Whaling Commission. In the Solomon Islands, “drive-hunting” of dolphins is common, with dolphins being killed for their teeth.[13] There needs to be a way to end these inhumane practices.[14]

Based on scientific evidence that cetaceans are extremely intelligent, insightful and self-aware, capable of a wide range of emotions, compassionate and altruistic, creative with problem solving ability, and cooperative both within and between species, scientists issued a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans in 2010.

[1] Florida Atlantic University, “Just Like Humans, Dolphins Have Complex Social Networks,” ScienceDaily (5 May 2015).

[2] L. Marino, “Humans, Dolphins, and Moral Inclusivity,” in The Politics of Species: Reshaping Our Relationships with Other Animals, ed. R. Corbey & A. Lanjouw, 95-105 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[3] M. Bekoff, “Whales and Dolphins at Play: A Great Lift That Will Make Your Day,” Psychology Today (12 January 2012).

[4] M. Bekoff, “Humpback Whales Protect a Gray Whale from Killer Whales,” Psychology Today (8 May 2012).

[5] P.R. Hof, R. Chanis, & L. Marino, “Cortical Complexity in Cetacean Brains,” The Anatomical Record 287 (2005): 1142–1152.

[6] L. Marino, “Cetacean Brain Evolution: Multiplication Generates Complexity,” International Journal of Comparative Psychology http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/0607_050607_dolphin_tools.html/17 (2004): 1-16.

[7] D. Reiss & L. Marino, “Mirror Self-Recognition in the Bottlenose Dolphin: A Case of Cognitive Convergence,” PNAS 98: (2001): 5937-5942.

[8] Emory University, “Dolphin Cognitive Abilities Raise Ethical Questions, Says Emory Neuroscientist,” Science Daily, (27 Feb. 2010).

[9] J. Owen, “Dolphin Moms Teach Daughters to Use Tools,” National Geographic (7 June 2005).

[10] C. Dillow, “Early-Adopting Dolphin Uses iPad Touchscreen to Communicate with Humans,” Popular Science (2 June 2010); J. Foer, “It’s Time for a Conversation: Breaking the Communication Barrier Between Dolphins and Humans,” National Geographic (May 2015).

[11] A. Coghlan, “Whales Boast the Brain Cells That ‘Make Us Human’,” New Scientist (27 November 2006).

[12] J.J. Lee, “Sperm Whales Language Reveals Hints of Culture,” National Geographic (8 September 2015).

[13] Oregon State University, “Solomon Islands Dolphin Hunts Cast Spot-light on Small Cetacean Survival,” ScienceDaily (6 May 2015).

[14] “Whales Are People, Too: A Declaration of the Rights of Cetaceans,” Economist (25 February 2012).